<< Designing a Research Project (2010) by Piet Verschuren et al.

Chapter 2 ~ verschuren2010designing ~ Research Objective

Citation Piet Verschuren, Hans Doorewaard (2010). Designing a Research Project (Second). The Hague, Netherlands. Eleven International Publishing. Book

2.1 Introduction

A research project, which was initially designed as a practice-oriented project, could directly or indirectly contribute to the development of a theoretical body of knowledge in this field. This has been referred to as the theoretical relevance of a research project.

Conversely, a theory-oriented research which originally did not intend to be of any practical use, often may, one way or the other appear to provide information that can be very useful in practice. This is called the practical relevance of the project.

2.2a Project Context

We start from the moment that the researcher has formed a general idea of what the subject of the research project will be. At this stage it is important to realise that a subject is always part of a wider context.

In the case of a theoretical subject, the context will include literature relevant to a specific field, research group's research programme or an ongoing large-scale scientific research project. If he or she decides to opt for a practice-oriented approach, the context will often be placed within an organisation in which the research is to take place.

It is important not to wait too long before becoming acquainted with the wider context.

It is important that the subject of the research project is carefully defined and embedded in the wider context. We call this wider context the project context of a research project. The result of defining and embedding is ultimately reflected in the formulation of the research objective of this project.

You need to recognise and explore a project context and know how to isolate from this context a research objective that is attainable and at the same time is acceptable to the client, to the researcher, as well as to her or his supervisor.

Each research project aims to provide knowledge, insight and information that can contribute towards solving a problem. For example, a research project could contribute towards the development of theories in a field, or it may aim at a contribution to solving a policy problem.

In a theory-oriented research project, the project context is made up of the process and product of knowledge formation within the field in which the research project is to be carried out. We not only refer to libraries in which this knowledge is stored in the form of books and articles (product), but also to people and institutes involved in this knowledge formation as part of the project context (process).

A theory-oriented research which originally did not intend to be of any practical use, often may, one way or the other appear to provide information that can be very useful in practice. This is called the practical relevance of the project.

Within a theoretical framework the aim usually means to develop new theories and views. Within a practical framework, it usually involves solving a particular problem, creating a new situation or instigating new developments.

The designer of a research project must isolate a part or an aspect of a target in order to formulate this as the objective of the research project at hand and in doing so provide a contribution

2.2b Research Objective

The second step in the initial stage of the research project is to demarcate an effective research objective within the project context.

In the case of a theory-oriented research, the project context is in fact always too broad, because our craving for knowledge and the accumulation of aspects we would like to acquire knowledge about is almost inexhaustible. In the case of a practice-oriented research, the project context is often extremely extensive because we are usually confronted with a set of interconnected problems.

At this early stage the researcher must therefore position her or his research - both in time and space - within the project context. This can be done by formulating an effective research objective.

An effective research objective is understood to be useful, realistic, and feasible within the time scheduled. It must also be clear and informative.


It is a prerequisite for an effective research objective that it be useful. In the case of theory-oriented research, the researcher must therefore make clear how the project will contribute to a solution of the theoretical problems that are envisaged.

In the case of practice-oriented research, the researcher must formulate the relevance of the research project for the benefit of the organisation or institute that is enabling the research to be carried out.

As a rule the researcher must accept that if explaining the usefulness of the research project requires a lot of effort then its usefulness is not convincing enough.

Realistic and feasible

The research objective must be realistic and feasible within the time scheduled.

By realistic we mean that is must be plausible that the research indeed will contribute to the solution of the problem.

The technical feasibility of a research objective has two aspects:

  • Does the person who is going to carry out this research have the necessary knowledge and resources?
  • Can he or she can get access to the necessary material?

However, the most critical feasibility criterion is time. Can the research objective can be realised within the time scheduled?

An insufficiently demarcated project context and research objective will result in an unfeasible research project or invalid and unreliable results.

Clear objective

By a clear research objective we mean that the designer of research clearly formulates the objective of the research project by precisely indicating what the project's contribution to the solution of the theoretical or practical problem will be.

For example, in the case of theory-oriented research the researcher may contribute towards developing a part of a new theory or towards improving a theoretical view.

It is important to be precise:

  • Which theory is he or she referring to?
  • Which shortcomings and flaws arc being highlighted?
  • What exactly will her or his contribution be, and for which particular part of that theory?

In addition, the researcher should point out how to make this contribution. Again, the golden rule is that the more explaining is needed, the more likely it is that the research objective has not been correctly formulated. It is then either too vague or too complex, or both.


An informative research objective gives a rough idea of the knowledge that the research project will generate in order to contribute towards a solution.

An informative research objective makes two things clear:

  1. What one can and cannot expect from the results of the project;
  2. and a general idea of the research activities involved.

Research Objective Sentence

There is a very helpful formula that can be used to verbalise a useful, feasible and clear research objective.

This formula is: The research objective is … (a)… by … (b)…

In the (a)-part, the unmistakable contribution of the research project to the solution of the problem is comprehensively described. We previously called this the external goal of the research project, in other words, the aim of the research.

The (b)-part of this formula entails a clear description of the way the contribution will be provided. This is the internal goal of the research project, in other words the aim within the project. Part (b) of the research objective provides an indication of the kind of knowledge, information and/or insight that is needed in order to achieve the intentions that are declared in part (a).

Therefore, as a designer of a research objective you should ask yourself:

  • 'Will the client or the supervisor understand the contribution that my research will make to solving the problem?'
  • 'Will he or she be satisfied with this contribution?'

To indicate the (a)-part of a research objective, phrases should be used like:

The objective of the research project is:

  • … to further develop theory X of author Y, dealing with the issue Z;
  • … to fill the void in theory X, dealing with the issue Z;
  • … to test theory X based on a domain in reality (empirical findings) Z.
  • … to help improve the existing policy X dealing with issue Z;
  • … to contribute to the development of a new policy X dealing with issue Z;
  • … to make recommendations to the commissioning organisation Y to solve problem Z.

To describe the (b)-part of the research objective in theory-oriented projects, use phrases like:

  • … by testing a set of hypotheses, deduced from theory X
  • … by analysing the conditions for the validation of theory X …;
  • … by comparing theory X and theory Y …;
  • … by critically reflecting on the core concepts X and Y of theory Z.

In practice-oriented research, you can use phrases like:

  • … by providing an overview of the stakeholders' opinions of …
  • … by providing a clear insight into the problems of an organisation …
  • … by making an analysis of the factors which have caused the problem …
  • … by making an analysis of the gap between the desired and the current situation …
  • … by making a comparison between …
  • … by making an assessment of …
  • and so on.

In the (b)-part we refer to a problem of knowledge and information, and not to a practical problem

Research is not an instrument for solving problems. Research creates knowledge, insight and information. This knowledge does not solve the problem in itself, but it helps the problem solver to make the right decisions.

2.3 Theory-orientated Research

Theory-developing research

There may be several reasons for starting a theory-developing research project. One of these reasons is the existence of gaps in the construction of a theory. A new theory or a complementary part of the theory needs to be developed.

When choosing an anomaly as a starting point for empirical research, the prospect of making a real contribution towards the scientific construction of a theory can be achieved.

Theory-testing research

In theory-testing research existing views are tested, adjusted if necessary and/or refined.

In this respect, the following types of questions can be asked:

  • Is it possible to increase the efficiency of the existing theory?
  • What additional requirements must be met in the acquisition of knowledge that have not (yet) been met by the existing theory?
  • Will an existing theory hold when tested against the latest developments?
  • Which aspects in existing theories are internally contradictory or inconsistent?

A special case of internal contradiction occurs if one and the same theory contains or results in two internally conflicting hypotheses. Discovering the source of such conflict can be a step towards acquiring more knowledge. Possibly, a third hypothesis can be developed which solves the conflict, or even renders the two conflicting hypotheses superfluous.

Another strategy for improving or developing an existing theory is to link certain phenomena or problems to a general concept. As a consequence, one or more specific problems can be derived from this more general or theoretical problem.

2.4 Practice-oriented Research

Research is a tool for creating valid knowledge.

Practice-oriented research is meant to provide knowledge and information that can contribute to a successful intervention in order to change an existing situation. An intervention aims at solving a practical problem.

The first two questions that must be answered when exploring the project context of a practice-oriented research are:

  • Who is the commissioning person?
  • What does this person want?

Intervention Cycle

The most important question, but not necessarily the easiest one, that you will need to answer when exploring a practice-oriented project context is as follows: In which of the five steps of the intervention can the problem be found? The answer to this question determines which of these research types you will opt for.

Five types of practice-oriented research:

1. Problem-analysing research

  • Can be defined as the tension between the current and a desired situation
  • From implicitly or explicitly existing norms, criteria and functional requirements, it should become clear why something is a problem
  • The researcher should focus on what are the facts and why are they problematic
  • The goal is to create consciousness to set the agenda or to reach a consensus
  • Warning: Organisations often have difficulty in answering the question 'What is the actual problem?'
  • Challenge: You have to convince the owner of the problem, that a problem-analysing project is very important rather than situate the problem in the problem-solving stage (design)

2. Diagnostic research

3. Design-oriented research

  • NB: The problem first needs to be properly identified and defined and it must be diagnosed beforehand
  • This data has either emerged from previous research or you can establish it at 'face value' during the further exploration of the project context
  • Possessing the knowledge related to the historical roots of how a problem developed is often an important link in the search for a solution.
  • This type requires caution as
  • The safest way is to formulate recommendations for a design, based on a problem-analysis, a diagnosis, and an assessment of a first prototype of the design.

A design-oriented research project must distinguish between four different types of requirements:

  • functional requirements,
  • contextual requirements,
  • user requirements
  • and structural requirements.

A design-oriented research project implies both the collection and analysis of empirical data with regard to the functional, contextual and user requirements, as well as the structural requirements which can be deduced from the other requirements.

4. Intervention-oriented research

The initial project context may encompass an existing plan for solving the problem that has not yet been implemented in the organisation. It is also pos? sible that the implementation has just started. In that case you may consider carrying out an intervention-oriented research project with the objective of providing data that the company can use for successfully implementing an intervention plan.

5. Evaluation research

After implementing an intervention, the next and final question for now is: To what extent has the intervention been successful? This involves ex-post evaluation research. In general, one can distinguish between three types of ex-post evaluation, depending on the research objective:

  • Has the plan proved feasible and expedient (plan evaluation)?
  • Has it been well-implemented (process evaluation)?
  • Are the results satisfactory (product evaluation)?

A step-by-step approach

By following the six steps below the reader can make an effective formulation of the project context and the objective of a research project:

  1. Determine whether you will opt for a theory-oriented or a practice-oriented research project.
  2. Explore the project context on the basis of the questions on page 34. Determine who will be the commissioning person.
  3. Determine which of the two types of theory-oriented, or which of the five types of practice-oriented research you will opt for, based on the exploration of the project context.
  4. Formulate the research objective of the research.
  5. Check the research objective on its form and content. The form should be: The objective of the research project is to … (a) . by realising … (b) … (see page 38), The content must meet the criteria of usefulness, feasibility and clarity and it should be informative. Wherever appropriate, adjust your research objective.
  6. Examine whether the research objective calls for reorientation. If so, carry out the reorientation and see if the research objective needs to be adjusted (iteration).

Tables and figures

  • Figure 2.1 Types of theory-oriented and practice-oriented research

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