Guideline for writing and organising research plans, dissertations, thesis’s, essays etc.

Social policy research can be understood as operationalised, systematic way of questioning personal, social and societal routines – matters of course, which without such research are carried on and establish a infinite long chain of unintended and uncontrolled action. Even if social policy research cannot prevenmt such long chains it can establish a counterweight and finally contribute to the empowerment of the people in whose interest it is undertaken.

Of course, the main guideline when writing an essay is to some extent at least automatically given by

a)  the dynamism of the subject and question and

b) the requirements and dynamism of the methodology.

Nevertheless, observing some general and nearly formal guidelines will help in writing any scientific piece, taking some of the procedures out of the mist of a seemingly intransparent outline of such a work. Observing these general guidelines can be seen as fundamental tool, which facilitates the further work. These formal aspects are tool – and at the same time at least some of the further and substantial work is getting by it a kind of craftwork in itself.

Nevertheless mind: These remarks should not make you believe that scientific work is some kind of mechanical process, simply grounded in the application of value-free steps, furthermore being completely independent of some kind of intuition and empathy. And furthermore, writing a scientific essay takes time – you cannot do it in a couple of days! And you cannot do it just a couple of minutes here and there!

Actually, it is the first step already, which is very much (or even solely) based on values, namely the decision for the subject, the formulation of the research question and the elaboration of the hypothesis.

With this, the two fundamental points of departure are named, namely

*   the formulation of a research question and

*   the formulation of a hypothesis.

Research question

Begin with a clear, unequivocal formulation of the question. There is much scope of value-guidance in this and even more very subjective interests can be taken as point of departure. Nevertheless, subjectivity should not make forget that such research question, to be meaningful, has to be based on and follow practical interests.

As Karl Marx stated in 1845 in the last of his Thesis on Feuerbach Philosphers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point, however, is to change it.

This can be the immediate interest of changing some occurrences in your surrounding, organisations you working in and with this, the living conditions or life circumstances of people you know or you want to support; but it can be as well the development of more fundamental research which provides answers on a question which than can be used for research processes with immediate impact on the practice. In any case you have to be aware of one term I just introduced: research can only be understood, when it is seen as process, and as such it is not least a matter of communication with others and with the practice itself. Seen in this perspective the formulation of the research question is not least concerned with the questioning of existing knowledge on social issues and the questioning of social practice.

Excurse: Action research

Accepting the necessity of aiming on change by research rather than contemplation or interpretation of the world does not equal action research. Nevertheless, action research can be a means to underline this strand of argument. It can be defined as a specific methodological process that bases research on

*   participation in the field in question and

*   methodologically approaching a re-valuation of the setting, i.e. the soci(et)al process.

That means, that the usual research setting, as it is described here changes as the interim results of the research are immediately transferred into action, but – what is more important – immediately change the further proceeding of the research.

To really lead to valuable results its application is only recommended to experienced researchers. Even if it seems to be easier it has its shortcomings in (the danger of) a relatively high degree of superficiality.

Back to the research question: this has to be clearly established not as describing – in form of a question – something which you think is interesting, thus broadly establishing an area of research. Instead, the formulation of the question has already to provide the basic, in many cases very narrow idea of what you are looking at and why. As such, you have to avoid any misunderstandings, you have to have a clear understanding of the terms you use (see below the section on definitions) and the aim of the piece of work has to be made clear. Ask yourself if the formulation of the question

*   really establishes your interest and

*   if this envisaged area is made clear for any reader.

And never forget that such a question is first and foremost investigating relationships and processes. These two dynamic aspects, i.e. relationships and process character have to be reflected in the formulation of the question.

The hypothesis

As well, the dynamics have to be reflected in the elaboration and formulation of the hypothesis. In some way it can be said that the hypothesis is simply an assumption. This is, however, a formulation which is slightly too short. The hypothesis is a draft of a theory. In particular two aspects mark this provisional character:

*   As draft the hypothesis sketches the main lines and draws attention on the main relationships and the main directions of the development you are looking at.

*   As draft the hypothesis is open in the sense that you are aiming on the verification or falsification of the statement.

Note: The formulation of the hypothesis is not necessarily positive. You may well aim on the falsification of the statement, for example made by others. Or you can simply formulate the hypothesis in negative terms. Just try different formulations and think through them – each variation has own merits and shortcomings.

A hypothesis is needed in any case of social (policy) research as far as such research is employed by the investigation of relationships and processes. Simple evaluation of facts as such, the surveying of a landscape would under these terms hardly fall under social (policy) research. But even in such cases there is mostly some kind of hypothesis as such surveying already considers some aspects of reality as important and others not, thus theorising, assuming something about the investigated reality.

Question and hypothesis remain on a very general level. It is important, however, that general does by no means suggests a vague character. Again: The formulation of both, the question and the hypothesis has to be unequivocal.

Thesis and sub-thesis: Concretisation of the question and hypothesis

In the following step you have to brake down the general statements as you made them by the question and hypothesis. What exactly is it you are looking at. What provides information on how you assess the statements? What are the criteria for verification and/or falsification?

In fact, this is a wide area of methodological reasoning and the sociology of knowledge. Those who ever read Sir K.R. Popper will remember the question he is looking at – and he actually is negating: Can we verify anything? Can we for example say all swans are white? The only proof we have up to a certain point of investigation is that (if we do so) never came across a black swan. But this does not mean that no black swan exists. It only means that we do not know about a black swan, that we never came across one. Thus, the next time we see a swan it may well be that that swan is black.

Now, despite a bulk of other problems the main thing here is that such a procedure neglects completely the question of the essential criteria of any objects – procedures, relationships etc.; what Popper looks at is only a very superficial aspect of the object.

So, what you actually are looking at when you develop these theses is the understanding of the essential aspects of the object. This can be the colour of the swan. But more likely it is if it is a bird, if it is essential for a bird that it can fly etc. pp.

Thus, at this stage you have clearly to establish your criteria with which you are going to evaluate your hypothesis.

It is already here, that you have to be aware of the terms you use, of the definitions underlying each term and each relationship. Think very simple, do not take anything for granted! For example what does the sign = mean, what does the term equal mean? Is it identity, is it a high degree of similarity? Is it congruence? Do = and equal mean the same? As said – and this means to think simple (even if it initially seems to tangle clear ideas): Do not take anything for granted!


As already said, it is necessary to think simple. As said as well research is concerned with an operationalised, systematic way of questioning personal, social and societal routines – matters of course, which without such research are carried on and establish a infinite long chain of unintended and uncontrolled action.

This means not least that you have to be aware of the use of terms and consider each term as

*   expressing a very specific understanding and meaning of states of affairs or processes. The understanding cannot be taken for granted and varies for example and in particular depending on

Ø       theoretical approach

Ø       ideological background

Ø       historical context

Ø       national context

Ø       social position.

*   being specifically influenced by the context of the research, i.e.

Ø       the relationship to other aspects of the research

Ø       the question that guides your research.

*   Finally, your understanding of terms is by no means obvious for every reader (because readers come from different national, social, ideological etc. backgrounds.

So, reflect in fundamental statements of your research paper basically on every term if and how far you have to define it. Thinking simple, then means that even simple terms, which usually are used without any reflection, of which the meaning is taken for granted in day-to-day’s language possibly have to be defined.

Be aware: What is basically – and in particular in such a presentation as it is given here – is a sequence of distinct steps is in reality a little bit more complicated. As already mentioned, to establish even the question, the first step at the very beginning, you have to be already aware of the terms and their exact meaning. Thus, what comes here relatively late as a separate and even distinguished, independent step is in reality very much a part which is showing up again and again during the process of research. Nevertheless, what makes it important to distinguish it and to give a special section on definitions is the fact that only here you can give a compromising picture. As such it is a preliminary stage in finally answering the question, in following the various steps then actually working on the individual sub-theses.


The work on any research question does not really start from the scratch and even if you are working on a completely undiscovered question, there are many prerequisites, on which your own work is built up. As said, many definitions are already based on the approach, ideological assumptions etc. As such, they are most likely based on work, on which some literature exists. This literature on which your work is in one or another way based has to be included into the presentation of your work. For this literature you consult has to be

*   grouped into the areas for which they are relevant (for instance and definitely not exhaustive in case you are working on community arts and funding mechanisms in this area literature on theory of arts, culture, evaluation, professionalisation, community work/community development and others)

*   presented, i.e. the main arguments of the documents have to be critically summarised

*   reviewed, i.e. you discuss the arguments and

Ø       relate them to other positions in the same field (i.e. e.g. arts, community development, professionalisation …) and

Ø       you develop a relation between the individual areas and documents (i.e. e.g. between literature on art and literature on professionalisation).

What had been said here is concerned with the literature review as such. However, in a more complex research paper, literature and its review has to be integrated into the main argument. For this, you can still write a more or less separate chapter und a title as Research which has been done – a critical overview on existing literature. But even then you have to show for each document the relevance to your own research. So ideally, as part of more complex piece of research you have to consider if and how far it is possible to look at literature you use there, where the argument which is dealt with in the document you review is showing up in your own work.

In other words – and taking the example of a piece on the protective measures in cases of child abuse you would look perhaps look at literature in the fields of childhood, abuse, law against abuse, education, the role of institutions as the church, and others. Then, in the text you may evaluate and analyse – according to your question and hypothesis – what the effect of law is on the slapping by parents in Ireland and part of this is to look at the educational attitudes in institutions as the church. If you use literature on child abuse by the Catholic Church it makes more sense to review it here rather than review respective literature in a separate section under the title literature review, subsection: literature on child abuse. In the said place, i.e. your investigation of the role of the church in regard of the development of education, it links immediately to your argument. Furthermore, in some cases it is better as well for pragmatic reasons. Where would you include a possible book on child abuse in the Catholic Church in Ireland ? Is it the group of literature on abuse, on Ireland , on the church, on Catholicism?

One general remark in regard of the selection of literature/documents: Even if you are working on a piece of scientific social research you don’t have to refer only on what is commonly understood as scientific literature. Official documents, political statements by parties during election campaigns, leaflets and brochures by NGOs are in many cases a matter of interest as novels – remember (if you have read them, otherwise: make up for it whenever you can manage) the most impressive and beautiful texts of Balzac, Boccaccio, Dickens, Mann, Swift, Tolstoi, Turgenjew and the many, many others who gave such an insightful picture of there time and society. And even if I am not familiar with this genre you will find many modern, contemporary literature (as e.g. that by Eco) which fulfils the same for our times as did the classics for their times.


In general: The text you are writing has to reflect as far as possible the flow of the argument, of the idea and of the analysis. You have to balance between a in formal terms perhaps slightly confused, incoherent presentation, which draws attention to the connections and links on the one hand and a formally distinct and well ordered text which is for the reader a little bit like a jigsaw – it is up yo him/her to put the pieces together – admittedly not an easy task.


Finally, you have definitely to decide in which way you want to approach the answer your research question and validate your hypothesis respectively. Basically, this is the process of collecting and analysing the data in a theoretically or empirically oriented way.

Mind: Of course, here again it is not this sequenced process, as it seems to be in strict accordance with the presentation here. To decide on the approach does not take place here only but is already going through all steps before, is actually an integral part of them.

Mind as well: this is not to be confused with the decision for a theoretical approach. The latter is concerned with the orientation on the fundamental paradigm from which you take the process of answering into perspective. Even if we can say to some extent that it is a question closely linked to methodological debates it is actually more than that. This complex area cannot be discussed here – important catchwords to name such theoretical approaches are e.g. Marxism, Feminism, Critical Theory, Positivism and the like. Be aware of distinctions not only between such approaches but as well within them. What is, in general, important is to develop a coherence of the argument. In many cases the difficulties with such coherence is overlooked and you may find yourself ending in eclecticism, taking pieces from various theories, without thinking their meaning through to the end. So, you cannot take a dialectical approach in conjunction with positivism. The dialectical approach would require the drawing of attention on matters of mutual relationships and their development out of each other. Positivism, however, is oriented on the registration of superficial facts and mechanical relations.

Of course, you can to some extent combine different theoretical approaches and paradigms. However, be aware to be consistent in doing so particularly in regard of the arguments in that you clearly consider if and how far the paradigm

*   deals with the essence of societal facts or argues on the level of their appearance, looks at symptoms;

*   analysis such facts or simply describes them; and

*   looks at processes or at the status.

The decision for one or another approach is by no means simply a matter of choice; but nevertheless it is up to you for which approach you decide. But what is crucial is that you develop your arguments consistently, based on an approach or a combination of approaches, which are consistent and not just a combination of nicely connected adjectives. A critical approach does not make up for arguing on the basis of the critical theory as it is commonly connected with the name of the Frankfurt School around Adorno, Makuse and Habermas. And to argue in favour of women does not mean that you already argue on a feminist basis.

In general you can take – considering the necessary care – paradigms as well from different sciences as e.g. sociology, political science, economics, psychology etc. In some cases even natural sciences are of immediate relevance for answering a social (policy) research question.

Further details cannot be given here and I have to refer to courses on the respective paradigms and the reading if even possible not so much of introductions but original texts by authors who are representing such paradigms.


Back to the decision on which methodology you apply the first fundamental question is if you are going write a theoretical piece or if you want to write a study based on an empirical analysis.

It is somewhat difficult to explain exactly what makes up for a theoretical study. Perhaps the easiest, most comprehensive way is to say that you develop a terminological framework to answer your research question and that you look in particular at different approaches from the literature/positions to see if you can conclude from there some kind of answer on your question. It is very much concerned with logics, induction, deduction and looking carefully at the connections between different social facts (status and/or process). I attached below a longer quote from a text of Karl Marx which will make clear what it means to investigate complex soci(et)al structures and processes.


It is important to note here that the common understanding of a contradiction between theory and practice is a kind of hoax. Even if you are at times very much concerned with models and blueprints you have to be aware what had been said with reference to Karl Marx, namely that it is not the interpretation that matters but the necessity for change. Thus, the development of such a terminological framework has to be derived from the reality, the soci(et)al practice and it has to aim at the understanding of the soci(et)al practice to make it possible to change it. And for this theoretical approaches mainly have to aim on the explanation of connections, relations and their essence.


Another, seemingly more practically oriented approach is the empirical orientation. In reality, however, the practical orientation is by no means necessarily implied. In many cases empirical studies are just scratching at the surface, delivering a description of what we can see rather than an analysis of how things work. An explanation for this is that the selection of and decision for indicators is very difficult, tricky and it is forgotten that this selection of/decision for indicators depends on theoretical work that has to be undertaken in preparing the empirical work.

For deciding on indicators of poverty we have to have a theory of poverty. We have to know about social integration, the meaning of material means beyond the sole provision of essential goods etc. In other words the collection and later analysis of data only makes sense if you have already some kind of theory on the subject. It is characteristic and interesting that we are working on poverty indicators on the European level and in the process of policy making since about at least twenty years. Since some strong, politically influential groups insist on the priority of simple empirical measures (as income calculation) the debate goes on and seems to find no end (despite current hopes for a fruitful conclusion).

If you decide in favour of an empirical analysis there are basically the following options – and it is up to you, to decide which way you think is the most appropriate to find a valid and sound basis for answering your question. Here again, even if it is your decision it is by no means simply a subjective decision, but depending on the subject – the question and the level of answer you are aiming on.

The main options are

*   document analysis

*   text analysis

*   qualitative approach

*   quantitative approach.

I have to refer you again to respective courses and/or literature on these methods.

Delphi approach

A kind of intermediate methodological approach is named after the ancient Greek Oracle of Delphi and means basically an expert survey. Experts (or people who are seen as experts) are interviewed and their opinions are brought together to make up a sound picture, from which an extrapolation can be developed. To some extent it is a matter bridging and combining theory development and empirical analysis; to some extent it is a method to serve as a preparatory requisite for one or the other. In many cases it is used as well not so much as a research tool rather than a means of browsing a field of interest and bringing different opinions and standpoints together in a process of political decision making.

In any case of empirical studies: convince people to provide information but do not try to trick them. Be aware that in some cases there is only a small bur between convincing and tricking.

Analysis, Evaluation; theoretical reflection

Collecting data and/or developing a theoretical set of terms and stated interconnections are only the first, though important steps of doing social policy research. Even if the collection of data is always in one way or another led by theory, after their collection they are not much more than a accumulation of superficial, unconnected phenomenon. It is only now, that you have to analyse what the actual meaning is. Here, you finally draw attention to the connections, analyse them against the background of the context and weigh them. It is not an abstract process of theoretisation – even if at this stage theory plays a major role. This means that you discuss your data against theoretical work which has been undertaken already on this question (or in another area which is perhaps of indirect relevance); and it means as well that you elaborate your work as regards the further development of existing theories or even the development of a new theory (or, realistically, as element for such a possible new theory).

As such, analysis and theoretical reflection is by now means a matter independent of praxis; on the contrary, it is crucial that you are always aware during your work that any it is not a matter of contemplation. Rather, your work is linked to the practice as it starts from there and should be linked to the practice as your results have ideally some impact on the practice. This is the case as well even in pure theoretical pieces, where for example your work can be an intermediary step to aim on practical impact.


The conclusion should be more than and different from a summary of your work. Of course, you refer to the results of your research – and thus there are some similarities to a summary. However, this is a reference only and you can and have to expect that the reader of your document is in fact not simply only a reader of your conclusions. – Summaries are useful at the end of each chapter. But even there it is not so much to do with repeating what had been said. Instead, summaries should link the statements and observations made in the particular chapter to other chapters and to the overall work.

This is even more so the case in the conclusions where you refer in a summarizing way only as far as it is necessary to establish the overall context, i.e. the understanding of the argument. And this overall argument consists of

*   your answer on the research question

*   the proof of the hypothesis

*   and the consequences.

Consequences of this kind will be

a)  the explanation of limits of your research, i.e. the clear statement of the reach of your results;

b) the mention of questions left open by your research

c)  the extrapolation of political steps to foster and maintain a political change – even if such change can in some cases be the decision for maintaining the status quo.

And of course, you see that here you end up again on the level of strongly value based and oriented statements.


Here you will provide the reader with any additional statements or documents if necessary. You can document a questionnaire you used, you may include an extract from a text or a graphical document to show a certain argument, a list of abbreviations finds its place here and finally the references.



From Karl Marx: The capital (1867); volume I, part III, chapter VII, section 1

Labour is, in the first place, a process in which both man and Nature participate, and in which man of his own accord starts, regulates, and controls the material re-actions between himself and Nature. He opposes himself to Nature as one of her own forces, setting in motion arms and legs, head and hands, the natural forces of his body, in order to appropriate Nature's productions in a form adapted to his own wants. By thus acting on the external world and changing it, he at the same time changes his own nature. He develops his slumbering powers and compels them to act in obedience to his sway. We are not now dealing with those primitive instinctive forms of labour that remind us of the mere animal. An immeasurable interval of time separates the state of things in which a man brings his labour-power to market for sale as a commodity, from that state in which human labour was still in its first instinctive stage. We pre-suppose labour in a form that stamps it as exclusively human. A spider conducts operations that resemble those of a weaver, and a bee puts to shame many an architect in the construction of her cells. But what distinguishes the worst architect from the best of bees is this, that the architect raises his structure in imagination before he erects it in reality. At the end of every labour-process, we get a result that already existed in the imagination of the labourer at its commencement. He not only effects a change of form in the material on which he works, but he also realises a purpose of his own that gives the law to his modus operandi, and to which he must subordinate his will. And this subordination is no mere momentary act. Besides the exertion of the bodily organs, the process demands that, during the whole operation, the workman's will be steadily in consonance with his purpose. This means close attention. The less he is attracted by the nature of the work, and the mode in which it is carried on, and the less, therefore, he enjoys it as something which gives play to his bodily and mental powers, the more close his attention is forced to be.


From: Karl Marx: Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy. 1. Production, Consumption, Distribution, Exchange (Circulation)

… It seems to be correct to begin with the real and the concrete, with the real precondition, thus to begin, in economics, with e.g. the population, which is the foundation and the subject of the entire social act of production. However, on closer examination this proves false. The population is an abstraction if I leave out, for example, the classes of which it is composed. These classes in turn are an empty phrase if I am not familiar with the elements on which they rest. E.g. wage labour, capital, etc. These latter in turn presuppose exchange, division of labour, prices, etc. For example, capital is nothing without wage labour, without value, money, price etc. Thus, if I were to begin with the population, this would be a chaotic conception [Vorstellung] of the whole, and I would then, by means of further determination, move analytically towards ever more simple concepts [Begriff], from the imagined concrete towards ever thinner abstractions until I had arrived at the simplest determinations. From there the journey would have to be retraced until I had finally arrived at the population again, but this time not as the chaotic conception of a whole, but as a rich totality of many determinations and relations. The former is the path historically followed by economics at the time of its origins. The economists of the seventeenth century, e.g., always begin with the living whole, with population, nation, state, several states, etc.; but they always conclude by discovering through analysis a small number of determinant, abstract, general relations such as division of labour, money, value, etc. As soon as these individual moments had been more or less firmly established and abstracted, there began the economic systems, which ascended from the simple relations, such as labour, division of labour, need, exchange value, to the level of the state, exchange between nations and the world market. The latter is obviously the scientifically correct method. The concrete is concrete because it is the concentration of many determinations, hence unity of the diverse. It appears in the process of thinking, therefore, as a process of concentration, as a result, not as a point of departure, even though it is the point of departure in reality and hence also the point of departure for observation [Anschauung] and conception. Along the first path the full conception was evaporated to yield an abstract determination; along the second, the abstract determinations lead towards a reproduction of the concrete by way of thought. In this way Hegel fell into the illusion of conceiving the real as the product of thought concentrating itself, probing its own depths, and unfolding itself out of itself, by itself, whereas the method of rising from the abstract to the concrete is only the way in which thought appropriates the concrete, reproduces it as the concrete in the mind. But this is by no means the process by which the concrete itself comes into being. For example, the simplest economic category, say e.g. exchange value, presupposes population, moreover a population producing in specific relations; as well as a certain kind of family, or commune, or state, etc. It can never exist other than as an abstract, one-sided relation within an already given, concrete, living whole. As a category, by contrast, exchange value leads an antediluvian existence. Therefore, to the kind of consciousness—and this is characteristic of the philosophical consciousness—for which conceptual thinking is the real human being, and for which the conceptual world as such is thus the only reality, the movement of the categories appears as the real act of production—which only, unfortunately, receives a jolt from the outside—whose product is the world; and—but this is again a tautology—this is correct in so far as the concrete totality is a totality of thoughts, concrete in thought, in fact a product of thinking and comprehending; but not in any way a product of the concept which thinks and generates itself outside or above observation and conception; a product, rather, of the working-up of observation and conception into concepts. The totality as it appears in the head, as a totality of thoughts, is a product of a thinking head, which appropriates the world in the only way it can, a way different from the artistic, religious, practical and mental appropriation of this world. The real subject retains its autonomous existence outside the head just as before; namely as long as the head's conduct is merely speculative, merely theoretical. Hence, in the theoretical method, too, the subject, society, must always be kept in mind as the presupposition. … - accessed 2001-11-04


PS: Never do what I did here [using (not to say misusing) some kind of power, supposed privilege and perhaps even arrogance of the lecturer (to be honest it is not that; it is simply the lack of time – and in this case I thought it more useful to provide some basic information at all)]: work more or less without sources, taking quotes just out of the top of your head and not mentioning the exact source [however, where I nearly quoted I mentioned at least that and the clue of a source.]