Struggling to Align Your Social Science Proposal’s Arguments and Concepts with Post-research Dissertation Writing?

Qualitative social science research—which includes ethnographic fieldwork, oral histories, interviews, focus groups, audio-visual recordings, and archival work—can significantly shift and reshape your research topic and, by extension, the writing of your dissertation. Many students who conduct qualitative research write their dissertation proposal months before they begin their research. When they return from research—or the ‘field’—and begin to write their dissertation chapters, they find that many of their original ideas concerning what is important and interesting about their topic has changed as a result of their research, reading and analysis. With their pre-research argument or hypothesis now subject to evolving evidence, students who engage in qualitative research find that they have to invest significant time in revising their main argument to align with research conducted during fieldwork. Instead of dedicating time to planning and writing out sections with pre-developed and well thought out arguments, students now have to focus on navigating evidence that requires new conceptualizations and sense-making.

Clearly, what we’re describing here isn’t one problem so much as a constellation of many problems that result from the tension between pre-fieldwork plans and post-fieldwork dissertation writing. In this entry, we offer a revision strategy that helps address a particularly common challenge for people engaged in social science research: how to revise your pre-research concepts and interpretative frameworks in light of evidence gathered during fieldwork.

As you begin the writing phase of your dissertation after completing your fieldwork research, you might realize that the key concepts that initially guided your interpretive framework no longer suffice. For example, your dissertation proposal might have been centered around the concepts of ‘nation’, ‘nation-state’ and ‘nationalism.’ But as you begin sifting through your qualitative research, you might discover that your data aligns better with concepts like ‘race’, ‘ethnicity’, and ‘homelands’. It might become evident to you that these new concepts don’t easily align with your original argument, in which case you’ll need to develop new arguments and claims derived from your research findings.

Instead of jumping straight into drafting chapters, you may find yourself first having to adopt new concepts and frameworks that lead you to approach your material differently. You may even find yourself torn and confused between pre-research arguments and concepts, and new findings that emerge from your qualitative research. This problem underscores the nature of qualitative social science research, where the work of revision often begins before the actual drafting of the dissertation. It begins with revising the qualitative interpretative frameworks when coding and analyzing data such as interviews and fieldnotes. At various points, the evidence emerging from your research may prompt a reassessment of concepts and interpretative frameworks that were initially employed, causing a shift towards concepts that are better suited to reflect the research findings.

Try the following exercise to resolve this tension between concepts formulated during the pre-research phase, and the moment of writing your dissertation during the post-research phase.

Step 1: Draw a table with three columns. Name the columns, “pre-research”, “research” and “post-research.” List concepts and/or interpretive frameworks identified from your pre-research proposal in the first column: for example, ‘nation’, ‘nation-state’ and ‘nationalism’.

Step 2: Select one concept and trace it through the evidence and material you gathered during fieldwork. At this stage you are reading, analyzing, and coding your interviews, to see if this this concept resonates with your qualitative data. Ask yourself (1) whether this concept continues to be applicable to your project and (2) if there is enough data and evidence to justify the continued use of this concept.

Step 3: Based on your analysis of your interviews, you may determine that the original concept through which you framed your research is no longer quite right. If you think that concept is no longer right, cross it out in the first column. Now, list other concepts that might provide richer insights for your project in the second column. Consider each of these concepts against your field research. When one resonates especially well with your research, add that concept to your post-research column.

Step 4: Move on to your next ‘pre-research’ concept and repeat the steps mentioned above.