Assignment One: write a research proposal

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okay the doctorate has started!  I’ve had the introductory ‘summer academy’ and now have the follow on assignment.  I understand that this is in part to help us try out and hone in on the ‘academic style of writing’ but also to put some of the things we covered at the academy into practice – literature reviews, research questions, quantitative research, qualitative research, systematic literature reviews were all covered in relatively short one hour lectures.  This research proposal is for hypothetical research – not the ‘real’ one we will end up doing, so the point is to learn how to write research proposals.

But although we were set the task of ‘write a research proposal’ and I understand how all these things are parts of it – I came away with a few burning questions – what is a research proposal for?  what is its purpose? what does a successful one look like?

Before I go on I have to make a slightly side-ward step.  After years of distance learning and only accessing electronic literature, I can now access REAL hard brick libraries with REAL books.  As a doctorate student my university gives me some sort of ‘SCONUL’ (no idea what that stands for) approval that I’ve then presented to my two local university libraries (the main ones are both within two minutes walk of my workplace and the uni medical library is only 5 mins walk away).  I now have library cards and can walk in and browse bookshelves and borrow things.  After years of using up my ‘allowable’ limits on google books and amazon look inside – and on the odd occasion stroking books in the local waterstones – this is a bit of a revelation.  Not sure whether I could have done this before as an OU masters student – never really thought to look into it.

So with my burning questions in mind I went to the ‘social research’ section of the libraries and found a book on “Developing effective research proposals” (Punch 2006).  You don’t have to get far into this book before realising that the research proposal isn’t really the beginning of research.  In fact you only end up at a position of being able to write a proposal at the end of what Punch refers to as the “product of a sustained process of planning and designing the research” (page 9).

It was this mention of the word ‘designing’ that grabbed my attention – given its use in systems practice (see for example my most recent blog on the design turn).  But it also reminded me of a book that I highlighted in my Trial of crumbs on doing research.  Off I went back to the libraries and found out that the book “Qualitative Research design: an interactive approach” has just been published in its third edition (Maxwell, 2013).

I really like the way that Maxwell (2013) conceptualises designing research – through five interactive and mutually influencing elements.  Although he covers these in an ‘order’ he is keen to emphasise how they are not linear or ‘step by step’.

The first element is GOALS: Why are you doing this study? (Chapter 2).  The discussions remind me of systems thinking’s use of purpose definition because it talks about what the motivational drivers are – personal ones, practical ones and intellectual ones.  Punch (2006) also discusses the importance of the WHY – the justification for the study and its importance.

The second element is CONCEPTUAL FRAMEWORK: What do you think is going on? (Chapter 3).  Importantly, this re-frames the ‘thing’ called a literature review into a means, not an end.  The material you read is supportive to you constructing a view of what is going on – this is a pro-active task.  Interestingly, Maxwell (2013, 54) introduces the use of concept maps as a way of organising your thoughts on this issue – this form of diagramming is also referred to in Open University (2002) so feels at home to me as a systems thinker.

The third element is RESEARCH QUESTIONS: What do you want to understand? (Chapter 4).  Research questions seem like the lynchpin of any research project.  Punch (2006) also emphasises the centrality of research questions – they are the WHAT of the research.  And lo and behold I also found another great book dedicated to this issue – “Developing research questions: a guide for social scientists” (White, 2009).

A piece of research may have one or more research questions – they can also have a hierarchy of research questions with a general-level overarching question that leads to several more specific ‘sub’ questions that break it down a lot more. The art of the good research question seems to be about saying in a concise and clear way exactly what you want to find out.  All the authors I read seemed to criticise the fact that a lot of research is ‘method-led’ (e.g. I want to do some narrative research) rather than ‘question-led’.  A good research question provides the bridge from the conceptual world of existing research and theories to the methods of this particular research project.  It seems too that there are a number of different typologies of research questions and a number of ways of helping you to ‘brainstorm them’.  Research questions shouldn’t be confused with data collection questions such as those that make up structured interviews or surveys.  They also shouldn’t be confused with hypotheses which are used in some types of research design as a statement of what the theory leads you to expect to see.

The fourth element is METHODS: What will you actually do? (Chapter 5).  Punch (2006) refers to this as the HOW of the research.  It is here you have to make decisions about the sort of data you need to answer your research questions (qualitative, quantitative or both – though bear in mind Maxwell himself is only writing about qualitative research design).  You have to think about who you need data from, how you will collect it, how you will analyse it.  The amount you determine all this in advance will vary depending on the research project – there is talk of prestructured vs unfolding designs (Punch, 2006, 36) and fixed vs flexible designs (Robson, 2011).

The fifth element is VALIDITY: How might you be wrong? (Chapter 6).  Have to confess this made me a little nervous at first given my own desire to exit from using this term (see this post).  But once Maxwell stressed that he uses the term to “refer to the correctness or credibility of a description, conclusion, explanation, interpretation or some other account” (page 122) I calmed down a little.  White (2009) also touches on this – if you are going to use your data to make a claim about the answer to your research question, then are you clear about what kinds of claim you can and can’t make and what is it that threatens your claim.

One further element is mentioned by Maxwell as very important as a component of all the other elements – the issue of ethics – I suppose this is consideration of the question: How might this research harm or benefit others?  This needs to be a key consideration at every stage.

Before going back to research proposals (the product), there is one other aspect of Maxwell (2013)’s advice that I really liked – he talks about the importance of ‘writing memos’ – he refers to these as notes to yourself about your research process, what you read, what it feels like over and above more specific ‘field notes’.  I guess this is how I already use this blog – a note to myself, a reminder of my thoughts and how they were at a point in time.  Great stuff.

So after all this ‘designing’ work – asking yourself questions, reading material, jotting notes – the thing then is to capture it all in a research proposal.  And that takes me back to one of my original burning questions – what are they for?  Maxwell (2013, 140) emphasises

“the purpose of a proposal is to explain and justify your proposed study to an audience of nonexperts on your topic”.

In academia, proposals may be used to get funding for a project, for ethics approval, for getting your dissertation research approved by faculty.  As Punch (2006, 12) stresses the main role is communication but it seems that in doing so you are attempting to argue that your research idea is important and relevant and that you have thought in a robust and logical way about what needs to be ‘understood’ (the research questions) and how you will go about answering those questions.  The proposal has to show the rigour you have put into your thinking – not just the amount of literature you have read.

There is one thing I haven’t really got to the bottom of in all this reading – and that is where aims and objectives come in.  These seem to be important components in the assignment info I have been given but they are barely touched on in the books I have read.  Remembering back to T847, I didn’t like the fact that these reminded me of PROJECT planning.  White (2009) is the only author that seems to address them directly and talks about them as useful ‘bridges’ to get from a general research topic area to the more specific research questions.  This is similiar to the way that Maxwell (2013) talks about goals.

So after all that reading, I feel a little more comfortable about how to go about writing a research proposal – I’ve learned that opening a word document and typing PROPOSAL at the top and a series of standard sub-headings is not really the way to go.  I can only get to the point of starting to iterate that document by focussing first and foremost on the designing/planning of the research.  Maxwell (2013) provides a number of exercises to help with this rigorous thinking.


Maxwell, J.A., 2013. Qualitative research design: an interactive approach Third Edition., London: Sage Publications.

Punch, K.F., 2006. Developing effective research proposals Second Edition., London: Sage Publications.

Robson, C., 2009. Real world research Third Edition., Chichester: John Wiley & Sons.

The Open University, 2002. Diagramming (T552) Second Edition., Milton Keynes: The Open University.

White, P., 2009. Developing research questions: a guide for social scientists, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

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