3 March 2007

Sociological Research, Analytical Methodology


Spring 2007

Robert Max Jackson

The Basic Content of a Research Proposal:

In general, a research proposal attempts to describe the plan for a specific research project in a way that other scholars find worthy. A research proposal seeks approval and support from the faculty overseeing students in a graduate program, the scholars and administrators responsible for human subject requirements, and those who advise and control funding programs in foundations, government, and universities. In general terms, research proposals attempt to show that the authors know what they are doing.  A proposal tries to show that the planned research meets scholarly standards, that the research will produce worthwhile results (usually meaning that we can reasonably anticipate it will advance our knowledge about a question worth answering), often tries to show a practical payoff to the expected findings (a common requirement for funding), and seeks to defend the project against plausible criticisms. When a proposal is successful, those reading the proposal will decide that it is a good plan, that they cannot conceive any shortcomings or pitfalls that threaten the project, that there is a high probability that the research will successfully achieve its stated goals, and that the researchers have the expertise, commitment, and vision to see the project through. Those at whom a research proposal is aimed will, and should, approach it critically, looking hard for its shortcomings, demanding that the proposal be convincing, not giving it the benefit of doubt. It is worth noting that it is almost impossible to write a successful proposal without getting considerable feedback from others who stand in for the critical readers to whom the proposal is addressed.

Here is an outline of what we can expect to find in a research proposal in the social sciences. The amount of attention paid to these points, the order in which they are addressed, and the character of the presentation will vary considerably according to the specifics of the project, the authors, and its intended audience.

  1. A summary or abstract; this should give the heart of the research project in a nutshell.
  2. Problem statement: What is the research question?
    •  Concisely state how does the research promise to make a contribution to the scholarly literature relating to some issue with a history and a future, using a method that will be effective and accepted.
    • Summarize the research’s potential broader implications
      • Possible significance to scholars working on other problems
      • Possible relevance to policy issues
  3. Review previous studies regarding the topic
    • Important recent work on main theoretical questions
    • Historical background of theoretical questions
    • Important recent work on general empirical issues
    • Best work on specific research questions, both regarding the hypotheses and the data
    • Literature review should aim at a dialogue with the past work, putting into context, identifying relevant limitations, inconsistencies, and opportunities for extension
    • Should locate the research within an area in sociology and a program of past research, clarifying the theoretical and empirical traditions that shape and motivate the research
    • If the research has relevance for policy issues, these should be examined (critical for funding proposals)
  4. Theory and Hypotheses:
    • What is the project's theoretical contribution?
      1. Consider both the narrow and big questions
      2. Consider both the relatively certain contribution and the less certain but potentially higher pay off possibilities
      3. Will the research extend previous research on the topic?
      4. Will it fill gaps in the existing research literature?
      5. Will it resolve disputes among scholars working in the substantive area?
    • Translate the theoretical issues into telling hypotheses about the data to be gathered
      1. Ideally, hypotheses should distinguish competing arguments
      2. Hypotheses normally should be derived from theoretical arguments, not appear as simple empirical projections or common sense predictions
      3. Clarify what assumptions are implicit in the research design
  5. How, where and when will you conduct your research?
    • What methodological approach will be used? Why?
    • What kinds of evidence (data) will you gather?
      1. Variable conceptualization
      2. Measurement
      3. Means for observing and collecting data
    • Sampling
      1. What is the sampling plan?
      2. Why is this an optimal sampling plan?
    • What are the logistical plans (as relevant)?
      1. Locating the sample
      2. Acquiring the data
      3. Getting relevant permissions
  6. How will you analyze the data?
    • Be concrete about what the data will look like and what you will do with it
    • The aim is both to give a clear description of the intended data analysis and to convince the reader that the authors are sufficiently knowledgeable about the relevant data analysis techniques and issues that they will successfully overcome the unanticipated problems sure to arise.
    • This section should anticipate the potential issues good scholars are likely to raise.
  7. What is the anticipated value of the empirical research?
    • What are the explicit goals for the research project?
    • What specific questions will it investigate?
    • What do you expect to find? Why do you expect that?
    • How will the research show you are wrong in your assumptions or your arguments if you are wrong? Why are the results you expect very unlikely if your theoretical position is wrong?
    • What are the limitations of this planned project?
  8. What is the practical plan?
    • Schedule for project (time for each stage and when expect to complete)
    • Budget and means of funding
    • Anticipated practical or logistical problems and means of solving
    • Approval by human subjects board?
  9. Discussion/Conclusion
  10. Bibliography