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Scoping research


Explanations > Social Research > Initiation > Scoping research

The research question | Exploration activities | Planning | Open-ended research | See also


One of the most difficult questions when setting out to do some research is to identify where the boundaries of this work sit. As a result, some research can find that it covers too small an area to be useful, though it is more common that the research grows uncontrollably as more and more questions are uncovered.

The research question

The first place to start in drawing boundaries is with the research question itself. First ask yourself questions such as:

  • What do you hope to discover?
  • What is not known already?
  • What are you not going to research?
  • What time do you have available? How does this limit what you can do?

For example a researcher may decide to investigate the sleep patterns of police officers. To help keep it reasonably contained, the target is constrained to ordinary officers who work shifts.


Boundaries are important in research as these help focus activities. They also allow for significant creativity within the defined zone of focus.

Boundary variables include:

  • Subjects and disciplines
  • That which is known or not
  • Samples and sample sizes
  • Ethical practices

Even though boundaries are important, you sometimes have to push them out or step over them. Do this reluctantly and only do so with deliberate care.

Exploration activities

It is useful to plan an early phase of activity in which you do a 'mini-project', gathering data to help you scope out the later, larger study. Some of the things you might consider include:

Literature search

A search of available literature will help you find out what has already been covered, what questions are outstanding and perhaps what secondary data may be available to you.

Initial interviews

A short series of interviews with a range of people can help you define boundaries. This may include your research supervisor, other researchers in the field and some key people in the target domain.

For example, the person researching into police sleep patterns may talk to a sleep expert and a few police officers to discover the types of issues that may need to be covered and the willingness of officers to be interviewed.

Initial surveys

Initial surveys may be used to help narrow the field, for example where these may be used to select targets for closer interview or experiment in the main body of the research.


Expect that a part of the activity will include vigorous discussion and debate. Be prepared to argue your case and change your mind. If nobody is questioning your plans, go find someone who will.


One of the most useful early activities is simply to think. After early investigations it can be helpful to take time to reflect on what you have discovered and what it might mean for your research project.


It is essential in most research to have a plan that lets you (and others) know how long you need for the research and what other resources will be needed.

Stages of activity

Projects often work best when carried out in stages, for example including data collection, analysis, write-up and so on. When planning this, consider how you will know that each stage is complete.


The size and accessibility of the sample you intend to use will have a significant effect on the time and work involved. Consider:

  • Who you will need to meet
  • Who you will want to survey
  • How you will get to them
  • How many are actually likely to collaborate
  • How you will persuade them to collaborate
  • What sample size you need
  • What sampling method you need

Methods and tools

Identify the methods you will use, particularly for sampling and analysis, and identify the tools you will need for these activities, from web access to databases to analysis packages.


Include reviews in the project plan, where you pause to verify that things are going to plan. Two types of review are useful:

  • Regular reviews, for example where you have weekly or monthly meetings with your supervisor to review progress.
  • Stage boundary reviews, where you check that a stage is satisfactorily completed and/or that you are ready to begin the next stage.

Reviews should include consideration of:

  • Time, how well it is being managed and whether you have enough of it.
  • Access to people for research and review.
  • Resources, including budget and computers.
  • Quality of work completed and required for work planned.


Planning also needs consideration of the ethics of the intended research, which may result in limitation to the intended study. This can also lead to additional time being required, for example where you need to get permissions.

Critical friends

When deep in the work, it is easy to overlook important factors and it can be very helpful to have some friends or colleagues who can cast a critical eye over what you are proposing and doing. You research supervisor of course should be helpful here too.

Criticism can be difficult to accept, especially after you have done a lot of work that may be wasted. The key is to keep your eye on the final goal.

All the 'other stuff'

There are many further activities that may be needed when preparing and operating for a research project, and which should have time allocated in the plan, such as:

  • Buying, setting and learning to use various software, such as bibliographic systems and statistical packages.
  • Developing research ideas, objectives, proposals, research questions, hypotheses and so on.
  • Getting approval to proposals and plans, including gaining access to materials and people.
  • Setting up meetings with various people.
  • Collection and analysis of data.
  • Writing up and presentation of results, plus any work in getting the final report published.
  • Review and revision throughout the process.

Open-ended research

One problem with research is that you often do not know what you need to know until some time after you start.


Research can be an iterative process of divergent exploration and convergent analysis, with focus or redirection being added at each step.


Sometimes research starts with a relatively vague question and unsure plan. The early stages may thus be broad in scope with a narrowing of focus at each step until a clear and consistent direction is found.

Changing direction

Sometimes research goes up a blind canyon, reaching a point where it can go no further, for example where no more data is available or it is inconclusive. Research can also throw up new information that can indicate more interesting or fruitful research may be found elsewhere.

In such cases, the researcher may re-think the whole project changing plans and changing direction towards a different approach or even a different research question.

See also

Research frameworks, Fold


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