Assumption Junction, What’s Your Function? Making Sense of Assumptions, Limitations, and Delimitations -->

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Assumption Junction, What’s Your Function? Making Sense of Assumptions, Limitations, and Delimitations


Jen discusses sections of the dissertation.
By Jen Johnson, Dissertation Editor

A common area of confusion for students at the proposal stage (or even at the final Form and Style review) is understanding what, exactly, should appear in the Assumptions, Limitations, and Delimitations sections of chapter 1 (or section 1, for EdD and DBA students). As an editor, I’ve seen a wide range of student responses to the challenges of these sections: some that have been spot-on, some that have been perplexing, and many more that have fallen somewhere in between. So how do we begin to make sense of assumptions, limitations, and delimitations?

First, let’s start with some rubric definitions. The DBA rubric defines assumptions as “facts assumed to be true but not actually verified.” Similarly, the PhD qualitative and quantitative checklists describe assumptions as “aspects of the study that are believed but cannot be demonstrated to be true,” with the added injunction to “include only those assumptions that are critical to the meaningfulness of the study.” In the DBA rubric, a limitation is a “potential weakness of the study,” and delimitations are the “bounds of the study.” And the PhD checklists define limitations as those items “related to design and/or methodological weaknesses” and delimitations as “boundaries of the study.”

So, okay, these definitions are fairly straightforward, as definitions go. But if you’re like me, understanding the gist of a definition is not exactly the same as being able to apply that definition to your own work. What, for instance, does an actual limitation look like? As an editor, I’ve found it helpful to think of these concepts in more concrete terms, with concrete models. In the interest of following the sound writerly advice of “showing, not telling,” then, I offer the following examples from one well-written dissertation that I recently reviewed at the final Form and Style:

  • Assumption: “Through participation in this study, leaders were empowered to identify, understand, and describe leadership influence practices. Therefore, another assumption was that the participants would be forthcoming and honest in discussing their perceptions and experiences with regard to leadership influencing phenomena.”

In this example, we see a common assumption made in qualitative studies—that participants will be honest in their responses—and in this case, the author makes it clear how this assumption is in fact “critical to the meaningfulness of the study.” The author simply must believe that the participants are being truthful because he or she has no way to verify their honesty. In this study, such an assumption is necessary.

  • Limitation: “Because the foster and adoptive care system is specific to national, state, and local contextual considerations in which each organization operates, generalizability of the findings to organizations within alternate operating areas, structures, and relationships was not possible.”

Here, the important thing to remember is that limitations should represent those aspects of a study that the researcher has no control over. And as this example demonstrates, limitations are often related to the generalizability of findings.

  • Delimitation: “The study framework captured the voices of leadership, not the perceptions of the stakeholders the leaders are seeking to mobilize.”

The stakeholders’ perceptions, in other words, are outside the scope of this particular study because the researcher chose not to focus on them. Delimitations should represent those aspects of a study that the researcher does have control over, and that he or she chooses to exclude because they are not interesting, directly relevant, or feasible.

And there you have it. Of course, these three subsections of chapter 1 (or section 1) will look different from one study to the next, but by mastering the basic concepts presented here, students will be well on their way to crafting clear and logical Assumptions, Limitations, and Delimitations sections in their own work.  


  1. This is really great information! I am having great difficulty located definitions for these terms and determining how I will tackle these sections. Your post was incredibly helpful! Thank you!

    1. We are so glad to hear that you found this post helpful, Belinda! Please feel free to follow up with any additional questions. :)