Depending on the type of dissertation you are writing, you may be asked to produce either a discussion or analysis section once you have presented your own data.
These are pretty similar, and the advice we give here will help you with either one.
Why the difference in name? An analysis section tends to be found in more empirical research projects and is likely to demand emphasis on assessing your data. A discussion section tends to prefer equal weight be given to your data and other researchers’ findings.
However, both require that you compare your study’s findings with existing literature in your field of study.
Whatever it is called, this section is undoubtedly the most important part of your dissertation. This is where your research comes under scrutiny and it is your job to marry your findings to existing research and draw conclusions.
There are four interlinked, but distinct, key components of good analysis which should be looked for in critical writing. Your main goals here are to answer the following key questions, which can be remembered by the acronym ALBI:
- Have the conclusions of other writers been accepted AT FACE VALUE?
- Have the LIMITATIONS of the individual piece of research been considered alongside the strengths?
- Is the argument presented BALANCED?
- Is there evidence of INDEPENDENT THOUGHT beyond what is covered directly in the source under review?
In your discussion section, you will need to apply these questions to your study and your data. You will then compare it to the trends you found in published literature when you undertook your literature review, pointing out any similarities and differences.
Let us break down how we would apply these key questions.
A – AT FACE VALUE
No piece of research is ever going to be perfect, and nor is it ever going to demonstrate the whole picture on a particular subject. This means that academic writing should always demonstrate knowledge of this fact through carefully and objectively reviewing both your own work and the work of other researchers.
Examples of this might include:
- Identifying that a claim or a statistic may not be entirely conclusive (e.g. a researcher’s claim that ‘80% of people liked the brand of chocolate’ may not mean much if the sample was only of 5 people)
- Checking that a researcher has correctly interpreted other pieces of research they have utilised
L – LIMITATIONS
We have already discussed the reasons why academic research should never simply be taken at face value: that means that we need to get a clear view of any limitations it may have, alongside its strengths.
As we have already covered, there is no piece of research in existence which can be considered perfect; there are always limits to what can be achieved. This by no means says that research cannot be useful; it only means that we need to demonstrate an awareness of these limitations in our evaluation of how research applies to the question we are trying to answer.
This will typically be discussed in your literature review, but to briefly recap:
Limitations of Empirical Research
There are three broad (though linked) categories of limitation which are applicable to empirical research:
- Design limitations (e.g. the method used to collect data compromises ethical principles, thereby undermining validity and efficacy of the study)
- Impact limitations (for example, a study with strong regional focus would lack generalisability to broader areas)
- Statistical/data limitations (for example, difficulty accessing participants for a study might result in an inevitably small sample size which then affects the results)
Limitations of Secondary Research
Secondary research also has limitations which should be carefully considered. These mostly involve:
- Quality of others’ research – when basing an entire piece of work on other people’s research, their methods should be subject to extreme scrutiny
- Applicability to research question – when not conducting primary research, it is important to acknowledge that other studies will not have looked at precisely the same topic. This means their findings should be treated with caution to account for any differences between their research aims and yours
B - BALANCED
A high-level piece of work should never demonstrate bias. Academic writing needs to evaluate both sides of any given argument, even if the ultimate conclusion drawn comes down heavily on one particular side.
Issues with balance tend to arise most often where issues are controversial, as it can be difficult to effectively present an opinion or idea to which you are personally opposed, or to which there is an overwhelming agreement on one side of an argument.
I – INDEPENDENT THOUGHT
Demonstrating a unique perspective is arguably the most important thing to include in order to achieve a higher grade. The key thing to remember when searching for independent critique is that not every idea will be supported by a reference – and that’s okay!
Facts require a citation to demonstrate where they have been sourced from. Opinions, however, do not (unless the discussion is centring around someone else’s opinion).
Fact vs Opinion
A common issue when it comes to lacking critical analysis is that citation is demanded where it is not necessary. One key method to determine whether a citation is needed is to ascertain whether the statement is a fact or an opinion.
A fact can be proven one way or another (e.g. ‘20 people attended the class’). If we wanted to verify this, we could count the number of people in the room and ascertain if this were true or not. If you are mentioning a fact that you could not reasonably expect most readers to know, you need to cite a source to support it.
An opinion has no way of being objectively proven (e.g. ‘A lot of people attended the class’). We have no way of quantifying ‘a lot’ because this may mean different things to different people or in different contexts. If you are citing someone else’s opinion, it should be clearly referenced. However, you do not need to do this when writing your own thoughts and opinions; if every idea belongs to another theorist, it will look like you do not have any ideas of your own!
So, to summarise, critical analysis will be born from facts, but will present an educated and informed opinion about them, not just repeat them.
The process to follow
- Look at a piece of research and scrutinise it for flaws as well as achievements (thereby not simply taking it AT FACE VALUE)
- Use this process to identify clear strengths and LIMITATIONS
- Outline these in your own words, thereby providing a BALANCED summary of the research in question
- From this objective assessment, you can draw conclusions and develop your own INDEPENDENT THOUGHT on the research and how this relates to the argument you are developing
If you follow these steps and keep asking these questions every time you look at a new study or piece of data, you will create a piece of work which is thoroughly analytical all the way through.
All that is left now is to marry all of this together and sum up all the work you’ve done in your conclusion.
Checklist for writing a dissertation discussion
- Have I outlined the most important parts of my data?
- Have I included any sources that did not appear in the literature review?
- Have I been critical enough of my own data?
- Have I made clear links between my data and other researchers’ data?
For more dissertation writing tips, see our comprehensive how-to guide on writing a dissertation.
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