In a thesis proposal, you define a research topic and describe how you will collect and analyze data to study that topic. What goes into a proposal will depend on your topic and whether you want to test an established model or develop a new one. Regardless, though, these questions should be addressed in any proposal:
- What topic do you want to study?
- What do social scientists already know about your topic?
- Why do we need to know more, and how would your research build on, modify, or correct errors in previous work on your topic?
- What exactly would you do? (Collect a survey? Conduct in-depth personal interviews? Participant observations? Analyze secondary sources? What approximate timetable would you use? For empirical research, who would be your subjects? How would you analyze and interpret your data?
- How would what you propose to do in #4 address the needs identified in #3?
Parts of a Proposal
1. An Introduction
This should set the topic you propose to study within a broader social scientific context in between half a page and one full page.
2. A Review of the Pertinent Scholarly Literature
In the literature review you should develop the rationale for why you focus on the topic you've selected. The review should summarize and briefly critique what social scientists already know about your topic. It should also indicate the major theoretical assumptions, concepts, and issues (both theoretical and empirical) that social scientists have been concerned with in studying your topic. Your task is to organize and analyze previous thinking and research, identifying major strengths and weaknesses as they pertain to your topic.
The scope of your literature review will vary based on your topic and whether you propose to test a hypothesis or develop your own. If, for example, you are interested in the link between sex and income, you will find an enormous literature on the determinants of income and social mobility. Instead of writing a book, review the work that addresses your specific topic. You don't need to discuss the literature on, say, race and income unless you draw important ideas for your own work from that literature.
If you select a topic on which little has been written, you might have to search further afield. You might be able to draw on ideas from research on related topics or from general theoretical perspectives. In this case, refer only to the sources you used directly in developing your research topic.
Your review should be four to seven pages long, depending on the amount of literature available on your topic and your topic's complexity. This means your review must be concise. Sentences with long lists of citations are common in literature reviews, but such “citation banks” still need enough specificity to make sense.
3. Definition of the Research Problem
In this section, state the hypothesis or model you intend to test or discuss the research questions you intend to explore. Whatever you are proposing, you should define any ambiguous concepts. If you propose to test hypotheses, state them clearly and in such a way as to be true or false.
This section might be anywhere from one to five pages long. Its length will depend on how many hypotheses and questions you deal with and how directly they follow from the literature you've reviewed.
4. A Description of your Proposed Research Methods
Here you should identify the unit of analysis for your study, the population and sample on which you will focus, observation and measurement techniques, and (if appropriate) how you will analyze your data. If you are collecting original data, for example, you must indicate how you will collect it. What topics will you cover in your interviews or questionnaires? What kind of field observations would you focus on? Most importantly, what are the strengths and limitations of the research methods you've outlined, especially with regard to your research problem? What is your rationale for choosing these methods? This section usually requires three to five pages, although often less for a project based solely on participant observation.
The page guidelines given above are approximate. By these guidelines, your proposal could be anywhere from eight to eighteen pages long. For most topics, we expect your proposal to be at least 12 pages long. As for the number of sources that make a reasonable literature review, there are no firm guidelines. It depends on the scope of the pertinent literature.
Additional Tips and Hints
Organizing a Literature Review: The library staff will have suggestions to simplify your journey through the many resources available in the library. Your life will be far more pleasant if you seek their help. Also, make as much use as possible of the abstracting sources. Reading abstracts and reviews first will save you the frustration of reading irrelevant or crummy articles and books. Recent articles in top journals will offer examples of a finished literature review and help you organize your own. Logical grouping of works along the dimensions of your research problem is key.
Evaluation of a Thesis Proposal: Several factors will figure into the department’s assessment of your proposal and its feasibility as a thesis topic. The intrinsic merit of proposed research is one of these factors. Is your proposed research adequately framed as a sociological or anthropological inquiry? We will also consider the conceptual and methodological soundness of your proposed research, the adequacy of the resources available for carrying out your proposed study, and your preparation for carrying out the proposed work.
Annotated Bibliography: Append an annotated bibliography of scholarly works that you've consulted and that you plan to consult for your comps. The bibliography should be formatted according to an acceptable citation style, and it should include two to four lines of annotation per item. Annotations should indicate what the article or book is about and its relevance to your project.