Thinking about thesis structure in social sciences

I was working with two doctoral students last night, both of whom are at the point of redrafting their thesis outline / table of contents. This post is a digest of what I thought some of the more useful points to emerge were. NB. The function over form expression is one I borrowed from co-supervisor David Boud. I make no claims as to whether he would agree with what I’ve written here!

Some assumptions to be clear about

1. The thesis is a peculiar genre of academic writing – peculiar in both senses of the word. It’s specific because you never write the same kind of thing again. It’s strange because it is fraught with the tension between the researcher-in-becoming and the researcher-who-already-is: doctoral students at once have to be students learning to do research, and proving they’re already capable.

2. The thesis is an account of a successful piece of research. One of the primary purposes of a thesis is to convince examiners that the author has earned a doctoral degree. In general my advice is to avoid the temptation to tell the whole story, and instead to focus on establishing what your contribution to knowledge is, why it is robust, and why anyone should care.

3. An extension of (2) – I would also suggest avoiding describing the many blind alleys you went down as part of your research. As an examiner I don’t really care that you spent several months reading theory X before realising that theory Y works better for your study. Maybe mention it in a short paragraph. But get on with it! Tell me about theory Y, why it’s relevant, and how you’ve used it. Similarly, chances are your research questions have changed since you started your doctorate. I don’t particularly want to read the history of all the changes in wording and focus. What I want is an account of the questions you have ended up addressing and why they matter.

4. There is thus a degree of selectivity and re-storying in the final thesis account. This is not disingenuous or academic dishonesty. You never lie. You just focus on what is relevant to the account of original knowledge making and its significance that you are giving. Endless detail about the tortuous journey you took bores and frustrates the examiner and may come across as indulgent.

5. Remind yourself constantly what you get a doctorate for. Showing you’ve read lots does not earn the title ‘Dr’. Examiners / thesis readers are more interested in what you have to say that’s new.


The principle of function before form

What follows is not meant to be prescriptive in structural terms, but is to make the point that form should follow function in your thesis. This function is essentially establishing you have made a doctoral-worthy original, and significant contribution to knowledge.

PhD function

The diagram illustrates functions in a relatively conventional social science approach.

The vertical axis represents your original contribution to knowledge and its justification as something we should care about. If your thesis stays around the 20% mark, even 80%, you’ve done lots of hard work, but don’t deserve a doctorate. 100% means an original contribution to knowledge that is justified and worth caring about. Simples. The horizontal axis denotes different functions you have to take care of.

Note: the graph represents functions not chapters and it may well be that these functions do not line up neatly with chapters.


Expanding on the functions and illustration

Let’s look at the figure. Remember, it’s an illustration of a general point, not a prescription for structure.

Context / background

Yes, readers need to know what the context for your study is, including relevant information about the background. You’re not really presenting any new knowledge here, so this doesn’t go far to earning you a doctorate. But it can begin the journey by making your questions / topic obviously important, timely, and significant. Descriptive information should be on a need-to-know basis.

Research neighbours, critique, and gap

In order to satisfy readers that the knowledge you are presenting is new or original, you have to establish a hole in the shape of your research. You’ve also got to show that you can be critical of existing research. I use the near-neighbours metaphor to indicate the importance of having a texture – who got closest to doing what you have done? What is further way, but relevant in some way? Again this isn’t directly presenting new knowledge, but your voice / ownership is growing as you use this writing to develop an argument for your research as original and significant.

I strongly recommend Boote & Beile’s paper on lit reviews (Boote D N & Beile P (2005) Scholars before researchers: on the centrality of the dissertation literature review in research preparation. Educational Researcher 34(6), 3-15).

Theory and concepts

Often we draw on particular theories or concepts in our research. This can be one way our approach is different to that of others (ie. part of originality). Rehashing existing theory does nothing to advance knowledge in itself. Yes it shows your theoretical fluency but so what? It has to be made relevant to your argument and advance the thesis (remember thesis means argument as well as a document) in some way.

Aims and questions

Somewhere in your thesis you will normally wish to tell readers what it is you set out to do, what questions you sought to address. Don’t forget there are infinite questions, not all of equal significance, so the ‘so what?’ question is important. Being clear about this is key to establishing the ground upon which you are adding new knowledge. It also sets up your own success criteria. If you state an aim, make sure you realise it! If you pose questions, make sure you answer them! And focus on what you have achieved, don’t whine on about the questions you originally thought were interesting but haven’t answered.

Design, methods, evidence, analysis (& ethics)

The important function here is to describe and justify your approach to research. Original, significant and flawed doesn’t cut it. So this function is all about persuading readers that your approach was appropriate, for example, resulting in the generation of high-quality evidence that provide a sound foundation for making original claims about the world. Sections on ethics rarely advance knowledge in themselves, but they are an important box to tick in showing your development as a researcher. Necessary, yes, but don’t get bogged down in it.

Discussion 1 and 2

Now you finally start telling the readers something really new! This could be findings then discussion. What it’s called doesn’t matter. What is important is that you realise this is where the work of establishing original knowledge begins in earnest. I’ve put two functions here to suggest that you will often want to have a developmental sequence in which a second (perhaps third, fourth) section / chapter moves beyond the first. This may be going into more detail, using a different theoretical lens, becoming more interpretative etc. Important here, particularly for those of you working with raw data from interviews etc, is not to get quote-itis. Quotes are often things other people have said or written. Your readers are interested in what you have to say. So while raw data is useful, don’t tip the balance away from your commentary on /interpretation of it. (While field notes might be your own voice, the sample applies in terms of needing commentary/interpretation).

So what? Who cares? What next?

Note I didn’t call this ‘conclusions’. The function here, thinking about how you nudge yourself up the y-axis, is furthering your contribution to knowledge. If your final section only repeats what has already been written elsewhere, you don’t move anywhere on the vertical axis. Bring your findings and discussion together in a new way. Go back to your bigger question. Sell your original knowledge! Make it crystal clear what we know now that we didn’t know before. And sell it again! Why should we care?


Using the function principle to balance your thesis

If you look at the figure, you’ll see that the first five functions only go 40% of the way up the y-axis. I think this is generous. These are important, crucial functions. But in themselves they do relatively little work when it comes to advancing knowledge. I’ve explained how they can and should do this work, but don’t let these take over your thesis. Ask yourself: how far into my thesis do readers have to get before they get to some new knowledge?

I read journal articles, books, chapters, theses etc. because I think there’s something new in them. A bit of rehearsing established arguments, location in context, review of lit is fine. But I feel cheated if all I get is stuff I could have got elsewhere. In a doctoral thesis the balance must lie, in my view, in your own voice, ideas, and original work. There’s a security in writing heaps about your context, all the reading you’ve done, the key concepts etc. But it is in some ways a false security. I like to remind myself that every page spent talking about existing research, context, or theory, is a page that could be spent talking about my data, my new knowledge, and what makes it exciting. Sure I need the other stuff, but not in excess. And when I do write about context, prior studies, and theory, I’ve got to make it relevant, advancing my argument in some way, and not just descriptive.


A consistent, clear argument that builds through the thesis

Now, I’m simplifying things a bit here, potentially, but I think the point is worth making. Having a consistent, clear argument throughout your thesis makes all of the above much easier. Yes, there may be some ideas and aspects that don’t fit neatly into a linear progression. But in every section and chapter your reader should be left with a clear sense of how the thesis (ie. your argument) has moved forward in some way. Long forays into tangential areas should be avoided. Find your argument, grab it, and hang on for grim death!

That’s what I mean when I talk about re-storying, and a thesis being an account of a successful piece of research. It may not be until relatively near the end that you really get a sense of what your argument is. That’s normal. But from start to finish your thesis should weave this thread clearly, without undue deviation from the work of advancing your argument.


Find your argument, grab it, and hang on for grim death! And leave no readers in any doubt that

1. Everything they read in your thesis is relevant to your argument

2. That your argument is original, justified, and worth making.





4 thoughts on “Thinking about thesis structure in social sciences

  1. elainemckewon

    I’m writing up my PhD dissertation and this post settles a lot of my confusion about what ‘makes the cut’ and how to best ‘weight’ the various components and chapters. Many thanks for sharing this sensible and relatively simple approach to structuring the thesis. It’s in my bookmarks 🙂

  2. Meera Varadharajan

    Thanks Nick for this. I can completely see the relevance of your points as I write/re-write my thesis chapters. Thesis writing can be a double-edged sword, I think. While on the one hand, you are constantly reminding yourself of the bigger picture of the entire thesis (how it should like) and the relevance of and link between each chapter, on the other hand, once you get stuck into writing the nitty-gritty details (that are of course necessary), you lose track of the bigger picture!!


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