The purpose of a research proposal is to help you focus and define your research plans.
In order to satisfy the requirements of a research proposal, you must clarify your topic, develop a research plan and convince others that it is a worthwhile project that you are competent to undertake.
Assessment details Your proposal can be on any topic of your choice, but it must be based on a sociological issue and not breach ethical criteria.
It also has to have a timeline of one semester (12 weeks, assuming immediate ethics clearance).
Your proposal should have the following structure:
This is usually just a short paragraph that opens with a catchy topic sentence, gives a brief overview of the project and a short summary of its focus. It serves to orient the reader.
State why the project is worth doing. What is the justification for it? Perhaps the research helps to improve policies or enhances our theoretical understanding of an aspect of social life. It may do both. Is there background information that a reader will need if they are to understand your research question? If so you can provide it here.
This section is different from the literature review proper because it refers to the way in which the literature and other sources have helped shape the emerging research question by helping the researcher choose a topic, rough out the research question, and select and define concepts.
What is the body of theory to which the project relates? Don't be afraid of this section! By the time you have identified your research problem and your key concepts much of the work for it will be done. Students often work back from these key concepts to the general theory; when they know what their key concepts are, they know which specific theories they are interested in and they will probably know more about which general, meta-theoretical perspectives they find helpful.
Literature review
This is the literature review proper. It is a critical analysis (and synthesis) or other people'ssociologicalattempts to answer the research question or questions similar to it. How adequate are these attempts? The implication is that, however good they are in their own terms, they do not provide a fully adequate answer for the researcher's own research question; otherwise, his or her work would not be worth doing. What are the issues and problems as yet unresolved? (If there is very little literature on a topic, this section will be short and that of the background correspondingly longer.) By the end of this section the research question (or hypothesis/es) and the key concepts will also be clear.
Research objectives and questions
Provide a statement of the research problem to be solved. What are the aims and specific objectives of the project? What is/are your research question(s)? This section is vital, as without a specific question to guide your study, it won't have a manageable focus.
Key concepts
You should identify your key concepts. Be brief and specific. If the key concepts are at all abstract or esoteric, give their nominal definitions here too.
Comment on any ethical problems posed by the research. How will you try to overcome these?
How are you going to do your research? In particular how are you going to operationalise the key concepts? Outline your approach to the data collection and analysis. On what basis are the data you are going to collect and analyse chosen and other possible data sources rejected? You may plan to collect data on a number of variables, besides the ones you think central, in order to control for alternate explanations. Reasons for this will become clearer when we talk about checking internal validity.
Give details of the exact steps involved in each part of the project. What methods are you using? If you are asking respondents questions, how will you do this (face-to-face, in-depth, closed questions in a mailed questionnaire)? Why have you chosen this design and not another?
What is the sampling and recruitment strategy – and why. What resources (including access to people, information, and equipment) are required, and how will they be found? What logistical difficulties are involved?
Write this section as if you do intend to do the work in the next semester, having received ethics approval. The data collection, analysis and write-up should be able to be completed in 12 weeks (one semester) from ethics approval. It's a good idea to set the timetable out as a table.
List of references
The research proposal should be presented in the same way as a formal essay. References should include key studies and works relevant to the area of study. Generally, there should be no fewer than ten references. The Harvard system of referencing (author, date) is the preferred method. Referencing should be consistent and provide all the information required to locate the study or article referred to. In line with your course requirements, these references use the Harvard style. This link to the Harvard style provides helpful information and FAQs.
Appendix – Questionnaire or Codebook
If a questionnaire or any other research instrument is planned, draft it and include this with your proposal. If you are doing a content analysis, you need to draft the codebook. If you are doing a secondary analysis, you need to provide the questions (and their sources) that you are going to analyse. You must indicate which questions in the questionnaire or which codes in the codebook are operationalising which key concepts.
Assessment criteria

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