Research Purposes, Rationales, and Aims in Applied Linguistics

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At my department's Research Cluster Discussion last month, one of the professors gave a presentation about research purposes in our field of applied linguistics. What seemed to be a cut-and-dried topic actually turned out to be quite complex. And the more I thought about it over the past month, the more confused I became. So this week I decided to spend a few days in the Resource Center to do a little research on this topic in order to sort things out in my own mind. Hopefully this will help me get my own research started on the right foot. The remainder of this blog post is my current understanding of what goes into the research before the research even starts.

There are three main areas to consider when planing research. As I read through the literature on this topic this week, I realized that these three areas go by a few different names, which include:

  • the purpose, goals, or objectives
  • the rationale, or justification
  • the aims, or research questions

If someone were to ask, "What is Research X about?", the answer is likely to be the purpose of the research. It is what the researcher is "doing", and is therefore often described with a leading verb, such as finding, evaluating, collecting, investigating, showing, specifying, modeling, extracting, examining, establishing, producing, proposing, developing, describing, providing, interpreting, creating, arguing, extending, using, uncovering, applying, or testing. At least those were some of the verbs I found in a quick search in my folder of PDF research papers.

If the purpose is what the researcher is doing, the rationale, then, is the reason why the researcher is doing it. The rationale should be based on previous research in the field, and it gives context to the proposed research and explains why it is important (Allison, 2002, p. 223).

One perspective of viewing the rationale is to consider the value of the research, and who is benefiting from that value. My first thoughts were that the research community is the main beneficiary of research. This is the cliched "adding to the body of knowledge" that much research tries to achieve. But in addition to the research community, there are two other potential beneficiaries: the researcher personally, and others outside of the research context. (Allison, 2002, p. 166-167). A great example of a researcher doing research for themselves personally is action research. And an example of doing research for others is research that has general pedagogical implications. For example, research that helps EFL teachers be more effective in the classroom helps both the teachers and the students.

None of the research method books I looked at this week gave many examples of research rationales, or much advice on how to write them. Perhaps this is because many papers do not explicitly have a rationale section nor do they say something like, "The justification of this research is..." So I am not sure exactly what a rationale will look like, but as I read papers in the future, I will try to pick them out and see if I can find any patterns. My initial instinct tells me that they might, for example, look something like:

  • Previous research does X, but they didn't do Y
  • Previous research did X in location Y, so now we will do it in location Z.

My interests are in the use of technology for language learning (Computer Assisted Language Learning - CALL) as well as language research (Computer Assisted Applied Linguistics - CAAL), so in many of the papers I have read, the rationale behind the research is technology-based. This wasn't mentioned in any of the books I read, partly because it is a new area of study in applied linguistics. For example, now that we have the technology to analyze millions of words automatically, the field of corpus linguistics has exploded in popularity. So an example of a purpose and rationale for a research paper might be something like:

  • Purpose (What are we doing?) - Creating a computerized analysis tool based on Linguistic Framework X.
  • Rationale (Why are we doing it?) - Because technology allows us to process a lot of data automatically that we could never do before. This will help us better understand language in use, and will help other researchers to do additional research in this area.

So now that we have the purpose and the rationale of research, the final piece of the puzzle is the aims, or research questions. A lot of the books I was looking at this week had advice and guidelines for research questions, so I won't talk much about this now, except to say that the research questions must come directly from the purpose and the rationale. Research questions are in the form of questions, of course, and often start with a question word, such as who, what, how, or when. They are usually very easy to find in a paper, as opposed to the purpose and rationale, which may be hidden somewhere in the abstract, literature review, or other sections.

So now I have to ask myself, why is all of this so important? Well, it hopefully will not only help me plan and organize my own research, but it will also help me to critique and better understand others' research. Brown and Gonzo (1995) listed 6 questions that one should ask when critiquing and understanding others' research, and 4 of the 6 are directly related to what I have talked about above. (For the other two, one was about data collection and one was about research conclusions.) So my plan from now on is to keep track of the purpose, rationale, and aims of everything I read, in hopes that it makes me a better researcher, teacher, and maybe even someday, supervisor.


Allison, D. (2002). Approaching english language research. Singapore: Singapore University Press

Brown, H. D., & Gonzo, S. T. (1995). Introduction. In H. D. Brown & S. T. Gonzo (Eds.), Readings on second language acquisition (pp. 1-12). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall

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This page contains a single entry by Stuart published on July 25, 2013 11:34 PM.

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