Definition of Hypothesis

What It Is and How It's Used in Sociology

A man using a crystal ball to read the future symbolizes how a hypothesis in research predicts the outcome.
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A hypothesis is a prediction of what will be found at the outcome of a research project and is typically focused on the relationship between two different variables studied in the research. It is usually based on both theoretical expectations about how things work, and already existing scientific evidence.

Within social science, a hypothesis can take two forms. It can predict that there is no relationship between two variables, in which case it is a null hypothesis.

Or, it can predict the existence of a relationship between variables, which is known as an alternative hypothesis.

In either case, the variable that is thought to either affect or not affect the outcome is known as the independent variable, and the variable that is thought to either be affected or not is the dependent variable.

Researchers seek to determine whether or not their hypothesis, or hypotheses if they have more than one, will prove true. Sometimes they do, and sometimes they do not. Either way, the research is considered successful if one can conclude whether or not a hypothesis is true.  

Null Hypothesis

A researcher has a null hypothesis when she or he believes, based on theory and existing scientific evidence, that there will not be a relationship between two variables. For example, when examining what factors influence a person's highest level of education within the U.S., a researcher might expect that place of birth, number of siblings, and religion would not have an impact on level of education.

This would mean the researcher has stated three null hypotheses.

Alternative Hypothesis

Taking the same example, a researcher might expect that the economic class and educational attainment of one's parents, and the race of the person in question are likely to have an effect on one's educational attainment.

Existing evidence and social theories that recognize the connections between wealth and cultural resources, and how race affects access to rights and resources in the U.S., would suggest that both economic class and educational attainment of the one's parents would have a positive effect on educational attainment. In this case, economic class and educational attainment of one's parents are independent variables, and one's educational attainment is the dependent variable--it is hypothesized to be dependent on the other two.

Conversely, an informed researcher would expect that being a race other than white in the U.S. is likely to have a negative impact on a person's educational attainment. This would be characterized as a negative relationship, wherein being a person of color has a negative effect on one's educational attainment. In reality, this hypothesis proves true, with the exception of Asian Americans, who go to college at a higher rate than whites do. However, Blacks and Hispanics and Latinos are far less likely than whites and Asian Americans to go to college.

Formulating a Hypothesis

Formulating a hypothesis can take place at the very beginning of a research project, or after a bit of research has already been done.

Sometimes a researcher knows right from the start which variables she is interested in studying, and she may already have a hunch about their relationships. Other times, a researcher may have an interest in ​a particular topic, trend, or phenomenon, but he may not know enough about it to identify variables or formulate a hypothesis.

Whenever a hypothesis is formulated, the most important thing is to be precise about what one's variables are, what the nature of the relationship between them might be, and how one can go about conducting a study of them.

Updated by Nicki Lisa Cole, Ph.D.