making authoritative claims

Compared to – let’s say journalists for argument’s sake – we academics are generally a lot less prepared to say anything for absolute certain. Why do we do this? Do we simply love complexity and being vague? Well of course not. We want to show that we know what we have to say is the best we can do at that moment in time, and that things are rarely straightforward and utterly conclusive. Our apparent indecision is simply a recognition that what we claim to know after we’ve done a piece of research is always our best interpretation at the time. It’s always available to challenge and reinterpretation. We know only too well that our research is always limited by time, place, focus, scope, method, sample, analytic process and so on… in fact there are usually lots of caveats to put around most research results.

The need to be cautious presents doctoral researchers with a dilemma. The requirement to ‘hedge your bets’ – not to over-claim on the basis of the research that’s been done – creates one of the underlying difficulties doctoral researchers face in writing the thesis. The thesis is meant to be an authoritative argument. The doctoral researcher must make the case that their work represents a contribution to knowledge. They must show the expertise and depth of knowledge they have after spending all that time on the one single problem. But because doctoral researchers know the limitations of their work, and are often also encouraged to address them in the thesis text, the way that they write about their work can sound unduly tentative.

One of the ways in which we academics signal our level of authority and caution is through the use of what are called hedges. The linguistic term hedge comes from the idea of hedging your bets – that’s when bookmakers deal with the risks of not being able to pay out on one large bet by placing a set of smaller bets with others. A linguistic hedge is a way of taking precautions, of dealing with the risk of being wrong.

In academic texts, hedges guard against criticism. They show that the writer is not claiming to have the final word and that there is still room for discussion and new work. Hedges are a way to demonstrate rigour and precision – the researcher shows that they know the kind of claim that follows from the actual research that has been done. Using hedges also creates trust between the reader and the text; readers know that the writer/researcher has carefully considered their work, and is not simply advocating, preaching or ranting.

I don’t want to spend a lot of time here going through the various kinds of hedges that here are. But think about
• verbs such as: seem, tend, appear to be, indicate, propose, prove, show, will, must, would, could, might, believe, assume, suggest, demonstrate
• adverbs such as: often, sometimes, always, clearly, definitely, probably, possibly, conceivably
• adjectives such as: certain, definite, probably, possible
• clause such as: it might be the case that.. it is possible that.. it is crucial to .. it is useful to…

(I’m anticipating a linguistic gasp of horror about now at the way I’ve collapsed various things together, so see here, here and here for much more proper information.)

What I want to suggest here (note the hedging introductory verb suggest) is that doctoral researchers in particular often underclaim (note often, not always). They use more tentative hedges than they actually need to. This creates a text which is a long way from conveying the actual expertise they do have. Tentative text doesn’t produce a convincing argument for contribution – and it doesn’t produce the right impression with the examiner-reader. So it’s very helpful to try to get the hedging balance right. Not too certain, not too cautious.

Let me illustrate this. Here’s a bit of text from an actual journal article. I’ve edited out some bits, but you’ll get the general idea. I’ve bolded some key points in the text.

In this paper we have shown how the policy discourse in Scotland has been framed through our analysis of key categories and labels for young people. … . As such, it would appear that the government’s strategy for young people falls short in two domains. The policy appears strong on ‘enabling’ but is weak on the relationship between economy and society, ignoring the structural factors that marginalise young people from the employment market in the first place. (p. 398 Mackie and Tett, 2013)

You can see that there is an opening strong statement ‘we have shown’, and some confident assertions with no hedges -‘is weak’ ‘appears strong’ and ‘ignoring’ – with a little hedge modification, the use of ‘would appear’.

Next, I’ve changed the same text to be more tentative. I’ve bolded the key changes I’ve made.

In this paper we have offered a beginning analysis of the policy discourse in Scotland by focusing on key categories and labels for young people. … . We believe our analysis might suggest that the government’s strategy for young people could fall somewhat short in two domains. The policy can be seen as strong on ‘enabling’ but we propose that it could potentially be regarded as weak on the relationship between economy and society; it could perhaps be argued that it ignores the structural factors that marginalise young people from the employment market in the first place.

So would you take much notice of this bit of research? No. Too much believe, propose, could be seen as… maybe, if only, you wish…

And here it’s been changed to be more definitive.

In this paper we have unequivocally demonstrated that the policy discourse in Scotland has been framed through the development of key categories and labels for young people. … . It is absolutely obvious that the government’s strategy for young people falls drastically short in two domains. The policy is clearly strong on ‘enabling’ but is risibly weak on the relationship between economy and society, blithely ignoring the structural factors that marginalise young people from the employment market in the first place.

And how would you feel about this? It reads more like a newspaper column than research; there’s too much opinion, too much personal-position in there to be trusted.

It’s worth experimenting with text in this way. Much too bold, much too cringing. Working on the extremes does help the inexperienced researcher to find the middle ground which reads authoritatively, and which also accurately reflects the research that has been undertaken. Doctoral researchers in particular benefit from working on their claims by underplaying them first of all, and then overstating what they’ve done.

And hedge play can also be a bit of much needed serious light-hearted relief from serious hard writing!

Mackie, A and Tett, L (2013) ‘Participatory parity’, young people and policy in Scotland. Journal of Education Policy 28(3) 386-403.

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in academic writing, authority in writing, claim, contribution, hedges and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to making authoritative claims

  1. rglw says:

    Great piece–I find in my student writing, strong claims are easily knocked down. So I encourage them to ease off or hedge a little more. In my own writing, however, I find I need to state my claims with strength. It is a tricky balance, and I appreciate your take on it!


  2. Great practical advice – dare I say, quite similar to how I see advice should be given in a legal/corporate advisory setting!
    There is (yes, I’ve used an authoritative term) a fine line between over- and under-stating things, and toeing that line should (?!) be an essential skill not just for the researcher, but most walks of life that involve knowledge dissemination.


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  4. badblood says:

    At the risk of overgeneralising I’d like to point out another difference between your tentative and strong rewritings of the Mackie and Tett quote — the first is couched primarily in terms of risks, i.e. probabilities of something being true, whereas the second suggests emotional responses to the critical observations, e.g. ‘risibly weak’ suggests the weakness made me feel like laughing; falls ‘drastically’ short implies a sense of disaster, etc. That difference could reflect a handover from the romantic intellectual – the man or woman of letters to whom properly cultured feeling is an essential intellectual capacity – to the technical rationality of the modern academic era.


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