By Carrie Winstanley
In writing your dissertation, you’re likely to be taking a practical or a theoretical approach, even though both practical and theoretical considerations are of the utmost importance in social science research. For an undergraduate dissertation, your examiner is going to expect you to choose a largely theoretical or a mainly practical look at your chosen subject.
Any useful practical research you carry out requires a sound theoretical basis, and any theoretical study you do needs to link to what’s happening in the world around you. A theoretical study can be mainly abstract with an emphasis on the philosophical, ethical and cultural considerations of the subject, or your subject can be an applied theoretical study with an emphasis on political, social or economic issues, for example.
More practical research studies in social science are usually about exploring issues through surveys, action research, observations, case-studies or a review of existing studies.
The type of dissertation you end up writing depends on the topic you’re researching. The following table gives a few examples of different ways of approaching a topic just to get you thinking:
|Concern||Method||Type of Study|
|Strategy||Analysis||Non-empirical with examples|
|Type of behaviour||Observation||Empirical|
|Personal viewpoint||Reporting / reflection||Narrative|
An empirical dissertation involves collecting data. For example, to gather the views of patients at a GP’s surgery, volunteers in a police service, children in a play centre or translators in a refugee centre, you have to find ways of asking the individuals involved what they think or review what they’re doing. You can collect your data in many ways: from questionnaires and observations to interviews and focus groups.
Or, you may prefer to collect your data by taking another approach such as looking at and analysing existing data from new angles, making useful comparisons or drawing interesting parallels.
Even if the focus of your dissertation is on using data, don’t forget that you’re still going to need a sound theoretical basis for your work.
Making the choice to do a non-empirical dissertation shouldn’t be taken lightly. Sustaining an argument over the length of your whole dissertation is a distinct challenge. If you enjoy spending time in the library, reading, thinking and discussing theory, this is likely to be the right choice for you.
If you know that making the university library your home for weeks on end is going to be difficult, you may be better off choosing a more empirical research question to explore.
Key theories in your discipline such as feminism or pragmatism can be the basis of an abstract discussion in your dissertation. Subjects such as sociology have this type of theory at their centre and so it’s perfectly valid, for example, to discuss aspects of the theory of pragmatism as your dissertation topic.
A dissertation that draws upon major theories, such as in education more often takes an applied route, but can also be exclusively theoretical, for example, some work in the philosophy of education.
You’re more than likely to choose doing an empirical or a non-empirical dissertation. However, in other disciplines you may come across different methods of producing a dissertation.
Dissertations in many science subjects include or even focus around a laboratory report describing all the aspects of setting up, carrying out and analysing a complex experiment. In physical geography, time is spent somewhere wild and windswept collecting data needed for analysis. Laboratory work and field trips are a key part of the student experience of writing a dissertation. It’s possible you may even use a passage from the classics or biography as an illustration or example in your dissertation.
Your dissertation provides you with the opportunity to write a substantial piece of academic work on a topic of interest to you. It is your chance to produce a work of scholarship, using the academic skills you have developed. Regardless of topic, your dissertation will demonstrate the following skills:
- defining and outlining a research topic
- establishing a clear research question
- identifying the salient issues
- finding or generating the relevant information
- evaluating its reliability and validity
- weighing up the evidence on all sides of a debate
- arriving at a well-argued conclusion
- organising and presenting the results of your work critically, cogently, and coherently.
There are two major forms of dissertation:
- A piece of empirical research, conducted on a topic or issue.
- A literature-based long essay providing an analysis of a specific research question.
An Empirical Dissertation
This type of dissertation involves carrying out a piece of original research on a small scale. It entails planning a research study, collecting and analysing primary data, and presenting the results in a systematic way.
The Key Stages in Producing an Empirical Study
1. Identify a research topic within the scope of the project
2. Refine the project title and formulate your own research question. This will be by:
- reading on the topic to see what aspects have been researched;
- your observation of details of the topic in any work experience;
- reflections on this experience;
- and discussions with tutors and fellow students.
3. Determine the best research format so as to better understand the area/issue in question. This will be formed by:
- research methodologies and research methods that others have tried. This will be discovered by reading in the substantive area and focusing on how others have researched the topic;
- the nature of your topic area and what research methods are possible.
4. Formulate a research proposal within the scope of the project
5. Identify and select the location(s) where you will conduct the research, and your target group(s).
6. Consider carefully alternative groups/places you could approach in case permission is denied. Start at this stage to avoid panicking and making inappropriate choices.
7. Seek permission to access the places and groups.
8. Develop research tools and test these.
9. Further reading.
10. Refine your research tools.
11. Collect and analyse your data.
12. Review earlier reading and evaluate other research and conceptualisations in light of the data you have gathered.
13. Throughout the process, record the research progress and critical points in a research diary. This can be quite brief, but will be valuable when you write up your work.
14. As the writing process gets underway, you will need to:
- draft outlines, synopses and chapters of the dissertation & discuss these with your supervisor and others;
- discuss your findings and developing concepts with your supervisor and others;
- work with the supervisor‟s and others‟ feedback to develop and refine the draft.
Empirical Dissertation Sample. Click Here
A-Library Based Dissertation
A library-based dissertation is probably best distinguished from an empirical study by regarding it as a piece of scholarship in which the work of others is placed under close scrutiny, rather than the gathering of new, primary data directly from observation or measurement. The data of a library-based study is the work of others. However, it is potentially highly valuable and important work, especially if you wish to conduct an in-depth study of an area and review the implications for your own professional concerns.
It is not the simply the describing of work that has been carried out in an area, although this will be part of the task. Library-based studies must contain research questions that are as carefully developed as any other type of study. The work can then be placed in a defined context and a critical judgment of the work can be made regarding its value, quality and contribution to theory and practical application. You also must consider the research methods used by the original researchers and evaluate these. You may also make judgments about the validity of the results in the context of your own professional practice.
The Key Stages in a Library-Based Study
1. Identify a research topic within the scope of the project.
2. Refine the project title and formulate your own research question. As with all dissertations you must have a clear question for which you wish to find answers. This will form the basis of the contract with your supervisor.
3. Clearly identify, discuss and clarify the key concepts being investigated. To do this you must read on your topic, advised initially by your supervisor.
4. Formulate a research proposal within the scope of the project. This may take several days.
5. Review the evidence available. This will include:
- constructing sets of criteria against which to judge the materials reviewed. (at this point you should discuss your criteria with your supervisor);
- a detailed literature review of the relevant books and journal articles. Note that this can also include other relevant materials, e.g. company or government reports, market research, newspaper articles, etc.
6. Sum up. This may be an overall analysis of statistical studies or some other analysis of the total evidence available.
7. Discuss how the literature survey answers the questions that you are exploring. Weigh up the pros and cons.
8. Make recommendations for further research studies, or draw out implications for practice.
It is important that a study sort adds additional material to the data that is being discussed, such as providing a summary of the weight of evidence for and against a particular position or theory, identifying key gaps in knowledge, or providing a new perspective from which to view an issue. A library based study can provide an excellent opportunity to consider how research done in a range of contexts relates to your own eventual work context.
Library Based Dissertation Sample Click Here
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