Introduction and research justification, business, social sciences, humanities


This topic outlines the steps in the introduction of the research proposal. As discussed in the first topic in this series of web resources, there are three key elements or conceptual steps within the main body of the research proposal. In this resource, these elements are referred to as the research justification, the literature review and the research design. These three steps also structure, typically, but not always in this order, the proposal introduction which contains an outline of the proposed research.

These steps pertain to the key questions of reviewers:

  • What problem or issue does the research address? (research justification)
  • How will the research contribute to existing knowledge? (the 'gap' in the literature, sometimes referred to as the research 'significance')
  • How will the research achieve its stated objectives? (the research design)

Reviewers look to find a summary of the case for the research in the introduction, which, in essence, involves providing summary answers to each of the questions above.

The introduction of the research proposal usually includes the following content:

  • a research justification or statement of a problem (which also serves to introduce the topic);
  • a summary of the key point in the literature review (a summary of what is known and how the research aims to contribute to what is known);
  • the research aim or objective;
  • a summary of the research design;
  • concise definitions of any contested or specialised terms that will be used throughout the proposal (provided the first time the term is used).

This topic will consider how to write about each of these in turn.

Signaling the topic in the first sentence

The first task of the research proposal is to signal the area of the research or 'topic' so the reader knows what subject will be discussed in the proposal. This step is ideally accomplished in the opening sentence or the opening paragraph of the research proposal. It is also indicated in the title of the research proposal. It is important not to provide tangential information in the opening sentence or title because this may mislead the reader about the core subject of the proposal.

A ‘topic’ includes:

  • the primary subject area (what the research is about);
  • the context or properties of the subject (the particular aspect or properties of the subject that are of interest).

Questions to consider in helping to clarify the topic:

  • What is the focus of my research?
  • What do I want to understand?
  • What domain/s of activity does it pertain to?
  • What will I investigate in order to shed light on my focus?

The research justification or the ‘problem’ statement

The goal of the first step of the research proposal is to get your audience's attention; to show them why your research matters, and to make them want to know more about your research. The first step within the research proposal is sometimes referred to as the research justification or the statement of the 'problem'. This step involves providing the reader with critical background or contextual information that introduces the topic area, and indicates why the research is important. Research proposals often open by outlining a central concern, issue, question or conundrum to which the research relates.

The research justification should be provided in an accessible and direct manner in the introductory section of the research proposal. The number of words required to complete this first conceptual step will vary widely depending on the project.

Questions to help clarify the research problem:

  • Why is this research important?
  • What real life or everyday problem, issue, question or context does the research relate to?
  • What is the research ultimately trying to achieve?
  • How can I grab the reader’s attention and concern?
  • How can I state the problem or context of the research in terms that most people can relate to?
  • What possible negative repercussion is there of not solving this problem?
  • What benefit does the research promise? 

The legitimacy of the research justification can be established in a number of ways:

  • provide references;
  • refer to a policy, press report, or other reputable information source;
  • provide a detailed outline of a context, condition, concern, conundrum or situation;
  • provide an anecdote or evidence from personal experience.

Writing about the research justification, like writing about the literature and your research design, is a creative process involving careful decision making on your part. The research justification should lead up to the topic of your research and frame your research, and, when you write your thesis, exegesis or journal article conclusion, you will again return to the research justification to wrap up the implications of your research. That is to say, your conclusions will refer back to the problem and reflect on what the findings suggest about how we should treat the problem. For this reason, you may find the need to go back and reframe your research justification as your research and writing progresses.

The most common way of establishing the importance of the research is to refer to a real world problem. Research may aim to produce knowledge that will ultimately be used to:

  • advance national and organisational goals (health, clean environment, quality education),
  • improve policies and regulations,
  • manage risk,
  • contribute to economic development,
  • promote peace and prosperity,
  • promote democracy,
  • test assumptions (theoretical, popular, policy) about human behaviour, the economy, society,
  • understand human behaviour, the economy and social experience,
  • understand or critique social processes and values.

Examples of 'research problems' in opening sentences and paragraphs of research writing

The concept of meritocracy is one replicated and sustained in much discourse around organisational recruitment, retention and promotion. Women have a firm belief in the concept of merit, believing that hard work, education and talent will in the end be rewarded (McNamee and Miller, 2004). This belief in workplace meritocracy could in part be due to the advertising efforts of employers themselves, who, since the early 1990s, attempt to attract employees through intensive branding programs and aggressive advertising which emphasise equality of opportunity. The statistics, however, are less than convincing, with 2008 data from the Equal Employment for Women in the Workplace agency signalling that women are disproportionately represented in senior management levels compared to men, and that the numbers of women at Chief Executive Officer level in corporate Australia have actually decreased (Equal Opportunity for Women Agency, 2008). Women, it seems, are still unable to shatter the glass ceiling and are consistently overlooked at executive level.

Tension-type headache is extremely prevalent and is associated with significant personal and social costs.

One of the major challenges of higher education health programs is developing the cognitive abilities that will assist undergraduate students' clinical decision making. This is achieved by stimulating enquiry analysis, creating independent judgement and developing cognitive skills that are in line with graduate practice (Hollingworth and McLoughlin 2001; Bedard, 1996).

Visual arts
In the East, the traditional idea of the body was not as something separate from the mind. In the West, however, the body is still perceived as separate, as a counterpart of the mind. The body is increasingly at the centre of the changing cultural environment, particularly the increasingly visual culture exemplified by the ubiquity of the image, the emergence of virtual reality, voyeurism and surveillance culture. Within the contemporary visual environment, the body's segregation from the mind has become more intense than ever, conferring upon the body a 'being watched' or 'manufacturable' status, further undermining the sense of the body as an integral part of our being.

Literature review summary

The next step following the research justification in the introduction is the literature review summary statement. This part of the introduction summarises the literature review section of the research proposal, providing a concise statement that signals the field of research and the rationale for the research question or aim.

It can be helpful to think about the literature review element as comprised of four parts. The first is a reference to the field or discipline the research will contribute to. The second is a summary of the main questions, approaches or accepted conclusions in your topic area in the field or discipline at present ('what is known'). This summary of existing research acts as a contrast to highlight the significance of the third part, your statement of a 'gap'. The fourth part rephrases this 'gap' in the form of a research question, aim, objective or hypothesis.

For example

Scholars writing about ... (the problem area) in the field of ... (discipline or sub-discipline, part one) have observed that ... ('what is known', part two). Others describe ... ('what is known', part two). A more recent perspective chronicles changes that, in broad outline, parallel those that have occurred in ... ('what is known', part two). This study differs from these approaches in that it considers ... ('gap', research focus, part three). This research draws on ... to consider ... (research objective, part four).  

More information about writing these four parts of the literature review summary is provided below.

1. The 'field' of literature

The field of research is the academic discipline within which your research is situated, and to which it will contribute. Some fields grow out of a single discipline, others are multidisciplinary. The field or discipline is linked to university courses and research, academic journals, conferences and other academic associations, and some book publishers. It also describes the expertise of thesis supervisors and examiners. 

The discipline defines the kinds of approaches, theories, methods and styles of writing adopted by scholars and researchers working within them.

For a list of academic disciplines have a look at the wikipedia site at:

The field or discipline is not the same as the topic of the research. The topic is the subject matter or foci of your research. Disciplines or 'fields' refer to globally recognised areas of research and scholarship.

The field or discipline the research aims to contribute to can be signalled in a few key words within the literature review summary, or possibly earlier withn the research justification.

Sentence stems to signal the field of research 

  • Within the field of ... there is now agreement that ... .
  • The field of ... is marked by ongoing debate about ... .
  • Following analysis of ... the field of ... turned to an exploration of ... .

2. A summary of contrasting areas of research or what is 'known'

The newness or significance of what you are doing is typically established in a contrast or dialogue with other research and scholarship. The 'gap' (or hole in the donut) only becomes apparent by the surrounding literature (or donut). Sometimes a contrast is provided to show that you are working in a different area to what has been done before, or to show that you are building on previous work, or perhaps working on an unresolved issue within a discipline. It might also be that the approaches of other disciplines on the same problem area or focus are introduced to highlight a new angle on the topic.

Sentence stems to introduce existing research in the field

  • The increasing interest in … by (field of scholarship) has heightened the need for … .
  • Of particular interest to (field of scholarship) is …
  • Recently, there has been growing interest in the field of … in … .
  • The development of … has led … to the hope that … .
  • … has become a favourite topic of analysis in the field of … .
  • The study of … has become an important aspect of … .
  • A central issue in (field of scholarship) is … .
  • The question of … has been extensively studied in recent years.
  • Many recent studies have focused on … . 
  • Previous research has concentrated on … .
  • Most studies have been content to … .
  • So far, investigations have been confined to … .
   Gap in the literature    

3. The summary of the 'gap' in the literature

The 'gap' in the field typically refers to the explanation provided to support the research question. Questions or objectives grow out of areas of uncertainty, or gaps, in the field of research. In most cases, you will not know what the gap in knowledge is until you have reviewed the literature and written up a good part of the literature review section of the proposal. It is often not possible therefore to confidently write the 'gap' statement until you have done considerable work on the literature review. Once your literature review section is sufficiently developed, you can summarise the missing piece of knowledge in a brief statement in the introduction.

Sentence stems for summarising a 'gap' in the literature

Indicate a gap in the previous research by raising a question about it, or extending previous knowledge in some way:

  • However, there is little information/attention/work/data/research on … .
  • However, few studies/investigations/researchers/attempt to … .

Often steps two and three blend together in the same sentence, as in the sentence stems below.

Sentence stems which both introduce research in the field (what is 'known') and summarise a 'gap'

  • The research has tended to focus on …(introduce existing field foci), rather than on … ('gap').
  • These studies have emphasised that … …(introduce what is known), but it remains unclear whether … ('gap').
  • Although considerable research has been devoted to … (introduce field areas), rather less attention has been paid to … ('gap').

The 'significance' of the research

When writing the research proposal, it is useful to think about the research justification and the  ‘gap in the literature’ as two distinct conceptual elements, each of which must be established separately. Stating a real world problem or outlining a conceptual or other conundrum or concern is typically not, in itself, enough to justify the research. Similarly, establishing that there is a gap in the literature is often not enough on its own to persuade the reader that the research is important. In the first case, reviewers may still wonder ‘perhaps the problem or concern has already been addressed in the literature’, or, in the second, ‘so little has been done on this focus, but perhaps the proposed research is not important’? The proposal will ideally establish that the research is important, and that it will provide something new to the field of knowledge.

In effect, the research justification and the literature review work together to establish the benefit, contribution or 'significance' of the research. The 'significance' of the research is established not in a statement to be incorporated into the proposal, but as something the first two sections of the proposal work to establish. Research is significant when it pertains to something important, and when it provides new knowledge or insights within a field of knowledge.

4. The research aim or objective

The research aim is usually expressed as a concise statement at the close of the literature review. It may be referred to as an objective, a question or an aim. These terms are often used interchangeably to refer to the focus of the investigation. The research focus is the question at the heart of the research, designed to produce new knowledge. To avoid confusing the reader about the purpose of the research it is best to express it as either an aim, or an objective, or a question. It is also important to frame the aims of the research in a succinct manner; no more than three dot points say. And the aim/objective/question should be framed in more or less the same way wherever it appears in the proposal. This ensures the research focus is clear.

Language use

Research generally aims to produce knowledge, as opposed to say recommendations, policy or social change. Research may support policy or social change, and eventually produce it in some of its applications, but it does not typically produce it (with the possible exception of action research). For this reason, aims and objectives are framed in terms of knowledge production, using phrases like:

  • to increase understanding, insight, clarity;
  • to evaluate and critique;
  • to test models, theory, or strategies.

These are all knowledge outcomes that can be achieved within the research process.

Reflecting your social philosophy in the research aim

A well written research aim typically carries within it information about the philosophical approach the research will take, even if the researcher is not themselves aware of it, or if the proposal does not discuss philosophy or social theory at any length. If you are interested in social theory, you might consider framing your aim such that it reflects your philosophical or theoretical approach. Since your philosophical approach reflects your beliefs about how 'valid' knowledge can be gained, and therefore the types of questions you ask, it follows that it will be evident within your statement of the research aim. Researchers, variously, hold that knowledge of the world arises through:

  • observations of phenomena (measurements of what we can see, hear, taste, touch);
  • the interactions between interpreting human subjects and objective phenomena in the world;
  • ideology shaped by power, which we may be unconscious of, and which must be interrogated and replaced with knowledge that reflects people's true interests; 
  • the structure of language and of the unconscious;
  • the play of historical relations between human actions, institutional practices and prevailing discourses;
  • metaphoric and other linguistic relations established within language and text.

The philosophical perspective underpinning your research is then reflected in the research aim. For example, depending upon your philosophical perspective, you may aim to find out about:

  • observable phenomenon or facts;
  • shared cultural meanings of practices, rituals, events that determine how objective phenomena are interpreted and experienced;
  • social structures and political ideologies that shape experience and distort authentic or empowered experience;
  • the structure of language;
  • the historical evolution of networks of discursive and extra-discursive practices;
  • emerging or actual phenomenon untainted by existing representation.

You might check your aim statement to ensure it reflects the philosophical perspective you claim to adopt in your proposal. Check that there are not contradictions in your philosophical claims and that you are consistent in your approach. For assistance with this you may find the Social philosophy of research resources helpful.

Sentence stems for aims and objectives

  • The purpose of this research project is to … .
  • The purpose of this investigation is to … .
  • The aim of this research project is to … .
  • This study is designed to … .

Summary of the research design

The next step or key element in the research proposal is the research design. The research design explains how the research aims will be achieved. Within the introduction a summary of the overall research design can make the project more accessible to the reader.

The summary statement of the research design within the introduction might include:

  • the method/s that will be used (interviews, surveys, video observation, diary recording);
  • if the research will be phased, how many phases, and what methods will be used in each phase;
  • brief reference to how the data will be analysed.

The statement of the research design is often the last thing discussed in the research proposal introduction.

NB. It is not necessary to explain that a literature review and a detailed ouline of the methods and methodology will follow because academic readers will assume this.

Example research proposal introduction

Title: Aboriginal cultural values and economic sustainability: A case study of agro-forestry in a remote Aboriginal community

Research proposal introduction text Annotation

The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) in its 2001 Social Justice Report (ATSIC, 2001) highlights the importance of economic development in providing the means for lifting the socio-economic status of indigenous Australians, and this has become a key area of spending on indigenous affairs. Yet, historically few sustainable business models have been established in remote Aboriginal communities, particularly for projects that give Aboriginal people equal control of the economic benefits of business initiatives (Altman 2002). This continues to be the case despite increased government awareness and funding to support Aboriginal enterprise.

Research justification or 'problem' statement, signals the problem, and the importance of the research.

In the field of indigenous studies, literature that explains the poor performance of Aboriginal enterprise within remote communities has focused upon social and economic factors, and has not paid sufficient attention to the role of cultural factors. In a majority of cases economic policies involving Indigenous communities have failed to take into account the social and cultural expectations of the community. This research aims to contribute knowledge grounded in Aboriginal cultural perspectives to existing understandings of the necessary conditions for sustainable development within remote Aboriginal communities. This research project will investigate the options and the obstacles faced by remote Aboriginal communities seeking to develop a sustainable enterprise base on freehold land within the Northern Territory.

The literature review summary contains reference to the field (indigenous studies), what is 'known' (research on social and economic factors), and what is unknown or remains to be investigated (cultural aspect). It closes with the research aim, which picks up the theme introduced in the 'gap' statement (cultural perspective).

The research will focus upon an agro-forestry venture in a remote part of the Northern Territory run by traditional Aboriginal owners. An Aboriginal driven perspective will be attained by the research partnership with the Perron Island Enterprise Aboriginal Corporation (PIEAC), a focus upon an Aboriginal owned and run business, as well as a qualitative method that aims to elicit wide consultation with Aboriginal communities in the region. A series of approximately 20 interviews with key Aboriginal stakeholders in the forestry enterprise will be conducted in order to identify the relative importance of social, cultural, commercial and environmental values, to identify the dynamics of organisation/stakeholder relationships, as well as stakeholder attributes and management styles. Interviews also aim to reveal the forms of institutional support that assist the enterprise including organisation design, management governance structures, social impact assessment tools, and passive and active investment strategies. The research method also involves a review and analysis of social policy documents and Government reports into Aboriginal enterprise.

The summary of the research design explains how the aim will be achieved (points to the case study and research partnership, and the research interviews that will provide cultural perspective).


In summary, the introduction contains a problem statement, or explanation of why the research is important to the world, a summary of the literature review, and a summary of the research design. The introduction enables the reviewer, as well as yourself and your supervisory team, to assess the logical connections between the research justification, the 'gap' in the literature, research aim and the research design without getting lost in the detail of the project. In this sense, the introduction serves as a kind of map or abstract of the proposed research as well as of the main body of the research proposal.

The following questions may be useful in assessing your research proposal introduction.

  • Have I clearly signalled the research topic in the key words and phrases used in the first sentence and title of the research proposal?
  • Have I explained why my research matters, the problem or issue that underlies the research in the opening sentences,  paragraphs and page/s?
  • Have I used literature, examples or other evidence to substantiate my understanding of the key issues?
  • Have I explained the problem in a way that grabs the reader’s attention and concern?
  • Have I indicated the field/s within which my research is situated using key words that are recognised by other scholars?
  • Have I provided a summary of previous research and outlined a 'gap' in the literature?
  • Have I provided a succinct statement of the objectives or aims of my research?
  • Have I provided a summary of the research phases and methods?

This resource was developed by Wendy Bastalich.

Last modified: Thursday, 22 October 2020, 9:47 AM