Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin - Kultur-, Sozial- und Bildungswissenschaftliche Fakultät - Institut für Asien- und Afrikawissenschaften

How to write a Project Proposal


How to write a Research Project Proposal

For BA and MA theses in African History


A good research proposal has much in common with the introduction of your BA or MA thesis (Abschlussarbeit). They address the same topics, issues, questions and problems, and they give an overview of what your research and your BA or MA thesis look like. The big difference: you write most of your proposal before you start the research for your BA or MA thesis, while you write the introduction to your thesis during and at the very end of the writing process of your BA or MA thesis.


But there are also a number of other differences. As you write most of your proposal before you do your research, much of what you write is guesswork about things you do not know much about yet, or anything at all. It also means parts of the proposal need to be written in the future tense, with conditionals (this project intends to… I will try to…). Second, your proposal is meant as a proposal only; you might do something altogether different in the end because what you propose to do is not feasible, or because your supervisor has told you to do something else. Therefore, contrary to the introduction of your thesis, the proposal has a section on the feasibility of your project. Your supervisor will give you feedback on your proposal as to the feasibility of the project, the theory and method you intend to use, the place you want to carry out your research, the literature you propose to read, the questions you want to address, or even the topic itself. Therefore, the proposal needs to be short (otherwise it is a waste of your time and that of your supervisor) but it also needs to contain enough information to make a judgement of the project realistic.


Below I will sketch the main elements a good proposal needs to address, in the order you should address them in, and I will also give some advise about what you should consider when you develop a research proposal and how best to consider these things. I will do so with a concrete example




The proposal needs to be edited conform the document “Empfehlungen für schriftlichen Arbeiten V 2015 Lecocq.pdf”, available on my website or the Moodle to the Abschlusskollloquium.


How to find a subject


Before you can write your proposal you need to have a subject. Sometimes that is easy enough. You travelled in Africa somewhere and noticed something, or heard about something that sparked your interest. Sometimes it is more difficult. You haven’t been anywhere in Africa for a long time (perhaps you have never been on the continent yet), or you can’t think of anything that interests you worthy to be a thesis topic. The latter is never true. Anything that interests you can be a topic for a thesis, especially a historical one (remember: history is not about things long ago, it is a way of looking at human experience). But if you still have trouble finding a topic, the best way to go about is to go from the general to the specific by reading more. Suppose you have travelled in Tanzania, you have taken courses in Swahili, and you find the country interesting. You can start by reading very general works on Tanzania; books that deal with the general history of the country. Particular elements you read take your interest, so you read more about these. Slowly you come to your topic. Do not worry yet about questions, they come later by reading even more on the topic. Suppose you discover that the one thing you liked most in Tanzania was the travelling itself. Your preliminary topic can then be “Travel in Tanzania”. You can start developing your project proposal. You do so by reading even more.


Preliminary Title


The title should be catchy and to the point. The title itself can be catchy if you develop a sub-title that is to the point. Try to avoid giving your proposal too specific a title as things can still change. Suppose you want to write on the history of public transport in Tanzania. You don’t know how public transport is organised, you don’t know yet in which city you want to work, and you don’t know yet in what timeframe you want to work either. A good title would then be:


Public transport in Tanzania


Suppose you know that public transport is organised by minibuses called dala dala’s and you also know you want to work in the city of Dar es Salaam, and you know you want to focus on the last 30 years or so. A good title would be:


Dala dala: A study in public transport in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, in the 20th and 21st century.


Opening paragraph


This is the most important paragraph in the proposal. Like the introduction of the thesis itself, it should already say everything a reader needs to know. In only a few very factual sentences it should give:


  • The topic
  • The place and time frame (where and when)
  • The main question (but not the sub questions)
  • The main hypothesis (if you have one)
  • The main theory and methodology (as far as you have developed these)


Taken to our dala dala example:


This project aims to look into the organisation of public transport in the city of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, in the late 20th and early 21st century, focussing on dala dala minibuses. The main question is how the system of dala dala buses is organised and how this organisation adapted to urban growth In Dar es Salaam. The main hypothesis so far, is that the privatisation of public transport in the 1980s is somehow related to the logistical problems the system is currently experiencing due to the expansion of the city. The study will be based on literature review and fieldwork among dala dala owners, drivers, conductors and passengers in Dar es Salaam. In the analysis of the material I intend to use Actor Network Theory.


The first sentence states topic, place and time. The second sentence states the main question. The third sentence gives the hypothesis. The fourth explains methodology and the fifth gives the theoretical approach. In five sentences it is clear to the reader what the project is about. These elements will be elaborated in subsequent paragraphs. A last important remark on the opening paragraph: you write it last. Only when all is clear and you really know what you want to do can you formulate your project in so few sentences.


Summary of the topic


In the next paragraph you elaborate on the topic, the place and time frame, the questions and the hypothesis (if you have one). You do not need to be exhaustive; you cannot be, as you still need to do most of the research. The summary not only describes, but also explains your choices. If your choice of place is simply because you have been there, you can say so, as this is reason enough. You have personal experience with the topic (but you do not say that in this way). The time frame too needs some justification, usually because something radically changed regarding your topic, or because prior to that moment in time there is not enough information. You also address the question why this topic is interesting. Here you do not have to become personal. Instead, try to imagine why other people would be interested in this topic, or why it might be important to know more about it.  In general, this summary is based on the literature you have so far read on the topic, combined perhaps with your personal experience. The literature needs to be referenced in footnotes, but can also be mentioned in the text. Based on existing summaries by the authors mentioned here below, this could be an example of a summary of our topic:


This paper seeks to examine problems in public transport in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. The structure of the city shows different use of space in different areas (such as the central business district, residential areas, industrial establishments, government offices, educational facilities), which are separated from each other. As W.F. Banyikwa already noted, the need for interdependence between these separate zones has created pressures on the transport system.(1) Furthermore, rapid urbanization has created great population pressure. Urban passenger transportation in Dar es Salaam includes the publicly owned bus services Shirika La Usafiri Dar es Salaam (UDA) and Kampuni ya Mabasi ya Taifa (KAMATA), as well as staff buses and cars, dala dala bus services, motor cycles, bicycles, taxis and walking. (2) Because of the limited scope of this thesis, I will focus on the minibuses generally called dala dala only. Transportation problems include traffic congestion and long delays due to inadequate infrastructure, overcrowded means of transport and passenger safety, as well as increased walking distances to bus stations. These problems might have been increased due to the deregulation and privatization of public transport since the 1980s studied by M. Rizzo, who has indicated “that the reaction of casual workers to exploitative conditions of employment characterizes many aspects of the operation of the transport system”.(3) The main questions I will try to answer are therefore related to the privatisation of the system. How did privatisation impact on the working conditions of drivers and conductors? What were the consequences for the maintenance and construction of infrastructure; bus stops, bus stations, but also road maintenance? Is there a relation between the privatisation of the system and the problems of passenger insecurity? What do passengers, owners, drivers and conductors think themselves about the relation between privatisation and the current problems? Do they see them differently or similar?


1) Banyikwa, W.F. 1988. “ Urban Passenger Transport Problems in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania”, African Urban Quarterly, 3-1/2, 80-93.

2) Ibidem

3) Rizzo, M. 2002. Being taken for a Ride: Privatisation of the Dar es Salaam Transport System 1983-1998”, The Journal of Modern African Studies, 40-1, 133-157.


The summary gives a brief description of the topic, which includes what problems or other interesting elements there are to the topic (the opening sentence immediately says that there are problems in the system that will be addressed). It is based on what has been read (it mentions authors and gives footnotes). The summary explains the choice of time frame (since the privatization of the 1980s) and the limitation of the topic and its reason (only dala dala’s, because this is a limited thesis, but other means of public transport are indicated). Then follows a hypothesis based on published texts: the problems described by Banyikwa might be related to the privatisation described by Rizzo. It ends with a set of questions, not only the main question, but also the sub-questions (the relation between privatisation and the organisation of transport, the problems in the system, and what people engaged in the system think about it). 


Sources, Theory and Method


The next paragraph addresses how you intend to do you research, how you intend to find information, and how you intend to analyse or interpret your research outcomes: your sources, method and your theory. Be aware that there is a difference between theory and method, although both concepts are linked.

Method essentially means “systematic working”, with emphasis on system. Method is related to doing your research. Depending on your topic you need different types of information, or sources, and depending on the type of information you need you apply different methods of obtaining this information from your sources. Archive research, participant and non-participant ethnographic observation, survey questionnaires or survey interviews, structured and unstructured interviews are the most common research methods for historically and anthropologically oriented research.

If these methods are applied in a particular surrounding­­––in our example this would be Dar es Salaam––we call this “fieldwork” and the place we do fieldwork is called “the field site”. In fieldwork all these methods can be applied together, and together they then help you “constructs the field”, as we nowadays call it (the idea that a field exists and the researchers goes there to do information is now discarded, as researchers now understand that their very presence and research shapes the outcomes and the interactions they engage with).

Theory is related to analysis of your methodically collected sources, to obtain information from them and to make this information coherent and comprehensible. Network theory (which is not the same as Actor Network Theory), commodity chain analysis, world history, world systems analysis, structuration theory, and postcolonial theory are some of the more widely used and known analytical theories in our profession, but especially in our studies area there are a host of less well known and more specific theories developed to say something about the world we try to understand, such as translocality, transnationality, glocalization and hybriditization. Where method helps you to collect sources of information, theory helps you to make sense of the content of these sources, therewith creating information by giving you a viewpoint on your information and a way to interpret what you came to understand. It also helps you to connect the subject you study to similar subjects (in our example Actor Network Analysis will help you see how people relate to their environment and to the means of transport they use, but also how road use and care use are culturally specifically organised and interpreted).

Quite often, theory can be limited to a set of definitions of particular analytical concepts that you want to use to say something more general about the story you are writing. Terms such as the ones above, or terms such as “identity”, “ethnicity”, “gender”, “mobility”, “transport”, “religion”… All these terms can have very particular meanings, which differ from one scholar to the next. Theoretical chapters in thesis and theoretical sections in research proposals therefore tend to pay attention to the question what is meant when a particular term is used.

Some methods are very theoretical and some theory is more method, such as discourse analysis or statistics, but also the Actor Network Theory of our example, which are both theories about how to subtract particular kinds of information and knowledge from data sources (texts, numbers). A statistical analysis is done very methodically, and a well-performed discourse analysis also meticulously follows a method.

There are several: critical discourse analysis (which in itself is divided in several schools, those of Fairclough and Wodak being the two most important), ethnography of communication, interactional sociolinguistics, etc. If you want to use discourse analysis, be specific in your proposal and in your thesis about which sort of discourse analysis you will use. Do not mistake “discourse analysis” to simply mean “interpret the text however I think what the author actually meant even if she didn’t say it”, which happens all too often. Quite often methodical collection and analysis are done more or less simultaneously. The collection of material itself is already a form of analysis, as you directly assess whether particular information you come across is useful or not and as new information directs you to new ways of looking at what you found so far.

Ideally you say something about both method and theory in your proposal but how much you say depends on how good an idea you have about what you want to do. Both method and theory (as everything else in the proposal) can be further developed before and even after you start your research. Quite often you have to adjust your theoretical framework while doing your research, as you discover that things are different in the reality you study than you had expected. The paragraph can be longer or shorter depending on method and theory and how much you already know.


In our example the proposal can say something like:


I hope to find answers to these questions by doing two months of qualitative fieldwork in Dar es Salaam during the coming Term Break. I will make use of questionnaires, in-depth interviews, participant observation, as well as Tanzanian newspapers and other (online) media.  The material gathered will be analysed through Actor Network Theory, originally developed by Bruno Latour to study how scientists produce culturally ordered knowledge through interaction between themselves and with objects. According to Latour, Law and other authors, non-humans, that is objects such as machines or large infrastructure, interact with humans and with each other. (3) Although ANT is mostly used in the sociology of science, it is now used in other fields of sociology as well. I intend to use it to show how the public transport infrastructure of roads, bus stops, minivans, and other objects interrelate with their owners and passengers and help shape the dala dala system in Dar es Salaam.


3) Latour, Bruno 1987. Science in Action: How to Follow Scientists and Engineers Through Society. Milton Keynes: Open University Press.


A last remark: despite views generally held by students at IAAW, the institute offers quite a range of courses on methodology and theory most every semester. Most students tend to “dodge” these courses, as they are not seen as interesting. Quite often it is realised too late (when you start your BA thesis) that you actually need methodology to do it. Don’t make this mistake. Take theory and method serious. I know I didn’t when I was a BA student and I came to regret it, as I had to catch up seriously for my MA and PhD, wasting time on what I could have learned earlier.




This subject is much more important when you write a proposal to gain funding for your research, as funding agencies want to know if they will get value for their money. But it is nevertheless good to think about this when you do a BA or MA thesis as well, especially if you want to do research somewhere in Africa or elsewhere abroad, which will cost money. Estimating in advance if what you want to do can be done in the place you want to do it, in the time you have to do it and with your skills, before you actually go and try to do it, is helpful and might save you frustration and money. Important questions to answer are:


  • Time and finance: how much money do I need to do this research and how can I get it? How much time do I have and how much time would I need? How can I best plan this research so that I will not need to extend my registration at the university?
  • Political sensitivity: will the government of the country in question allow me to do research on this topic, will people be willing to talk about this topic, is it controversial?
  • Research permit: do I need a research permit, how can I get one, and how much time will it take to get one? Do I need any letters of reference or other documents from my Institute to obtain permission?
  • Ethical questions: in what ways will my research affect the lives of the people I do research with? This question is linked to the sensitivity of the topic.
  • Topic size: is the topic well defined enough to finish research in the time I have, or can I either refine it further before I do the research, or find more time?
  • Information: what kind of data is available and how available is it? How do I gain access to the national (or other) archives, where can I find online information, will people be willing to talk about this topic?
  • Contacts and assistance: who do I know locally who could help me? Can I get supervision at the local university and do I need that? How can I make inroads to the field I want to construct? Do I need a letter of reference from my supervisor (who want’s to know 2 months in advance if it is Prof. Lecocq or Prof. Gehrmann)? Do I have money to pay for translations or a fieldwork assistant?
  • Linguistic abilities and cultural knowledge: what languages would I need to use and do I master them fluently enough? Do I have enough cultural knowledge to actually do this type of research? How can I improve both my language skills and local understanding before starting the research? Remember: linguistic and cultural knowledge do not only apply for “far away places”, they also apply for “long ago places”. Do not think that you can directly understand documents written in any language you master from a few hundred years ago.
  • Methodological preparations: what methodologies and theories do I know? Are there further courses available on method or theory at HU or FU that I can take before I leave?
  • Other practical questions: visa requirements, vaccinations, malaria prophylaxis (whatever you do, DON’T use Lariam and be careful with Malarone as well). Last but not least: what gifts can I bring along to tie my relations with the people I work with and come to like or even love?


Not all these questions (and other practical questions you can think of yourself not listed here) need to be addressed or answered at length in your proposal, but a number of them might be relevant to mention, and all are relevant to think about.




As a last your proposal should contain a bibliography. I would like you to split this bibliography in two parts: one part listing all the works you have read so far to prepare your proposal, and one part with works that you have already located as possibly relevant to read, but which you have not read yet (but intend to). Both sections should simply be alphabetical in order of author, and in the case of more works per author, alphabetically on title, without making further distinctions between works on method, theory or topic.


Preliminary Table of Contents


Many students feel they need to include a preliminary table of contents in their proposal. I find it a waste of your time and energy. Most often these tables of content don’t tell much about what the thesis will be about. What the thesis will look like, which subjects will be treated in which chapter, what that chapter will be titled, will only become clear while you write, and you are not writing yet.


I’m looking forward to reading your proposal.