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What Is a Research Hypothesis?

What Is a Research Hypothesis? Read to learn more.
© Coventry University. CC BY-NC 4.0

This step takes a slightly different approach to the issue of research questions by looking at research hypotheses.

Taking this approach does not mean you need to re-formulate your topic or research objective, although you may need to think about them is a slightly different way. This is because a hypothesis often leads your research in a particular direction, typically involving more quantitative research. We will come back to this point later in this step.

Let’s begin with a definition. ‘Hypothesis’ is derived from ancient Greek and means ‘placing under’. In a literal sense, this is what you do with a hypothesis, you place or put it under scrutiny to test if it is true.

A more modern definition of a hypothesis is:

A supposition or proposed explanation made on the basis of limited evidence as a starting point for further investigation.
(Lexico, n.d.)
This shows that a hypothesis is a statement that proposes a particular view or an explanation for something that is true based on a theory of how things work. Go back to Step 1.6 where we looked at the role of theory and inductive research. Here we said that inductive research meant identifying the theory first and then collecting the data to see if this is true. A hypothesis is how you begin the process of inductive research.
Importantly, a hypothesis is not a question, it is a statement. Unlike the research questions we looked at in the previous section, a hypothesis is not speculative and does not allow for multiple outcomes or different versions of the truth. It is something that we can test to see if it is true or not – often referred to as a testable proposition.
This is why the second part of the definition is crucial. A hypothesis, as a testable proposition, must be made on the basis of limited evidence – it must be something that the researcher might suspect to be true but which they cannot be certain. That is why it is the starting point and one of the foundations of all science. In fact, a whole branch of philosophy called ‘positivism’ is based on the notion that science is always sceptical and that truths are only such until they can be tested to be false.
One further important feature of a hypothesis is that the statement often speculates about the nature of the relationship between two variables or how a group of people (a population) share a specific view or trait. This allows for the hypothesis to be tested to see if, for example, the relationship between the two variables is positive (that variable A leads to an increase in variable B), negative (variable A leads to a decrease in variable B) or neutral (variable A and B are not related).
It is important to note here that you do not have to use hypotheses in your research because doing so has a number of implications that we will explore in the next step. However, they can be a useful way of breaking down your research objective into some specific areas that allow you to identify a clear impact.
We can finish this step with an example of how hypotheses are used in research.
One of the most referenced studies of all time in the Human Resource Management (HRM) discipline is a study by Huselid (1995). Huselid’s research objective was to find out if it was true to say that groups of HRM practices (called high-performance work systems) had a positive effect on different outcomes including financial performance – essentially proving the claim that people make profits. To do this, Huselid broke this down into a series of hypotheses, each of which would provide evidence (or not) for his claim. Here are two examples he developed:
  • Systems of high-performance work practices will diminish employee turnover and increase productivity and corporate financial performance.
  • Alignment of a firm’s system of high-performance work practices with its competitive strategy will diminish employee turnover and increase productivity and corporate financial performance.
These show many of the key characteristics of clear hypotheses. They are both clear propositions that state a position, meaning that they are not open or speculative questions. They both also indicate the variables that are to be tested and how the relationship is thought to work.
For example, in the second hypothesis, there are five variables, high-performance work practices; competitive strategy; employee turnover; productivity; and corporate financial performance. Huselid proposes through his hypothesis that if you combine the first two, you will see changes in the other three.
If you choose to develop hypotheses, you do not have to link these many variables –doing so is often only possible if, like Huselid you plan to undertake a very large piece of research. Nonetheless, this remains a valid and rigorous approach to developing your research objective. In the next step, we will explore some of the implications of this approach.

Your Task

Looking at the example of Huselid’s hypotheses, can you identify some of the strengths and weaknesses of this approach?
Can you design a hypothesis that would support the research objective you designed in Step 2.2?


Oxford Dictionary. (n.d.). Hypothesis. In Lexico. Retrieved December, 15, 2020, from Web link

Husselid, M. A. (1995). The impact of human resource management practices on turnover, productivity, and corporate financial performance. Academy of Management Journal, 38 (3), 635-672. DOI: 10.2307/256741 Web link

© Coventry University. CC BY-NC 4.0
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