Discussion and conclusion writing, business, social sciences, humanities
- What is the difference between discussions and conclusions?
- Discussion content
- Conclusion content
- The research 'implications'
- Research limitations
- Linking the introduction and the conclusion
- Going out with a 'bang'
- Writing the thesis title
This topic within this series of resources on thesis, exegesis and journal article writing in the social sciences, humanities and business focuses on the discussion and the conclusion. The goal of this final step in the research story line is to highlight the importance of the argument or thesis proposition, to draw together the final concluding remarks, point to future directions and implications of the research finding or argument, and to leave a lasting impression in the reader's mind.
The difference between the discussion and the conclusion is one of inference. The discussion section 'discusses', which often means that it compares and contrasts the results with other results on the topic area. Conclusions are more speculative in tone, exploring the possible implications of the results, inferences that may be drawn from results, and what those inferences imply about the theories, methodologies used, or perhaps for the field of practice or policy, or for new questions that need to be answered in the field.
It is absolutely not compulsory to have both a discussion and conclusion chapter. This will vary based on the nature of the study and also the discipline and the journal. If there is not a separate discussion section or chapter, conclusions may be a little longer because more space is needed to lay out and discuss, or compare and contrast, conclusions with other findings, a step that did not occur in results chapters. In writing in which a contrast between the writer's conclusions and the conclusions of other authors is provided in the main body, conclusions may be shorter in length.
Of course, in many discipline areas, 'results' and 'discussions' are not meaningful separations of content. In the social sciences, and perhaps particularly in humanities disciplines, there are often no 'results' sections or chapters; rather evidence is presented, or ideas are substantiated and developed in the middle thesis chapters or main body of a journal article. Similarly, there may be no separation of a 'discussion' and a general conclusion. If you are writing this type of thesis or journal article, it is nevertheless worthwhile to consider the content of discussions, as their core function is typically part of research writing across disciplines.
Discussion writing typically completes the following tasks, in the order listed below:
- opens with a statement of the problem under investigation,
- summarises the main findings or argument,
- explains why the findings or the key arguments are important,
- compares and contrasts the findings or ideas developed in the main body with existing work on the topic, highlighting similarities and differences, and providing explanations for them.
The conclusion in most theses, exegeses and journal articles contains some combination of the following, typically in the order listed below:
- a restatement of the main argument or findings, as well as perhaps the question or 'gap' in the literature that justified the study (unless already provided with discussion content);
- a concise summary of the methodology and evidence provided that supported the main argument and findings (altogether this should not be too long, perhaps half to three quarters of a page, or up to two at most);
- discussion of the implications of the findings of the study, including (typically, but not compulsorily) a discussion of any limitations arising from the study.
It is very common for discussions and conclusions to occur within one chapter, whether marked out by separate headings or not.
All research writing reflects on the 'implications' of research or scholarship. Conclusions offer solutions to issues and suggest courses of action flowing from the project. 'Implications' might be discussed in relation to one or more of the following:
- the community or 'real world',
- policy development (government, organisational, institutional),
- an area of professional practice,
- academic debate,
- social or political strategy,
- research limitations and future research.
In the same way that the paper opens with a statement of a problem that is of broad concern, it should close with commentary that highlights the implications of the results or of the discussion for the problem space, whether this refers to policy, practice, theory or to further research. This is why the thesis structure is sometimes depicted diagrammatically as funnel shaped, or wide at the beginning and end, and narrow in the middle. The same broadness of focus is also evident at the beginning and the ending of abstracts.
A discussion of the limitations of the research is a subset of a discussion about research implications. A discussion of limitations arises from the more speculative reflection that underpins conclusion writing. Researchers reflect on what their research reveals, as well as what it did not reveal about the problem space. Writing about limitations tells your reader how to read your findings, what questions may be left unanswered as a result of your findings, and perhaps what further work needs to be done to build upon or confirm what you have done.
A discussion of limitations is not an outline of what was wrong with the research! A discussion of limitations builds the credibility and strength of the claims made in the main body by showing that you have thought deeply about the implications of your own methodology and analysis, and have offered suggestions about the next steps in the field following upon your research. The dot points below may be useful when writing up your limitations section.
A limitations section is not obligatory. In some fields, a discussion of limitations is not a conventional heading or subject of discussion. It may also be that a discussion of the limits of your research adds little to the reader's understanding of your findings or of the kind of research that is needed in the future. In this case, it might be best to leave it out.
Content: What to include in a discussion of limitations?
When discussing a limitation of your research be sure to include all of the following elements:
- concisely describe the limitation;
- explain why/how the limitation arose;
- explain the impact of the limitation on your findings and conclusions;
- explain what kind of future research is needed, including, if relevant, details about the research method that would be required to overcome the limitation in a future study.
Structure: Where to put the discussion of limitations?
- If the limitation pertains to the entirety of the findings, consider putting it toward the beginning of the discussion. This is because the discussion of limitations will clarify your overall discussion of the findings.
- If the limitation pertains to a discussion of research arising from your findings, consider placing it towards the end of your discussion where future research is referred to.
- Try not to bury a discussion of limitations in the middle of discussion/conclusion chapters/sections.
In empirical research, limitations might occur in relation to methodology, including limitations surrounding the aspects discussed under the bolded headings below.
Representativeness of sample—size and characteristics
The findings generated from a sample may not accurately represent the experience or phenomenon in its fullness. Here it is important to explain why and how the sample is not representative or generalizable; what might have been missed or only partially understood; how findings may have been skewed, and what this implies for future research.
Lack of available and/or reliable data
Data can be insufficient to make strong conclusions. In this instance, offer reasons to explain missing or unreliable data. You may conclude that more research is needed to address these problems, but if you do, explain how the research design would need to be different, and how this would overcome the limitation. Problems arising from a lack of unfettered access to participants, data or documents that affect the results can be described.
Limitations arising from the measure used to collect the data
Definitions of phenomena, and the tools used to capture phenomenon, shape what is known about those phenomenon. Limitations arising from this pertain to the comprehensiveness of a survey or interview schedule with regard to the research question, field of practice, or problem space. Here you can comment also on how definitions or tools would need to be revised to enlarge or confirm understandings of the phenomenon.
Subjective or perceptual bias
Data which reports participants opinions and perceptions reflects what participants perceive is happening, not necessarily what is actually happening. When this pertains to the reliability of your answer to the research question, you can reflect on the possible bias of perception among your sample. This might refer to respondents engaging in the following:
- selective memory—selective remembering or failure to remember specific aspects of experience or events;
- telescoping—recalling events that occurred at one time as if they occurred at another time;
- attribution—attributing positive outcomes to oneself, and negative outcomes to others or to external forces;
- exaggeration—embellishing experience or events or describing them as more important than others perceive them to be.
Linking the introduction and conclusion
Once you have drafted your final chapter or section, try reading the introduction and the conclusion one after the other. They should flow. The conclusion brings the reader back to the opening questions, and brings those questions to a close. If you have used examples, metaphors or other illustration as a device to highlight the problem or significance of the research, consider returning to the same device in the conclusion.
You can avoid repeating information that has already been provided by drawing the findings together into an overall point that has not been made yet. The sum may be a more powerful conveyor of meaning than the parts.
Consider using the last paragraph or sentence to provide a clear message that answers the overall question of the research, or the implication arising from it. Pay careful attention to the last paragraph and sentence. Try to go out with a bang!
Since both the title and the conclusion contain the core conclusions or message of the thesis, it is a good idea to review your title at the same time that you finalise your conclusion chapter. The title often contains two parts, although this is not obligatory. The first part of the title contains the 'thesis', and the second part frames the thesis. A colon is often used to link the two parts together. Preference is for concise titles.
The thesis element of the title is a summary of the main point of the thesis, linking back to the key conclusions of the thesis. The thesis may be expressed in the title as the key finding, or the key argument. It is common to use a question format, or to offer a short, and perhaps somewhat risky or provocative assertion. The aim is to introduce the thesis, and to catch the reader's attention and interest.
The title should also tell the reader the precise focus of the research, or tell the reader what the research is about. The second part of the title might include the methodology, key variables, theories, and context. What goes into this part of the title will vary by project, but it should capture the key elements that frame and make sense of the first part of the title.
For example: Good and mad women: The historical construction of femininity in twentieth-century Australia
In this example the first part of the title points to the heart of the central argument (which suggests there is a social double bind for women who must conform to moral norms or have their mental status questioned, which was the core thesis of this book). The second points to the methodology, focus and context of the argument (this title tells us that the statement refers to an historical period and analysis, that is, twentieth-century Australia). The title is catchy and provocative, and it carries core information about the study using only a few words.
‘Acknowledgements’ at the beginning of theses and at the end of journal papers provide an opportunity to thank people, organisations and institutions that provided assistance with the research or writing process. Acknowledgements in journal papers are shorter and might refer to the following kinds of assistance:
- substantive feedback on drafts,
- technical and administrative,
- equipment or other materials,
- art work,
- care of animals.
Thesis acknowledgements are typically longer and more personal often including references to supervisors and other mentors, proof readers and editors, family, colleagues, friends, sources of spiritual and intellectual support, and even pets or good health. Thesis acknowledgements come in many different lengths and there is considerable latitude in their style and tone. You may not choose to give names for personal relationships, but these should be provided for university and other professional or formal support.
Suggestions for writing thesis acknowledgements:
- consider opening with a preamble that introduces the significance of the research journey for you,
- note that the research could not have been done without support and that you’d like to thank those who made it possible,
- provide full name of persons in formal roles,
- provide full name of organisations,
- say what was contributed,
- move from formal support to personal support,
- consider putting those who gave most closer to the top.
This resource was developed by Wendy Bastalich