You are writing a research proposal/thesis/paper where you have been asked to state the aims and objectives. Can both words be used interchangeably? When is it appropriate to use them? In this article, Nadia Anwar revisits the debate around aims and objectives and sheds more clarity as to their appropriate use.
‘Aim’ and ‘objective’, the two ever confused words, terms, lexical items, research markers, or whatever you may prefer to call them, are as ambiguous conceptually as their tagging is. Being a novice in research (which I believe I will always be because of my aversion to being called an ‘expert’), I happen to have a very inquisitive nature about how words become a norm and attain an established status, especially in the alleyways of the academic world. This, rather annoying, and somewhat debilitating curiosity, as it constantly diverts my attention to academically most ignored or termed as worthless pursuits, led me to make a distinction between the overused and overly done words frequently employed in research thesis, proposals, dissertations, and projects etc.
As a teacher I check the work of my students with a presumption, which in almost all cases proves true, that I am going to face yet another uniformly designed piece of academic work where different sections are going to glare at my face in cloned habiliments. In their attempt to sound technically more sound, students first modify their topic or argument into a narrative form to give it a semblance of a thesis aim. Second, they turn the same statement into an interrogative to make a research question, and finally, they mould it into a descriptive sentence to form objectives. The same sentence with different constructive possibilities serves their purpose. This practice is highly problematic since from the title to the aim, from objectives to research questions and even to research procedure or design everything becomes homogenized with the only difference in the syntactical garb they don at different occasions. Let us cudgel up our brains a little to get an insight into the problem words and find out if there is a way out of this research rigmarole.
Aim, as discussed by many, refers to the ‘general target’, ‘intended desire’, or ‘achievable goal’ that a researcher is likely to achieve at the end of a project or study.
This is mostly done by ‘mapping’, ‘designing’, ‘tracking’, ‘developing’, or ‘theorizing’ a phenomenon or data set/s. Aims are normally conceived out of a very broad idea that a researcher initially shows a disposition to. The aims hardly specify the procedural nodes or requirements of the research in hand because linguistically they are preferred to have concise, short, and synoptic construction. Naturally with the statement of this kind, not all what goes into research can be elaborated. So emerges the need to have objectives. But before I move on to the objectives, a little diversion in relation to aims may prove handy at this stage.
Most of the researchers believe that the use of the phrase ‘to find out’ is highly erroneous in devising an ‘aim’ of any research since a research should do more than ‘finding out’ ‘or ‘understanding’, or simply ‘explaining’ a phenomenon or entity. Again, I humbly tend to disagree because many a useful research have aimed to do exactly the same in order to introduce new paradigms leading up to their ‘investigation’ or ‘examination’ which in academic writing are considered the preferred and accepted modes of research. Without losing sight of the critical investigation, the indication of something per se attains the status of research if the entity under research is overlooked, ignored or side-lined for some religio-cultural or socio-political reason. Therefore, it is, absolutely alright, and should be academically acceptable, if a researcher aims to find out something at the initial stage, given this is necessitated by the nature of a particular research.
Objectives can be described as a ‘material action’, equal to taking ‘specific steps’, or in the sense of crossing ‘particular stages’.
Objectives are more specific in nature and are set in order to achieve the ‘aim’. Since the objectives are more specific or contained, a common concern is to look into the possibility of their actually getting into action. Research procedure or design may not sound very different in this respect since they also work towards achieving the same purpose. It would not be misplaced to say that various junctures completing the continuum of research are entitled as objectives. That is why aims and objectives may not connect in the strict sense since aim is not constitutive of all the stages and steps which somehow directly or indirectly facilitate a researcher and make him/her reach a point.
Most popularly the aim is termed as ‘what’ and objective as ‘how’ of the research. In order to achieve a goal or aim (I am here intentionally keeping the debate about the difference between the ‘aim’ and ‘goal’ to myself at the moment), a researcher is required to design some objectives. In other words, objectives are ‘how’ you are going to achieve ‘what’ you have aimed. ‘Aim’ is set on precise ‘objectives’ or you may say that if aims are ‘strategies’, objectives are ‘tactics’. It is much like taking a journey, from one point to another, on a road with ‘milestone objectives’ that come at regular intervals and chronological order and require the traveller’s attention at every step of the way. Ignoring one milestone and failing to fulfil its exigencies is tantamount to leaving a big gap in the research procedure.
A very useful example that helped sort out my initial confusion about the two terms in question is related to an aim that requires a person to cross a stream and sit on a bench at the other side. In order to go and be seated, a person needs to take certain ‘measures’, ‘steps’ to cross the stream and achieve the desired aim. These steps, in this particular case, are named as the objectives. Similarly, a carpenter in order to make a table has to undergo different stages such as of designing a blueprint of the final product, getting the raw material, acquiring the tools required for the process, and refining and polishing the structure etc., which all, can be dubbed as the objectives.
I would end this piece with a word of advice. Although researchers today are inundated by a variety of research styles, formats, and paradigms with strong institutional affiliations, they need to work closely with their supervisor/ supervisory team to see how much their selected style suit their research type. In an inane attempt to impose a certain ‘research style’, I have seen many a good research becoming academically clumsy, technically indigestible, and beyond a reader’s perceptual domain.
Research is like a piece of beautiful pottery in the making. Only the hands of the potter determines and decides how to move fingers in order to shape it up to its final form. Not all jars can be moulded into vases and not all pitchers can become tumblers. For each specimen, a unique set of procedures have to be taken to ward off the cloning effect. In the end what matters is ‘what’ you have produced, ‘how’ original it looks and ‘why’ is there a need to expose it to the public gaze.
About the author – Dr Nadia Anwar has a PhD in Nigerian drama from the University of Northampton, UK. She is a Senior Lecturer in English at the Education Department in Pakistan and is a visiting faculty member at the University of Management and Technology, Lahore. Her primary research interests are African literature in general, specifically focused on Nigerian theatre and drama.
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