1.07 How to write a research
There is no single
format for research proposals. This is because every research project
is different. Different disciplines, donor organisations and academic
institutions all have different formats and requirements. There are,
however, several key components which must be included in every research
proposal. The specific research problem will dictate what other sections
Key components are:
• A description of the research problem.
• An argument as to why that problem is important.
• A review of literature relevant to the research problem.
• A description of the proposed research methodology.
• A description of how the research findings will be used and/or
DESCRIBING A RESEARCH PROBLEM
Before your proposal can make sense
to a reader, he or she must understand clearly what the proposed research
will be about. Therefore, you would do well to begin this section with
a clear and simple formulation of your research question. Read the following
• This research project explores
the extent to which vigilantism is growing within different sectors
of the South African population. In particular the research focuses
on the factors which promote and maintain vigilantism in our society.
• Many community projects
in rural Mpumalanga rely on micro-enterprises (such as community gardens
and spaza shops), to extend the income generating potential of communities.
The following is an investigation of the extent to which these micro-enterprises
do actually influence the broader economic position of these communities.
Flesh out this section with some
or all of the following:
• Where does this research
question come from?
If it arises out of a debate in the literature, introduce
• Clarify or quantify any concepts which may not be clear.
Have a look at a very simple example:
research project explores the extent to which vigilantism is growing
within different sectors of the South African population. In particular
the research focuses on the factors which promote and maintain vigilantism
in our society. Recent reports in the media detailing the operation
of extensive and organized vigilante groups have created public interest
and concern, and there are important implications for policing policy.
A "vigilante" is defined as being "a volunteer committee
of citizens for the oversight and protection of any interest, especially
one organized to suppress and punish crime summarily, as when the
process of law appears inadequate" (Smith, 2001).
WHY THE RESEARCH IS IMPORTANT
This section, often referred to
as the "rationale" is crucial, because it is one place in
which the researcher tries to convince her/his supervisor/external examiner
that the research is worth doing. You can do this by describing how
the results may be used.
Think about how your research:
* may resolve theoretical questions in your area
* may develop better theoretical models in your area
* may influence public policy
* may change the way people do their jobs in a particular field, or
may change the way people live.
Are there other contributions your
research will make? If so, describe them in detail. Look at the following
economic example of micro-enterprises in rural communities, the researcher
might argue that the research will:
* provide an understanding of the economic impact of micro-enterprises
* support the government's plans for start-up loans to micro-enterprises
* demonstrate the usefulness of micro-enterprises as part of rural
development, thereby contributing to the work of
government and non-government rural development organisations.
Detail regarding each
of these three points should be added to produce a convincing argument
as to the usefulness of the research.
The literature review presents
one of the greatest challenges of the research proposal to experienced
and inexperienced researchers alike.
The literature review:
* Provides a conceptual framework
for the reader so that the research question and methodology can be
* Demonstrates to the expert reader that the researcher is aware of
the breadth and diversity of literature that relates to the research
It is important that you are able
to provide an integrated overview of your field of study. This means
that you show awareness of the most important and relevant theories,
models, studies and methodologies.
Examples: (The research topic
is "the History of Mental Illness in Natal in the period up to
looked at mental illness, asylums, and the archaeology of knowledge.
Roy Porter’s and Edward Shorter's histories of psychiatry and
psychology show that definitions of mental illness have differed across
time and place. Ernst and Swartz record that under colonialism, science
and medicine contributed to racial, class, and sexual discrimination.
Feminist writers Chesler and Showalter who have written on psychiatry
will be important for this study. Post-structuralist and post-modernist
approaches to the construction and representation of identities will
be used. Post-colonialism's concern with the 'subaltern' and the suppression
of 'subaltern voices' will be significant.
This study will draw
on diverse approaches to the history of psychiatry, and to the origins
of segregation in southern Africa. Histories of psychiatry and psychology
have shown that, although having a probable partial biochemical basis,
the criteria for the definition of mental illness have differed across
time and place. The history of science and medicine in both Europe and
in the colonial order provide a means for exploring the role of biomedicine
(including psychiatry) in contributing to racial, class, and sexual
discrimination. Feminist analyses of the centrality of gender, and critiques
of psychiatry and psychology, will be a key axis around which this study
is formed. For example, while men of all races formed the majority of
inmates at the Natal Government Asylum in nineteenth century Natal,
women were deemed to be particularly prone to particular forms of mental
Post-structuralist and post-modernist approaches to the construction
and representation of identities, and to the articulation of power,
will provide a means of deconstructing the 'texts' and discourses which
are an important part of this study. In particular, the works of Michel
Foucault on mental illness, asylums, and the archaeology of knowledge
will be considered. I recognise, however, that the application of Foucault's
ideas in the African context is problematic. Post- colonialism's concern
with the 'subaltern' and the suppression of 'subaltern voices' will
be reflected in attempts to 'hear the voices' of the institutionalised.
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Empirical Research Methodology
Specific research hypotheses to be tested during data analysis.
Should the researcher plan to use several groups, or repeated testing
particular hypotheses, this should be explained in this section. Most
research methodology textbooks discuss the more commonly used research
Empirical research almost always depends upon a sample which is assumed
to accurately represent a population. Therefore, the techniques by which
the sample was chosen are vital to a discussion the validity of the
methodology measurement instruments
When particular measurement instruments are used, it is often important
to explain how those instruments were developed, where they have previously
been used (if at all), and to what effect.
Data collection procedures
Detailed data collection procedures should also be included so that
researchers can replicate your method exactly if required.
Various techniques of quantitative and qualitative data analysis exist
should be described in detail in this section.
Use “ Spider Diagrams” to structure your proposal. A spider
diagram is a tool for planning your writing.
Try the following:
1. Draw a box in the centre of
a large sheet of blank paper. Write the title of your research proposal
in that box.
2. Draw a "leg" from the central "body" towards
the top right hand corner of the page. Label this "leg" with
the first topic that you wish to deal with in
3. Add more legs moving clockwise around the page until all the sections
have been included, with the final one being
somewhere near the top left of the page.
4. Now divide each "leg" up into smaller "legs"
with all the points that you wish to make in each section. (Again work
clockwise from the top left so that the sequence
of ideas is maintained),
5. You may have to redraw your spider diagram several times until you
find a structure that works for your proposal.
Make sure that you find a proposal
structure that suits the needs of your research. If you are submitting
to different organisations, make sure that you find out what those organisations'
requirements are. Some institutions have very rigid formats and often
proposals are disadvantaged because they do not conform to the requirements
Apart from the sections outlined above, many organizations demand other
sections as well. These sections could include:
Inexperienced researchers tend to underestimate the amount of time that
the various stages of research will take. Be generous when working out
time frames and check them with a more experienced researcher.
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SOME THOUGHTS ABOUT WRITING
Many people assume that any literate
person can write a research proposal. This is not automatically true.
Writing is a difficult skill to master and one that requires practice
and some dedication. Some tips to help you in your writing include:
• Always structure your work in advance.
• Know what you want to say before trying to write it.
• Every sentence must contain one idea only.
• Each sentence must follow logically from the one before. A well
written text is a "chain of ideas".
• While writing, keep your reader's needs in mind. This means
providing a "verbal map" of your document so that
your reader knows what to expect, and placing "verbal
signposts" in your text to explain what is coming next.
FINAL COMMENTS ON STRUCTURE AND STYLE
• produce a professional
• be interesting
• be informative
• write in a way that is easy to read
• include a contents page
• use clear headings and sub-headings
• be concise and precise
• use simple language wherever possible
• construct clear arguments
• check your spelling and grammar
• reference your work fully using an acceptable format
• use words when you are not absolutely certain of their meaning
• use difficult words to impress your reader
• use overly simplistic language
• repeat yourself
Before submitting, make sure you
have completed each of the
1. Proof-read your work carefully.
2. Ask a friend or relative to read your proposal.
3. Ask an experienced researcher or your supervisor to read your proposal.
(Adapted from www.nrf.ac.za/yenza/research/proposal.htm)
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Last updated:4 January 2011