Research proposal introductions tend to move from the general to the more specific. The following questions can help you to achieve a logical structure. Note that you don't have to answer the questions in exactly this order - some topics will necessitate the merging or re-ordering of them, but this information should generally be clear from reading your introduction.
- What is the topic? You may have to start a bit broader and move in to specifics so the exact nature of the topic is contextualised.
- Why is it interesting / topical / important / significant in your discipline?
- What do we know about it according to the relevant academic literature?
- What don't we know about it? What are the gaps, the absences or silences in the literature?
- How will your work seek to address this gap? State your research questions and you may need to briefly talk about the methodology here.
- What is your argument? What will we learn from reading your study?
- How will your study proceed? Outline the sections and process of your research.
The literature review provides a rationale for your research in terms of what has gone before, a justification of its value and significance. It does the following:
Justifies your research question, theoretical or conceptual framework, and method.
As your research builds on the work of others, the literature review is never just about the literature - it's about the relationship between your study and literature. You are expected to show familiarity with your topic/issue - establish the key concerns, debates and interests of the field.
The literature also justifies the "tools" i.e. theories, methodologies etc. Indeed, your research methodology or approach to the study (that is, how you will operationalise it/carry it out) is based on your appraisal, analysis and evaluation of the existing literature.
Establishes the importance/value of the topic.
The literature review, by showing the concerns and interests of the field, establishes the value/importance of your topic/argument - the so what question.
Provides background information needed to understand the study, and describes key concepts.
Any background material included in your proposal must be shown to be relevant by bringing it back to its relationship with your study.
Shows readers you are up to date with significant research relevant to the topic.
Establishes your study as one link in a chain of research that is developing knowledge in your field.
Your project needs to confirm some principle or hypothesis, or add to the weight of evidence of something, or posit a theory, which explains something, or applies a theory or theories to new material etc.
Sometimes the literature review is a section on its own; sometimes it's embedded in your introduction. Sometimes it is all put together in one place, sometime the review is provided a little bit at a time in the relevant sections. Regardless of the exact placement of the literature review material, there are a number of goals that need to be achieved.
- Show the current state of research on your topic. That is, critically examine what is known/currently understood.
- Identify where there is a gap in this research that your project will make a contribution to. Will your research, for example, build on or contradict the work of major scholars?
- Identify particular studies/ methodologies/ research that you are basing your own project upon.
You do not have to describe the methodology to be used in great detail, but you should justify its use over other methodologies. For example, you could explain the reasons for using:
- particular theories or approaches
- quantitative or qualitative research
- surveys, experiments, field work, case studies, specific statistical measurements, analytical tools, etc.
- the parameters of your sample (e.g. size).
You could also explain how you are proposing to:
- have access to the data
- analyse the data.
The methodology should not be confused with procedure. Whereas a procedural section outlines the process of what you have done, a methodology section in a research proposal justifies why you are taking your approach.
The following extract is a typical way to present an argument for a particular approach to the exclusion of other possibilities, though your discussion of methodology may be altogether more detailed and comprehensive, even constituting an entire chapter.
When states promote industrial development they assume direct involvement in processes of capital accumulation, even as their effectiveness in this pursuit is strongly determined by the international division of labor. For this reason, X's [reference] suggestion linking states' activities to development outcomes requires, first, taking states as transformative actors in their own right, and second, examining state agencies' transformative activities as they are embedded in definite networks of social relations. To meet these methodological challenges, my study will incorporate a comparative institutional approach [reference], as well as the sectoral approach of Y [reference] and the commodity chains approach of Z [reference]. In addition to their value as theoretical frames of reference, these approaches offer unique methodological insights for procedures of data collection and analysis (Cryer, 1996, p. 45, emphasis added).
Some general advice
- Look at past proposals or introductions to theses to see how things are set out, explained, what sort of language is used, how problems are overcome.
- Consider your audience - not every marker will be a specialist in your area. Can your writing be understood by a non-specialist? Consider use of jargon, detail of explanation, clarity of process.
- Writing should be a constant process - start now - don't wait until you have done all your research.
- Try articulating your research question and writing the introduction and literature review of the proposal as soon as you can. They will have to be revised as the project progresses but the process of writing will help clarify your project, purpose, design and identify possible problems before they become critical.
- Read and revise these sections frequently to keep them up-to-date.
- Keep a current reference list that you update as your write - DO NOT leave this until the end.
- Cryer, P. (1996). The research student's guide to success. Buckingham: Open University Press.