The research proposal your flight plan

The Research Proposal

Intended audience:Research Masters or Phd students. Not exclusively but particularly relevant to Social Sciences (it would include, for instance, management science, social work, psychology, and practical theology).

It is important to know that your research proposal serves as a flight plan. All the important considerations should be incorporated. The people in your institution should be able to look at your flight plan and say “Yup, this one is going to fly.” When I critique (in an academic sense of course) a proposal, students try to explain themselves this way or that way, but then why is what you are explaining not in the flight plan.

The research proposal consists of the following sections. These sections are what I regard as important and you institution might well have different sections. While, for instance, it is unthinkable to me that anyone not reflect on their assumptions that seems to be the case elsewhere: Proposal introduction, Context of research, Research Problem/ Domain, Assumptions for the research, Theoretical and, or, philosophical framework of the research study, Title of the study, Aim and objectives of the study, Research framework or methodology, Scope of the research. Add to this the Research Design and a Chapter Outline.

To what extent you address each of these depends on your discipline, but more important even, the specific tradition you come from in your discipline. Disciplines are communities and not all people in a community will hold the same academic opinion.

1. Proposal Introduction

The introduction is an important aspect in all genres of literature, communication, and film studies. The research introduction is not different. It simply introduces the reader to your research. It provides a low level (as opposed to a high level or detailed level) of information. It should create understanding and have the effect of drawing the reader creatively into your document. If the reader, beyond the introduction, still do not know what your research is about it leaves the reader frustrated.

1.1 Ontology and Epistemology

If the introduction is saying ‘Hi, this is my research’ then your ontology and epistemology says ‘Hi, I’m Claire [or John], and this is the way I see the world’.

In a way therefore it incorporates what can be seen as your ‘position paper’ as it remarks on three levels: your own story (giving some background and personal context), your immediate context (mostly work related), and your cultural, societal and demographic location.

You have to first communicate with references what you see as ontology and epistemology.
You also have to be as specific as you can: “I regard myself as an interpretivist, or a naturalist, or….” are statements to this effect.

2. Context of the research

Here the reader wants to get a good sense of where the action takes place. If the research addresses some of your work related concerns you would tell the reader more about your work context. You should not go into depth about what you see as the problem. Some possibilities include:

  • Locate your work environment in a particular industry if relevant (mostly it will be relevant).
  • How is this relevant to the South African context.
  • Say more about who you are in relation to this context. If your introduction indicated that you are a manager in the marketing department then here you will elaborate shortly on your role.

The ‘context of research’ is a focussed conversation about the context, although it still is a general context that you are describing. It conveys that you are not doing research on just everything or at random but also leaves scope to further elaborate on a more closely described context.

3. Research problem

The research problem involves the description of the more closely described context. What, particularly, do you see as the concern, dilemma, or action of your research? If the context of the research asks ‘Where does the action take place’ then the research problem asks ‘What is the action.’ You can also think of the research problem as a reflection on what your burning issue is. It is not just a general indication of your interest but a focussed reflection on what you see as the problem, concern, or dilemma.

Some research projects do not have a very focussed issue, problem, or concern. Research can simply be explorative in nature but still you would then have to indicate why is such an explorative approach needed, and that argumentation will be your research problem.

You can also think of your research problem as the case for doing your research. This brings me to another important aspect. Making a ‘case’ suggests that you are not just grasping at straws and so your argument comes not only from personal experience. Even if you are the CEO of a multinational organisation somewhere someone in the research and academic community should substantiate your case. This is done through references you have consulted.

It is important to distinguish this from a formal literature review (which is in most kinds of research also necessary). Ideally you should first do at least a preliminary literature review since this is where you will undoubtedly encounter where the problem lives and how it is described. The literature will often not directly address the problem (otherwise why do research if it does, right?). Well, there might still be scope to do research even if the literature addresses the concern but you will then have to argue your case based on it being insufficient or some other consideration. The references you use should help you make a case for your particular (or even the academic disciplines) current understanding of the problem.

4. Assumptions for the research

Everything, everything… in life (which includes research) harbours assumptions. It is important to reflect as best possible on assumptions that relate to the research. The following kinds of assumptions are relevant:

Assumptions that your research title hold
Assumptions that some of the more important concepts, constructs, and variables of your research might harbour
Assumptions found in the aim and objectives of the research
Foundational assumptions of your theoretical framework and chosen research methodology
As part of the latter your own ontology and epistemology is fraught with assumptions.
In order of priority the first three should be covered in the formal proposals.

To make assumptions is not categorically bad. We implicitly do it to communicate and get through the day. Some research traditions would like us to reflect on our assumptions in order to ‘get rid of it’ – to be more objective, while other philosophical stances eschew this notion entirely and rather makes our assumptions part of the research. These are concerns related to your theoretical framework and less so, but still, to your methodological choices.
In the assumptions (that is, presuppositions) section you should state both what your assumptions might be and why it is important to do so.

5. Theoretical Framework (Philosophical Frame) of the research study

A theoretical and philosophical framework belongs together. Many people seem to be oblivious about their research being informed by philosophy. In this section you have to choose for and elaborate on your theoretical framework. Then you have to also reflect on the philosophical tenets that undergirds your theoretical framework. These tenets form part of the assumptions of your research but you do not reflect on it in that section (cf. Assumptions of research). It asks for a separate section (this one) because they are more substantive. Assumptions live in a particular community of knowledge in which you have to ground your study.

I personally also distinguish between a theoretical framework and a conceptual framework. A theoretical framework relies on certain concepts in order to explain its beliefs. Yet in some cases there might not be a outright theoretical framework. In economics you might work with the theory of supply and demand and in your research describe people’s behaviour as transactions. You will then have to explain those concepts which offers a conceptual framework as you apply it to your research. In other instances you might encounter certain theories in the literature that you want to work with. You might encounter ‘social identity theory’ and indicate here that you want to work with that as part of the theoretical framework but it, in and of itself is not a theoretical or conceptual research framework. It is rather a theory that you want to appropriate to your particular topic and not as much to your research process.

Ones theoretical framework overlaps with the section on research methodology and you have a choice here in how much you discuss in this section versus the research methodology section. It will also depend on whether your theoretical framework naturally requires a particular methodology.

What is first prize here is to not speak in general terms about your theoretical framework. Firstly, as said, explain it in the context of research and then also in the context of your study and then also in relation to the consequences it has on your research methodology. In some traditions the theoretical framework in and of itself is a research methodology. You will have to clarify how you see it.

If you have chosen for a systems theory framework (theoretical framework), this section sees you outlining what systems thinking is about in the context of research. Think along the way of clarifying the key terms (of the theoretical framework – not your topic) and describe them.

6. Research methodology

Even if your theoretical framework offers a research methodology you will still in this section clarify what you mean. In doing so you will have to set apart quantitative approaches from qualitative approaches. Qualitative approaches, in turn, are very wide and harbors a great many methodologies. It is not enough to simply state that you are doing qualitative research. If you follow a mixed methods approach you will have to reference and explain it. Be very sure that what you say here aligns with your theoretical framework. You cannot follow an interpretivist-constructivist methodology if you or your research strongly communicates a positivist stance that conveys an objectivist and empiricist view of the world. It would also therefore be strange to then hear you say that you are going to do interviews, although you can do that, but you will have to argue the apparent contradiction.

As part of your research methodology you should speak about what is, in conventional research terminology, seen as part of the process of research:

  • Sampling
  • Data collection/ gathering
  • Data analysis
  • Data interpretation
  • Ethical considerations
    • The above relates to your chosen research methods for you must remember that methodology and methods are not the same. Methods are much more concrete. Your methodology should be understood as your process strategy that incorporates certain methods in order to address the research problem.

      Note, that you should be specific. Interviews are, for instance, a data collection method. Still you should indicate whether you are doing unstructured, semi-structured, or structured interviews (and reference it). The reader should not just see you choosing between alternatives but understand why you are choosing between alternatives. These choices are often informed by ones theoretical framework. If you discuss sampling you must indicate whether your research employs probability or non-probability sampling. Then indicate, under these categories whether you use random simple sampling, or some other sampling technique. Also indicate why you believe this is the best sampling approach and technique for your study. If your sampling technique has known limitations you should state these here and you can then reference this section when you write on the ‘Scope of research’ under which you will address ‘limitations’ and ‘delimitations’ of your research.

      Postmodern research, critical qualitative inquiry and some very defined philosophically informed approaches will not use language such as ‘sampling’ and ‘data’ at all. In some instances it relates to very pertinent ethical considerations (such as in the case of narrative research). You will have to clarify. Do not however speak about data and sampling when in your chosen theoretical framework it would be problematic to do so. Yes, you should do it in your proposal but only as a means of translating the language of the theoretical framework for the conventional research audience. In other words you should also not use very particular language from your theoretical framework assuming that the traditional research audience will make sense of it. Narrative research, for instance, uses the description of ‘co-researcher’ instead of respondents, research subjects and so forth. There are reasons for this and you will have to clarify. In narrative research it has to do with its ethical stance which in turn relates to its epistemological point of departure in that reality is socially constructed.

      This section should also see you remark on ‘Research Design.’ The consideration here is How does everything fit together and give expression to a) what you believe from your theoretical framework and b) why is it an appropriate process to answer the research question. There are known Research Designs. They include exploratory designs, grounded theory, case study designs, experimental designs and more. Whether you position yourself in any known design or not you should be able to indicate to the reader how it all fits together. This is the where, what, when of your research although it should not be confused with a project plan. The reader wants to know, does the process make sense in its attempt to do what you had set out to do. There is no best design but devising or choosing and appropriate design takes you a great deal forward in ensuring your research has integrity.

      7. Title of the study

      This is the section where you address considerations of your title. Why, for instance, did you phrase your title in the particular way you did. You cannot have nothing here. You should have a draft title and reflect on your choice of words and its ordering.

      Furthermore you should set out and shortly clarify your understanding of the concepts that are found in your title. You should also think about what some of the main concepts, constructs, and variables are that your title might communicate for they have to be clarified also. Here you will also rely on your preliminary literature study to write about some of these constructs.

      Some pointers:

      • Your title should be written as succinct, clear and economical as possible.
      • It should at all costs refrain from conveying you already of the answer.
      • First priority concepts should preferably be located first.
      • You could have a qualifying post title statement (as part of the title) in respect to the approach or discipline.
      • Avoid redundancy

      8. Aim and objectives

      There always seems to be a great deal of confusion in organisations as to what exactly is one vision, as opposed to mission, or strategy, strategic intent, objectives, tasks, and such ideas.

      In this section you need only state your aim and objectives where objectives are those things that, once achieved, will have taken you a considerable way forward to achieving your aim. One could have more than one aim but generally aims are much fewer than objectives. You needn’t have long list of objectives either but it is important that you indicate why your chosen objectives will help you realise the aim. Consequently ones objectives are statements that drive research focus and action.

      Think about your objectives as operational objectives. They should be concrete and attainable. As part of the objectives one could have a primary objective which one could link to the aim. Seen in this way the operational objectives feed into the primary objective and thus answers the primary research question (if you have set out specific research questions). It is also useful to think of objectives as those things that directly answer to some of the stated research questions (primary or secondary). A two column table can simply state on the one side the research primary and secondary questions and in the other column indicate what the objectivesare that address the particular question.

      9. Scope of research

      Clarifying the scope of your research helps the reader to get a good grasp of what you intend to do and what you are not going to do. It is helpful here to distinguish between limitations and delimitations of the research.

      9.1 Limitations and delimitations

      Delimitations are the self imposed boundaries of your research. The reader might have various connotations with your title or some of the concepts you raised. This clarifies and argues for the boundaries of your research. You cannot do everything! So, considering what your research is not about is a good way of understanding delimitations. The Marikana strikes may be looked at through various disciplines, from HR policy, to economic injustice and others. You have to state why you are looking at either HR or economic factors. You do not have to argue for both here (you will have done that already probably under ‘research problem’). Here you have to argue the boundary.

      Limitations could be anything from financial to time constraints. It could also include some of the known limitations of your sampling methods but the reason forthese methods should have already been clarified. Things like not being able to generalise is a limitation, working with a particular context such as in a case study design is a limitation.

      10. Chapter outline

      Provide preliminary outline. In generic form our research follows the following outline.

      Chapter 1: Positioning and background
      Chapter 2: Theoretical framework and methodology
      Chapter 3: Accounting for the ‘data’
      Chapter 4: A discussion on the data
      Chapter 5: Findings and recommendations

      In conclusion

      With all of this said, your research proposal does not have to weigh a ton. Reference, write with as much clarity as you can at this stage, and explain why you are doing certain things.

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