Thesis Advice: Rules for empirical scoping of a research topic

1. What is scoping?

When scoping a research topic, you really are doing two types of scoping:

  1. theoretical scoping, which means finding out what the academic literature says and if there is a contribution you can make to ‘generalised knowledge’ or at least ‘academic knowledge’; and
  2. empirical scoping, which is asking “Is there really enough evidence to tell a story here?” Empirical scoping involves both desk research, and informally chatting with both ordinary people, and experts in a field to try to work out if there is likely to be evidence for a useful story here. It is basically saying to lots of people “I’m thinking of researching this topic. What do you think?”

2. Why do we do scoping?

  • So we don’t waste our time on a theory or topic that can’t be studied
  • To help develop our ideas more fully
  • To give us a reality check (honestly, we are all very delusional in our thinking - we are only human!)
  • To make us think about the evidence and theory in very concrete practical ways.

3. Questions to answer

The type of questions to try to answer (and get evidence around are) when doing empirical scoping for a social science topic - particularly one that is focused on researching some major social problem - are:

  1. Is this actually happening?
  2. Has this lead to any bad (or good) consequences?
  3. What reasons do actors give for their behaviour?
  4. Is there a conflict of interest - where actors in positions of making decisions do so in ways that advantage themselves and harm others?
  5. Have any laws been broken? Or are the laws themselves bad? Or is everything ok?

Ideally, for each of these questions you want to be able to point to very concrete evidence - documents, articles, or verbal evidence you have been given from reliable sources - that the answers you get to these five questions are actually what your theory/thesis expects (or to modify your theory to fit with the facts).

4. The rules

1. Pick up the phone

Why pick up the phone?

  • human contact builds rapport and trust
  • faster exchange of information
  • easier and more fun for everyone involved, so you are just more likely to do it.

2. Chat with everyone you meet

Why chat with everyone you meet?

Because you actually often meet a huge variety of humans just through doing stuff like:

  • going to work,
  • going to school,
  • shopping,
  • catching public transport,
  • walking around your neighbourhood, and
  • visiting family and friends.

And these humans will - on average, and more than rarely - help you develop your research topic through their own experience of, or interest in, or contacts around your topic.

3. Show interest. Show empathy. Build rapport. Don’t ever show boredom.


  • Because humans inherently deserve respect,
  • Humans rarely cooperate with or open up to people who don’t show them respect, and
  • Boredom is a form of contempt, the exact opposite of respect.

4. Listen more than you talk.


  • Because we all - including researchers - love the sound of our own voice, too much
  • People like to talk
  • People like to feel they matter
  • You can’t get information or evidence from the world if you are the one doing the talking

5. Discuss your theory, at the end of the chat.

Don’t be scared to discuss your actual theory, especially when it is later in the chat you are having with someone while scoping your topic.

If you discuss your theory later in the chat, you already have got their unbiased attitudes, beliefs, and experiences.

By discussing your theory with people, they can actually help short cut a lot of your thinking - telling you holes in your argument, or evidence for your argument you might not have thought of.

6. Good questions are “Can you give me an example? How do you know that? What did they say exactly?”

Remember the most important questions in any conversation where you are trying to gather evidence are:

  • How do you know that?
  • Can you give me a (concrete) example?
  • Exactly what did they say/what did you see?"

Why these questions? Because they ask for evidence, not opinions. But they also respect the opinions in the way the question is asked. They don’t show skepticism - which can be very rude. They don’t say “How can you prove that?” “I don’t believe you. What is your evidence?” But they do help the person focus their answers on concrete evidence, or at the very least their reasoning process (e.g. I think that because I know from experience human’s can’t be trusted/are selfish/etc.)

7. Be ethical and safe

Even though this scoping work is pre-research, you still need to make sure you are ethical and safe.

Even if you haven’t got formal ethics approval, you should have read about research ethics (such as having read and made notes on a chapter in a research methods textbook), and discussed what you are planning to do with someone experienced in research - like your thesis supervisor.

If anyone asks you about this strategy for scoping and challenges whether you need ethics approval for it (which I think you generally don’t), you can tell them:

  1. It is not research: You are not doing research, but rather scoping the study (looking to see if there is a research topic to actually study)
  2. You will not use any of this in publications: You will not use any information from the scoping for the actual publication, so it doesn’t fall under the definition of research. E.g. you won’t cite any of the evidence you collect
  3. You will still be ethical, as everyone should in daily life: You will still use basic ethical principles for your scoping - as anyone would and should in everyday life - meaning you will make sure you don’t put anyone at risk of harm - such as to their employment or access to services or breeches of their privacy.

And the main way you will be ethical is by following these guidelines:

  1. Protect privacy: Do this not recording any names or direct identifiers in any notes you take or photos you collect. You can even avoid asking for people’s names when chatting with them.
  2. Be honest: Be honest and upfront about why you are interested. For example, it is good to say upfront you are thinking of researching a topic, but are trying to understand more before embarking on it, and that you won’t use anything they say/share in your actual research/thesis.
  3. Cause no harm: Do not putting yourself or others in dangerous or stressful situations - so you won’t be asking random shop assistants about topics like their sex lives, or what they think of their boss, as their boss is watching them.
  4. Respect social norms: Don’t discuss topics which the other person would find awkward or weird or stressful.
  5. Don’t scope using people you have power over: Avoid, or at least be very careful about not abusing, informal scoping conversation on people who you have power over (such as students you supervise/teach, or employees, or people who treat you with respect or fear). These people will find it hard to say no, or withdraw from a topic they find awkward.
  6. Respect their right to say no, even if it is an implicit ‘no’: Alway respecting other people’s wishes - if they don’t want to discuss an issue, or show implicit signs of this, you have no right to continue chatting. Stop, and end the conversation politely and warmly.
Last updated on 30 August, 2019 by Dr Nicholas Harrigan (