What Is Delimitation in Research? Examples of Scope & Delimitation

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When you’re planning the launch of a study or report, you’ll need to make some important decisions to limit the people you’re researching and the ways you’ll conduct your study. Every credible research study has restrictions and limits in what it covers, and these boundaries are articulated through a research assignment’s delimitations and scope.

Delimitation is the process of drawing boundaries for or fixing the limits of something. Researchers identify and articulate delimitations to explain what their studies will and won’t cover while also defining the methodologies and approaches they’ll use to carry out their studies.

Delimitations help inform the overall scope, which is how deeply a paper, dissertation or study delves into a research question. A scope is the extent of the area or subject matter that something deals with. Often, a well-defined scope addresses the following standard questions:

  • Why: What is the point of this research?
  • What: What topic is being investigated?
  • Where: Where is this research occurring and why?
  • When: What is the timeline of this research?
  • Who: What are the demographics of the study’s subjects?
  • How: What is the methodology of this research (for example, qualitative versus quantitative, which we’ll get into in a bit)?

The key is to explore and clearly define boundaries and barriers on the front end, which will formally become your research study’s delimitations and overall scope. We’ll walk you through how you can identify your study’s delimitations and provide an overview of the important role they play in shaping the overall scope of your research.

Differences Between Limitations and Delimitations

Limitations and delimitations in research both clearly define the boundaries of the research problem that you’re studying. The primary difference between limitations and delimitations comes down to whether the researcher sets the boundaries or those boundaries come from unforeseen factors outside of the researcher’s control.

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Delimitations involve a researcher establishing boundaries, whereas limitations are about identifying weaknesses in or barriers to carrying out the study as the researcher originally intended. Limitations disclose what a researcher cannot do (factors outside their control), and delimitations disclose what a researcher won’t do (factors that they chose not to focus on within the scope of the study).

For example, in a study about the impact of arts integration on proficiency levels within an elementary school classroom of 30 students, a limitation may be that the researcher only received parental consent for 25 students to participate. Additional examples of limitations are a lack of previous research on the subject to analyze and work from, a lack of access to the right tools and technology to collect data, and a lack of financial resources to sustain the research. Unlike researcher-defined delimitations, these limitations are initially unforeseen and outside of the researcher’s control.

An example of a delimitation, on the other hand, would be if the researcher opted to focus on third graders and exclude students without special needs from the study. A delimitation tells readers whom the study will cover. In this example, that’s third graders who utilize special education accommodations. The delimitations can also explain how a study is done, which might be through conducting student interviews and an analysis of test results before and after the integration of the arts into the special needs curriculum. Lastly, delimitations provide a picture of where a researcher conducts the study. In the case of this example, the delimitations could include the state, school district and specific school participating in the study.

Examples of Delimitations in Research

Research delimitations can shape and inform a study’s research objectives, methodology, variables and target populations. They can potentially prevent certain outcomes by focusing on sample sizes or population demographics, or they can help in achieving statistical significance. Setting these boundaries helps narrow a researcher’s focus area while increasing the relevance and specificity of the study.

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In the example above, the delimitation that narrows the study only to third graders who use special education services ends up removing some potential variables that could impact the outcome of the research. It makes the scope more specific and more relevant. It also opens the door to future research on whether the results are the same for all third graders. Clear delimitations serve research practitioners by defining clear boundaries for what readers and reviewers can expect to find out about in key areas of the study, including where, how and with whom the study is carried out.

Scope and Delimitation in Quantitative Research

Qualitative research involves collecting and analyzing data that aren’t easily reduced to numbers, such as the study of human behaviors or perceptions within specific social environments. Quantitative research, meanwhile, involves collecting numerical data. These data can be helpful in measuring patterns and averages and in testing theories.

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In the previous example of a study that reviews arts integration within a classroom, say the scope shifted from measuring changes in average student proficiency levels to measuring student perception of the overall learning experience. This would shift the study from quantitative to qualitative.

Defining the research approach, or the way in which the researcher conducts the study, is a delimitation. In a qualitative research study within an academic environment, a researcher may choose to administer a survey or conduct interviews for data collection around the students’ perceptions of the learning experience. If the study was intended to collect quantitative data as opposed to qualitative, the data-collection approach might instead involve measuring the numeric change in student test scores.

Quantitative research still uses delimitations to explain what the data will reveal and what they won’t. This gives others a reasonable expectation of what your data will explain, how you’ve analyzed it and how accurate your measurements were.

Guidelines in Writing About Scope and Delimitation

You should include a discussion of delimitations in the introduction to your research study, thesis or dissertation. Delimitations, limitations and overall scope are often made through statements like:

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  • This study covers…
  • This study does not cover…
  • This study is limited to…
  • This study focuses on…
  • The following has been excluded from this study…

Once you explicitly state what your delimitations are, you should also clearly list the other options available and the reasons why you did not pursue those alternative approaches. All reasoning should connect back to your research study, outlining the relevance of the study and explaining how and why you narrowed your focus. There’s nothing inherently moral about delimitations; they’re not good or bad, so your tone in writing them should reflect that. This is about being objective and about transparently and explicitly sharing what readers can expect from your research study.