Writing

Writing Your Dissertation

Proposing a Topic

Your choice of topic for research is likely to be influenced by such factors as:

relevance: its perceived relevance to the academic department(s) in which you are studying;

interest: your existing knowledge of that topic and the strength of your desire to learn more about it;

competence: your likely ability to employ the proposed methods of data gathering and data analysis;

scale: the feasibility of completing the study within the time and resources available.

In particular, try to choose a topic in which you are genuinely interested.

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Rationale and theoretical framework

You must include a rationale: an explanation of why you are studying the topic and of why it is important. In justifying your study it can be useful to imagine a cynical critic who cannot imagine why anyone would waste their time on such a study! If you can address their concerns you will be doing well. You could ask one of your friends to play ‘Devil’s Advocate’ for you to check how persuasive you are being.

A theoretical framework often features as an early section in a dissertation. In a theoretical framework you would include an outline of existing theories which are closely related to your research topic. You should make clear how your research relates to existing theories. Who are regarded as the key theorists in the field on the central issues involved? You should find some names coming up repeatedly. Justify your choices. If you can’t identify key theorists this suggests that your topic lacks theoretical interest. What are the key debates and what arguments and evidence have the key theorists put forward? What questions remain unresolved? How are ‘research questions’ in the field framed? How does your own research relate to such framings? You should make your own theoretical assumptions and allegiances as explicit as possible. Later, your discussion of methodology should be linked to this theoretical framework.

Your research should be guided by a central research question (or a series of closely-connected questions). This needs to be made explicit early on (although you may refine your question(s) as your understanding deepens. Your research questions will help you to stay on target and to avoid being distracted by interesting (but irrelevant) digressions.

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Reviewing the literature

Academic dissertations typically include some kind of ‘literature review’. It is probably more useful for students to think of this, as examiners usually do, as a ‘critical review of the literature’, for reasons which will be made clear shortly. The literature review is normally an early section in the dissertation.

The broader survey

Students are normally expected to begin working on a general survey of the related research literature at the earliest possible stage of their research. This in itself is not what is normally meant in formal references to the ‘review of the literature’, but is rather a preparatory stage. This survey stage ranges far wider in scope and quantity than the final review, typically including more general works. Your survey (which exists in writing only in your notes) should help you in several ways, such as:

to decide on the issues you will address;

to become aware of appropriate research methodologies;

to see how research on your specific topic fits into a broader framework;

to help you not to ‘reinvent the wheel’;

to help you to avoid any well-known theoretical and methodological pitfalls;

to prepare you for approaching the critical review.

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The ‘critical’ review

Clearly, if you are new to research in the field you are not in a position to ‘criticise’ the work of experienced researchers on the basis of your own knowledge of the topic or of research methodology. Where you are reporting on well-known research studies closely related to your topic, however, some critical comments may well be available from other established researchers (often in textbooks on the topic). These criticisms of methodology, conclusions and so on can and should be reported in your review (together with any published reactions to these criticisms!).

However, the use of the term critical is not usually meant to suggest that you should focus on criticising the work of established researchers. It is primarily meant to indicate that:

the review should not be merely a descriptive list of a number of research projects related to the topic;

you are capable of thinking critically and with insight about the issues raised by previous research.

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What is a literature review for?

The review can serve many functions, some of which are as follows:

to indicate what researchers in the field already know about the topic;

to indicate what those in the field do not yet know about the topic – the ‘gaps’;

to indicate major questions in the topic area;

to provide background information for the non-specialist reader seeking to gain an overview of the field;

to ensure that new research (including yours) avoids the errors of some earlier research;

to demonstrate your grasp of the topic.

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What should I include in a literature review?

In the formal review of the literature you should refer only to research projects which are closely related to your own topic. The formal review is not a record of ‘what I have read’. If your problem is how to choose what to leave out, one way might be to focus on the most recent papers. You should normally aim to include key studies which are widely cited by others in the field, however old they may be. Where there are several similar studies with similar findings, you should review a representative study which was well designed.

Some s encourage their students to refer to a range of relevant projects representing various research methodologies; others may prefer you to concentrate on those employing the methodology which you intend to use (e.g. experiments or field studies). Where you have been advised to review studies representing different methodologies, do not over-represent any single methodology unless it represents that which you intend to use.

If you find that very little seems to exist which is closely related to your topic you should discuss this with your tutor. In such a case the most obvious options would be either to widen the net to include less closely-related studies or to reduce the length of the review. However, you should make quite sure that your search for relevant papers and books has been adequate.

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Methodology

A section on methodology is a key element in a dissertation. Methodology refers to the choice and use of particular strategies and tools for information gathering and analysis. Some methodologies embrace both information gathering and analysis, such as content analysis, ethnography and semiotic analysis. Others apply either to gathering or analysing data (though the distinction is often not clear cut):

data-gathering methodologies include interviews, questionnaires and observation;
data analysis methodologies include content analysis, discourse analysis, semiotic analysis and statistical analysis.
There are many varieties of each methodology and the specific methodological tools you are adopting must be made explicit. Interviews, for instance, are often categorized as ‘structured’, ‘semi-structured’ or ‘open-ended’. You should mention which other related studies (cited in your literature review) have employed the same methodology.

The section on methodology should include a rationale for the choice of methodology for information gathering and for the analysis of this information. In the rationale you should consider what alternative methodological tools might have been employed (particularly those which related studies have employed), together with their advantages and limitations for the present purpose. For instance… Why did you choose to undertake interviews? Why open-ended interviews? Why did you opt for audio-recording (for instance)? Refer to a relevant study which approached interviews in a similar way. Cite a reputable study which selected participants on a similar basis. On what basis did you choose your participants (that they were friends of yours with time on their hands is not an adequate justification!). If there are any obvious segments of the population which are not represented within your sample why is this? Where class, age, gender and/or ethnicity is likely to be involved in the phenomenon you are studying then make sure that your sample is demographically appropriate. What limitations of your sample should your readers be alerted to?

Your choice of methodologies should be related to the theoretical framework outlined earlier.

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Findings and Discussion

The ways in which you report your ‘findings’ depend heavily on the methodologies employed so it is difficult to provide general guidelines here. However, it is important to ensure that you go beyond basic description of your data (e.g. simply reporting which television programmes were watched by which groups of people). There must be a substantial element of formal analysis.

Refer back to your research question(s). You should relate your own findings to those in any related published studies outlined in your literature review. Where your findings differ you should offer a suggested explanation. What new research questions are raised by your study?

Make clear what the limitations of your own study are. What are the limitations of your ‘sample’? To what extent are your findings specific to a particular socio-cultural context? In what ways is your interpretation of your findings related to your own theoretical assumptions (outlined earlier)? What insights into the phenomenon does your study seem to offer? What could others learn from your study?

Discuss any broader implications in relation to your theoretical framework. This is important because many people discuss ‘implications’ as if these were simply logical consequences and leave implicit the model within which the findings might have such implications. Your theoretical model must be explicit.

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Readability

It is important to make your text easily ‘navigable’ for the reader, providing ‘signposts’ to help them to find their way about. If you have been writing primarily to clarify your own thoughts (as many people do) then as you get closer to presenting your writing to others you must switch your focus to the convenience of the reader. It can help to ask a friend to comment on a late draft because it is not always easy for the writer to spot the problems which readers may have. If you know who the reader(s) will be, then try to consider the ways in which they are likely to react to the text. Can you anticipate any objections which they might have? If so, then you need to revise your text to address these.

Your dissertation should ‘tell a story’ in the sense that you should ‘set the scene’ (and grab the reader’s attention) at the start, then try to lead the reader as smoothly as possible from point to point, working up to some genuine conclusions at the end. Not many of us can write like this at the first attempt, but a dissertation can be gradually edited into this form. Check in particular that there are no sudden jumps from one point to another.

Include a contents page (some universities have specific guidelines for the way in which this should be done). Use subsections within each chapter (these can usually be included in the contents page). After the contents page include a list of figures and a list of tables. It is customary to include an ‘Acknowledgements’ page: be sure to record your thanks to all of those who have helped you. Most universities, faculties or departments have a preferred order in which introductory sections should appear: check the conventions. Sometimes the numbering of the introductory pages is in Roman numerals.

Check whether you are required to use a ‘report style’ format (with numbered sections, sub-sections and paragraphs) or more continuous prose. Occasional lists of short items can help to break up the text: use plain ‘bullets’ for such lists unless there is a good reason to number them. Don’t forget to number your pages! It may also help to have ‘running heads’ which indicate which chapter each page belongs to.

If you include a long quotation (of four lines or more) you should indent it from the left-hand margin (in which case you should drop the inverted commas). You should avoid using too many quotations, however: it may give the impression that you have no ideas of your own and that you accept too uncritically what others have said on the topic. If you are discussing, for instance, how people feel about something, direct quotations may be appropriate in social science. But someone else’s bald assertion is certainly not to be taken as adequate evidence of the truth of what they are saying: just because the statement appears in print doesn’t of itself make it any more reliable than remarks in the pub! You should consider the adequacy of your source as evidence. Normally, you should use a direct quotation only when the writer has put the point particularly well, and generally a paraphrase is preferable. However, note that the source of any original ideas expressed in this way must still be given. The cardinal sin in academia is plagiarism, which we may define as the presentation as one’s own of ideas or phraseology knowingly derived from other writers. For students, there are very serious penalties for this: it may be treated as an act of fraud. One may, of course, make use of the ideas of others, since as one wit has observed, ‘when you take stuff from one writer, it’s plagiarism; but when you take it from many writers, it’s research’! However, academic writing does require such ‘borrowed’ ideas to be formally acknowledged.

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