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How to write the analysis and discussion chapters in qualitative (SSAH) research

While it is more common for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) researchers to write separate, distinct chapters for their data/results and analysis/discussion, the same sections can feel less clearly defined for a researcher in Social Sciences, Arts and Humanities (SSAH). This article will look specifically at some useful approaches to writing the analysis and discussion chapters in qualitative/SSAH research.

Note: Most of the differences in approaches to research, writing, analysis and discussion come down, ultimately, to differences in epistemology – how we approach, create and work with knowledge in our respective fields. However, this is a vast topic that deserves a separate discussion.

Look for emerging themes and patterns

The ‘results’ of qualitative research can sometimes be harder to pinpoint than in quantitative research. You’re not dealing with definitive numbers and results in the same way as, say, a scientist conducting experiments that produce measurable data. Instead, most qualitative researchers explore prominent, interesting themes and patterns emerging from their data – that could comprise interviews, textual material or participant observation, for example. 

You may find that your data presents a huge number of themes, issues and topics, all of which you might find equally significant and interesting. In fact, you might find yourself overwhelmed by the many directions that your research could take, depending on which themes you choose to study in further depth. You may even discover issues and patterns that you had not expected, that may necessitate having to change or expand the research focus you initially started off with.

It is crucial at this point not to panic. Instead, try to enjoy the many possibilities that your data is offering you. It can be useful to remind yourself at each stage of exactly what you are trying to find out through this research.

What exactly do you want to know?

What knowledge do you want to generate and share within your field?

Then, spend some time reflecting upon each of the themes that seem most interesting and significant, and consider whether they are immediately relevant to your main, overarching research objectives and goals.

Suggestion: Don’t worry too much about structure and flow at the early stages of writing your discussion. It would be a more valuable use of your time to fully explore the themes and issues arising from your data first, while also reading widely alongside your writing (more on this below). As you work more intimately with the data and develop your ideas, the overarching narrative and connections between those ideas will begin to emerge. Trust that you’ll be able to draw those links and craft the structure organically as you write.

Let your data guide you

A key characteristic of qualitative research is that the researchers allow their data to ‘speak’ and guide their research and their writing. Instead of insisting too strongly upon the prominence of specific themes and issues and imposing their opinions and beliefs upon the data, a good qualitative researcher ‘listens’ to what the data has to tell them.

Again, you might find yourself having to address unexpected issues or your data may reveal things that seem completely contradictory to the ideas and theories you have worked with so far. Although this might seem worrying, discovering these unexpected new elements can actually make your research much richer and more interesting. 

Suggestion: Allow yourself to follow those leads and ask new questions as you work through your data. These new directions could help you to answer your research questions in more depth and with greater complexity; or they could even open up other avenues for further study, either in this or future research.

Work closely with the literature

As you analyse and discuss the prominent themes, arguments and findings arising from your data, it is very helpful to maintain a regular and consistent reading practice alongside your writing. Return to the literature that you’ve already been reading so far or begin to check out new texts, studies and theories that might be more appropriate for working with any new ideas and themes arising from your data.

Reading and incorporating relevant literature into your writing as you work through your analysis and discussion will help you to consistently contextualise your research within the larger body of knowledge. It will be easier to stay focused on what you are trying to say through your research if you can simultaneously show what has already been said on the subject and how your research and data supports, challenges or extends those debates. By drawing from existing literature, you are setting up a dialogue between your research and prior work, and highlighting what this research has to add to the conversation.

Suggestion: Although it might sometimes feel tedious to have to blend others’ writing in with yours, this is ultimately the best way to showcase the specialness of your own data, findings and research. Remember that it is more difficult to highlight the significance and relevance of your original work without first showing how that work fits into or responds to existing studies. 

In conclusion

The discussion chapters form the heart of your thesis and this is where your unique contribution comes to the forefront. This is where your data takes centre-stage and where you get to showcase your original arguments, perspectives and knowledge. To do this effectively needs you to explore the original themes and issues arising from and within the data, while simultaneously contextualising these findings within the larger, existing body of knowledge of your specialising field. By striking this balance, you prove the two most important qualities of excellent qualitative research: keen awareness of your field and a firm understanding of your place in it.


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