the thesis discussion – making the move work

This post comes back again at the discussion “chapter”. It seems you can never say too much about this tricky bit of the thesis.

A caveat before I start. This post is written from a social science perspective and offers a fairly orthodox view of what a thesis has to do. I think it has applicability in other disciplines – but do read this from your particular perspective. I’m not attempting a one size fits all explanation here. If that’s OK with you, read on.

The key to the discussion, whether it is a chapter or not, is understanding its place in the logic of the thesis argument. It’s the nearly final step in a chain of moves. And the discussion leads up to the big claims for contribution and significance.

The most common way to stage an argument in the thesis goes something like this:

  1. Here is a puzzle/problem/question worth asking. If we know more about this puzzle/problem/question then something significant (policy, practice, more research) can happen.
  2. Here is what we already know about the puzzle/problem/question. I’ve used this existing knowledge (literatures) to help: my thinking and approach; my research design; make sense of my results; and establish where my scholarly contribution will be.
  3. Here is how I designed and did the research in order to come up with an “answer”.
  4. Here’s the one/two/three clusters of results.
  5. Missing step
  6. Now here’s my (summarised) “answer” to the puzzle/problem/question I posed at the start. On the back of this answer, here’s what I claim as my contribution(s) to the field. Yes I didn’t do everything, but I did do something important. Because we now know my answer, and we didn’t before I did the research, then here are some possible actions that might arise in policy/practice/research/scholarship.

The missing step in these argument moves is the discussion (a chapter or section of the last chapter). Number 5’s job is to get you from your clusters of analysed results to the “answer” to your original problem/puzzle/question, and your big claim of now knowing something more than when you started. (Even if that knowing is tentative and only part of what you might want or need to know.)

Before I go on, I need to say that an argument move is not always a discrete chapter. Very often, and depending on the discipline, the thesis structure won’t conform precisely to these argument moves. What to say doesn’t equate exactly to how it is organised and said. But these moves generally exist in a thesis, even if they are structured differently, and/or written in a different style than conventional social science or scientific prose.

Now that second caveat is out of the way, let’s go back to the missing step. You are paused at the point where you have your one/two/three clusters of analysed results. You’ve done 4, so what’s 5?

Well, move number 5 is where you say what the one/two/three results clusters add up to. When you look at all of these results together, when you take a step back, what do they make as a new combination? What is their aggregated, net message/meaning?

Being able to say what your results add up to doesn’t mean repeating each of the analysed results clusters. You’ve already done that. Don’t do it all over again. You have a+b+c, so what is the = ?? ( It’s probably an x) In a thesis, the discussion sum is always greater than the results parts. Bringing the analysed results together means that you can/must say more than you already have. You need to move your argument on. You need to show that a+b+c=x.

How do you start thinking about this? Bringing the analysed results together and moving the argument forwards also means going back to your problem/puzzle/question. So ask yourself, if the analysed results together make some kind of answer or response to my initial problem/puzzle/question, what is it? What is x?

Depending on your discipline and research design your final discussion, your x, might take a lot of additional work e.g.:

  • an explanation of why the results are as they are: you might use a theoretical or conceptual framing
  • a cross-case analysis, or key points arising from a set of design experiments, action research cycles etc
  • development of a heuristic, or a new or modified conceptual frame, or a set of underpinning principles etc

This additional work might actually be a large and separate chunk of writing, it might be a very substantive bit of work.

And then, what next? Well, if you want to claim that a+b+c=x is a contribution, you need to get back into conversation with the relevant literatures. What does a+b+c=x say about/to the existing body of research? ( That’s the literatures you discussed earlier.) Then, what do you have to say that is different and interesting? What is your new news? ( Hint – it may well not be entirely the same as your x, as x may have some components that are already in the literatures.)

If you do this – establish a+b+c=x and put it in conversation with the existing literatures- you’ve filled in the missing piece in the overall thesis argument. You’ll have made the discussion move.

So the thesis moves become these:  

  1. Here is a puzzle/problem/question worth asking. If we know more about this puzzle/problem/question then something significant (policy, practice, more research, scholarship) can happen.
  2. Here is what we already know about the puzzle/problem/question. I’ve used this to help: structure my thinking; my research design, make sense of my results and establish where my scholarly contribution will be.
  3. Here is how I designed and did the research to come up with some kind of answer.
  4. Here’s the one/two/three clusters of results.
  5. Here’s x, what these results add up to, and here’s my new news for the field.
  6. The x is my “answer” to the puzzle/problem/question. The new news is what I claim as the contribution(s) to the field. Yes I didn’t do everything. But I did do something important. Because we now know this new news, and we didn’t before I did the research, then there are some possible actions to be taken (policy/practice/research/scholarship).

Photo by Etienne Boulanger on Unsplash

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in argument, discussion, thesis and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to the thesis discussion – making the move work

  1. Allen says:

    Excellent summary — I made a PDF of it for future reference!

    Like

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