It is often helpful to think about data analysis as needing at least two – and often three – stages.
Stage One: Descriptive.
What is there here?
A summary of the data is generated – for example through thematisation of interview transcripts or through graphical representations of statistically tested and cross tabulated survey questions.
Stage Two: Analytic.
What might this mean?
Here the findings are interrogated, critically appraised, and extended by bringing them into conversation with relevant literatures. In quantitative research this is the stage at which multiple regression analysis is conducted . In qualitative studies the writer constructs a meta narrative about the whole project.
Stages One and Two can be written separately, as in the default Findings and Discussion. They can however be brought together around key organising ideas.
My own view is that writing One and Two together makes for a better write because it is just more interesting to do, and there is no need to worry about repeating what is said. It also always makes for a MUCH livelier and less plodding read because the text is structured around the stages of the argument, not the stages of analysis.
Stage Three : Theorised.
This stage asks not what is happening but why… These are my findings, why is this so? What does this mean for…?
The writer seeks greater explanation and connection with broader understandings of the world. This is generally where some kind of social theory is mobilised. Texts which use Stage Three typically invoke some kind of psychological, sociological, philosophical, historical etc literatures, and often a key writer or tradition.
Stages One, Two and Three can be brought together or organised separately, generally as One/Two and Three, with Three operating as a re-reading through the chosen theoretical lens. Bringing the three stages together requires a prior explication of the theoretical approach to be used. Both structures can ‘work’ for writing and reading.
While it is not necessary to use Stage Three in order to publish an article or ‘pass’ a thesis, it is always necessary to move beyond Stage One. Staying descriptive does not achieve the goal of adding to knowledge: this can only be accomplished through critically bringing the knowledges to which this particular study refers into the text.