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Dissertation Techniques

Once you have your outline sorted and you've got a pile of research notes together, it's time to knuckle down and start writing. You need not necessarily start at the beginning – in fact, introductions are often easier to write at the end when you know how your argument has developed.

Get going on the bits you know you'll find easy, then use your outline to put them together in the right order. You'll find areas that need further research, so be prepared to revisit the library as you're going along.

Your style of writing is crucial to communicating your ideas effectively. A well-planned and researched dissertation can be let down by poorly expressed ideas or unclear phrasing. Allowing plenty of time for writing will avoid this.

Be prepared to work through two or three drafts, refining your work each time, before you are happy with the end result.

Finding your style

During your research you will have read a number of scholarly articles. Select a recommended academic text that you find easy and enjoyable to read. Study the structures and work out how arguments are presented. Collect good examples of vocabulary and punctuation.

Consider how techniques used by the author convince the reader of their argument and see if you can apply them in your own writing.

In an essay of this length, sub-headings are a useful way of breaking up the text and signalling to the reader what stage you have reached. Tweak these sub-headings as you move through each draft to ensure they still provide a useful overview of the section.

Avoid repetition. Look out for any words or phrases that have already been stated or implied elsewhere in the sentence – and cut them out.

For example, if you've written "Many countries were reluctant to declare war while others on the other hand did not hesitate", you may like to change it to "Many countries were reluctant to declare war; others did not hesitate". Reading your work aloud will help you spot clumsy sentence structure.

Structuring sentences

As you write your essay, it is worth distinguishing the key points in your discussion from less important supporting ideas. Aim to give full weight to your key points by giving them each a sentence of their own. Elaborations and detail can be added in subsequent sentences.

It is a common mistake to think that the longer the sentence, the cleverer it sounds. It is important to remember that every word conveys a unit of meaning on its own, however small, so the more words there are in a sentence, the harder it will be for the reader to grasp the meaning within it.

Instead of adding on clauses, introduce the next point in a new sentence. Connective words and phrases – however, consequently, but, so – can be placed at the start of the new sentence if necessary, to indicate its relationship to the previous one and make your work flow.

Acknowledging ideas

Although your dissertation should contain your own original thought, you will also want to refer to the ideas of other writers on the topic.

Your dissertation should critically evaluate those ideas and identify what problems remain in your area of research and what has not yet been explored.

You can also use the work of others as evidence to back up your own argument – when doing this, ensure you add a footnote to signpost clearly to the reader the original source of the point you are making.

Perfect your bibliography

Make sure you have a sufficient number of references to books, articles and sources you have used – check with your tutor what is expected.

Some should be primary sources, which means non-academic material such as newspapers, interviews, cave paintings, train timetables, statistics. You will also quote secondary sources, which are usually academic articles that analyse primary sources.

There are lots of different referencing style guides such as those put out by the AHRC, MHRA and Harvard. Your academic department will tell you which one they use, and you will need to follow instructions to the letter. Consistency is critical, and you'll have to pay close attention to details such as punctuation.

• Coming up in the final part of this series: How to edit your dissertation.

Thanks to Goldsmiths University for supplying this content, which has been designed to be dyslexia-friendly.

A key part of your dissertation or thesis is the methodology. This is not quite the same as ‘methods’.

The methodology describes the broad philosophical underpinning to your chosen research methods, including whether you are using qualitative or quantitative methods, or a mixture of both, and why.

You should be clear about the academic basis for all the choices of research methods that you have made. 'I was interested' or 'I thought...' is not enough; there must be good academic reasons for your choice.

What to Include in your Methodology

If you are submitting your dissertation in sections, with the methodology submitted before you actually undertake the research, you should use this section to set out exactly what you plan to do.

The methodology should be linked back to the literature to explain why you are using certain methods, and the academic basis of your choice.

If you are submitting as a single thesis, then the Methodology should explain what you did, with any refinements that you made as your work progressed. Again, it should have a clear academic justification of all the choices that you made and be linked back to the literature.


Common Research Methods for the Social Sciences

There are numerous research methods that can be used when researching scientific subjects, you should discuss which are the most appropriate for your research with your supervisor.

The following research methods are commonly used in social science, involving human subjects:

Interviews

One of the most flexible and widely used methods for gaining qualitative information about people’s experiences, views and feelings is the interview. 

An interview can be thought of as a guided conversation between a researcher (you) and somebody from whom you wish to learn something (often referred to as the ‘informant’). 

The level of structure in an interview can vary, but most commonly interviewers follow a semi-structured format.  This means that the interviewer will develop a guide to the topics that he or she wishes to cover in the conversation, and may even write out a number of questions to ask. 

However, the interviewer is free to follow different paths of conversation that emerge over the course of the interview, or to prompt the informant to clarify and expand on certain points. Therefore, interviews are particularly good tools for gaining detailed information where the research question is open-ended in terms of the range of possible answers.

Interviews are not particularly well suited for gaining information from large numbers of people. Interviews are time-consuming, and so careful attention needs to be given to selecting informants who will have the knowledge or experiences necessary to answer the research question.  

See our page: Interviews for Research for more information.

Observations

If a researcher wants to know what people do under certain circumstances, the most straightforward way to get this information is sometimes simply to watch them under those circumstances.

Observations can form a part of either quantitative or qualitative research.  For instance, if a researcher wants to determine whether the introduction of a traffic sign makes any difference to the number of cars slowing down at a dangerous curve, she or he could sit near the curve and count the number of cars that do and do not slow down.  Because the data will be numbers of cars, this is an example of quantitative observation.

A researcher wanting to know how people react to a billboard advertisement might spend time watching and describing the reactions of the people.  In this case, the data would be descriptive, and would therefore be qualitative.

There are a number of potential ethical concerns that can arise with an observation study. Do the people being studied know that they are under observation?  Can they give their consent?  If some people are unhappy with being observed, is it possible to ‘remove’ them from the study while still carrying out observations of the others around them?

See our page: Observational Research and Secondary Data for more information.

Questionnaires

If your intended research question requires you to collect standardised (and therefore comparable) information from a number of people, then questionnaires may be the best method to use.

Questionnaires can be used to collect both quantitative and qualitative data, although you will not be able to get the level of detail in qualitative responses to a questionnaire that you could in an interview.

Questionnaires require a great deal of care in their design and delivery, but a well-developed questionnaire can be distributed to a much larger number of people than it would be possible to interview. 

Questionnaires are particularly well suited for research seeking to measure some parameters for a group of people (e.g., average age, percentage agreeing with a proposition, level of awareness of an issue), or to make comparisons between groups of people (e.g., to determine whether members of different generations held the same or different views on immigration).

See our page: Surveys and Survey Design for more information.

Documentary Analysis

Documentary analysis involves obtaining data from existing documents without having to question people through interview, questionnaires or observe their behaviour. Documentary analysis is the main way that historians obtain data about their research subjects, but it can also be a valuable tool for contemporary social scientists.

Documents are tangible materials in which facts or ideas have been recorded.  Typically, we think of items written or produced on paper, such as newspaper articles, Government policy records, leaflets and minutes of meetings.  Items in other media can also be the subject of documentary analysis, including films, songs, websites and photographs.

Documents can reveal a great deal about the people or organisation that produced them and the social context in which they emerged. 

Some documents are part of the public domain and are freely accessible, whereas other documents may be classified, confidential or otherwise unavailable to public access.  If such documents are used as data for research, the researcher must come to an agreement with the holder of the documents about how the contents can and cannot be used and how confidentiality will be preserved.

See our page: Observational Research and Secondary Data for more information.

How to Choose your Methodology and Precise Research Methods

Your methodology should be linked back to your research questions and previous research.

Visit your university or college library and ask the librarians for help; they should be able to help you to identify the standard research method textbooks in your field. See also our section on Research Methods for some further ideas.

Such books will help you to identify your broad research philosophy, and then choose methods which relate to that. This section of your dissertation or thesis should set your research in the context of its theoretical underpinnings.

The methodology should also explain the weaknesses of your chosen approach and how you plan to avoid the worst pitfalls, perhaps by triangulating your data with other methods, or why you do not think the weakness is relevant.

For every philosophical underpinning, you will almost certainly be able to find researchers who support it and those who don’t.

Use the arguments for and against expressed in the literature to explain why you have chosen to use this methodology or why the weaknesses don’t matter here.


Structuring your Methodology

It is usually helpful to start your section on methodology by setting out the conceptual framework in which you plan to operate with reference to the key texts on that approach.

You should be clear throughout about the strengths and weaknesses of your chosen approach and how you plan to address them. You should also note any issues of which to be aware, for example in sample selection or to make your findings more relevant.

You should then move on to discuss your research questions, and how you plan to address each of them.

This is the point at which to set out your chosen research methods, including their theoretical basis, and the literature supporting them. You should make clear whether you think the method is ‘tried and tested’ or much more experimental, and what kind of reliance you could place on the results. You will also need to discuss this again in the discussion section.

Your research may even aim to test the research methods, to see if they work in certain circumstances.

You should conclude by summarising your research methods, the underpinning approach, and what you see as the key challenges that you will face in your research. Again, these are the areas that you will want to revisit in your discussion.


Conclusion

Your methodology, and the precise methods that you choose to use in your research, are crucial to its success.

It is worth spending plenty of time on this section to ensure that you get it right. As always, draw on the resources available to you, for example by discussing your plans in detail with your supervisor who may be able to suggest whether your approach has significant flaws which you could address in some way.

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