Sunday, August 31, 2014

Writing a Research Proposal for English Studies: Some Hints

Coming up with a clear research proposal is the foundation of your research project. The clarity you bring to your research proposal goes a long way in impacting the quality and velocity of your work. Any research proposal is basically a statement and plan of your research project that explains what you want to do, why is it important to do it, and how you propose to do it. The following write-up offers some hints for a beginner who intends to take up a post-MA research project leading up to an M.Phil or a Ph.D in English studies in India. My hints are mainly regarding exploratory, qualitative research in literary studies in an Indian context. English Language Teaching not being my field, my suggestions and observations will come from literary studies.

One of the major difficulties faced by an aspiring researcher while coming up with a sound research proposal is having insufficient clarity about the research question. Many Indian post-graduates approach me asking for what ‘topic’ they should select for their research- or even worse, that they have already found one,  and want me to supervise it. Most of the times these ‘topics’ are dreadfully clich├ęd, and the researchers often come up with a justification that they selected them because ‘they liked it and are interested in it’. I say, “Good for you that you are interested. I am not.” It is then that they start asking me what topic would be good.  This happens largely because of the ignorance of what research in literary studies is. I suggest the beginner to look up my earlier blog entry ‘A Beginners Guide to Doing A PhD in English’ for help in this regard. In very early stages, one can only decide a broad area of research interest which may tentatively include specific form/s, author/s and literature/s. I suggest that one should go for the area which one can relate to, or appeals to you as a human being, and excite you.

The research question comes from what is called the ‘research gap’, a ‘gap’ in the existing knowledge, an unexplored or an under-explored aspect of the textual archive (the body of texts termed as ‘primary sources’). This gap may be an unexplored or under-explored methodological (or theoretical) angle that one brings in to bear on a canonical archive- as for instance ‘Caste Consciousness in Sri Aurobindo’s Savitri’ which deploys ideas and insights from Dalit studies in reading the canonical Indian Writing in English text, or it may be an underexplored textual archive ( primary sources)  using an established theoretical framework -as for example in ‘Postcoloniality and the question of Identity in contemporary Gujarati Poetry’.  Identification of the research gap makes your project specific.

It is important to note that I have assumed that after the ‘crisis in English studies’ debate of the late nineteen eighties, English studies in India have moved far beyond the study of ‘English Literature’ or ‘Indian Writing in English’, and have imbibed the spirit of comparative literature ( You can read my entry on Comparative Literature   and Translation Studies in India on this blog)  in being open to literatures in Indian languages (‘bhashas’ as Prof GN Devy terms them) and open to the expanded notion of the text which includes films, popular literatures, visual culture, oral narratives, and popular culture. This makes the research work inevitably interdisciplinary in nature. I am aware that this assumption is not always accepted by many English departments in India. However, this is the assumption I uphold and promote.

Identifying the ‘research gap’ and arriving at the research question will automatically lead to ‘why’ and ‘how’ of your research project. Obviously, in trying to locate what is unexplored or underexplored in your domain, you have to find out what is already explored. This demands extensive reading of already existing knowledge (‘secondary sources’) in the particular domain. Mentioning what you have read in your research proposal is often called ‘Review of Literature’. This extensive pre-reading is indispensible in formulating your argument which is the backbone of your research project. The argument begins when you either disagree with prevalent views and ideas about your subject or you start being aware of the limitations of these views. The ‘why’ of your research (rationale/objectives/ justification) emphasizes the underexplored aspects of your subject and the limitations of the already prevalent views. The rationale also underscores the contemporary social relevance of your research project (the scope and significance). It implies that the knowledge that you produce will be useful and contributing for the society that you inhabit by promoting enhanced understanding of itself.  In my personal view, the research projects dealing with languages and cultures of the society we inhabit, the Indian society, have more direct relevance than those dealing with societies and cultures which are distant from us.

The ‘how’ or the question of ‘method’ of the research project follows logically from ‘what’ and ‘why’ of it. Using Griffin’s distinction between ‘skills, methods and methodology’ (2005), one can say that ‘Postcoloniality and the question of Identity in contemporary Gujarati poetry’ will evidently use exploratory, qualitative methods involving textual analysis and explication. It might include oral interviews, archival methods, and draw upon the methodological frameworks from comparative studies, postcolonial studies, and identity studies. I recommend Research Methods for English Studies (2005) edited by Gabriele Griffin to everyone who want to do research

As I am talking about exploratory and qualitative research in humanities, it is not necessary to talk about ‘hypothesis’ the concept which belongs more accurately in the domain of natural sciences. As MPhil and PhD programs come with their own time-frames in India, it is not very important to talk about them either. Chapterization of the thesis also comes later and need not be laid down or may be mentioned tentatively. The ‘what’, ‘why’ and ‘how’ is usually followed by a list of important books and articles (bibliography) you have mentioned in your ‘Review of Literature’ section. You should use the format given by MLA Handbook (7th Edition).

So the outline of your research proposal may be as follows:

I) The Title and the Topic: The discussion of ‘what’ of your project, the research question in specific terms, and a brief introductory background to the author/s, and texts.
II) Rationale (‘why’ is it important): The discussion of the ‘research gap’, ‘Review of Literature’ and its social significance.
III) Methodological (Theoretical) Framework: The discussion of the relevant theoretical concepts and ideas and their justification.
IV)  Bibliography

 Read my blog on using Semiotics of Culture as a Theoretical Framework for studying Indian literatures and cultures.