When deciding on the structure of your thesis, you need to keep your argument and contribution to the field front and centre. It is the thread that runs through the thesis, from introduction to conclusion, linking all of your individual chapters together. Here are some resources on working on your argument and contribution – or the thesis of the thesis.
This podcast is about developing your thesis argument, based on Susan Carter’s blog post ‘A good argument: the thesis of the thesis.
There are three activities that you might like to try to think about, or map out your argument.
Activity 1 – The story of your doctorate
In the blog post Turning facts into a doctoral story: the essence of a good doctorate Susan Carter proposes that ‘[a] thesis needs a logically developed argument. The story unfolds that argument.’ Carter runs the following exercise with her students to help them think about how you turn facts in to a story. She gives them the following list of words and asks them to turn these words in to a story, using all of them.
lily wedding flower plant petal
rose colour daisy paintings
funeral scent chrysanthemum symbolism
miniature rose wild flowers bride
edible flowers climbing rose beauty
deep red patterns of petals golden
poisonous flowers art cauliflower
religious interpretations soft white
The purpose of the exercise is that each person, when presented with this list of words, will create a different story. The same is true of the facts or findings of your research. Why not give this a go, to practice your storytelling skills?
Then, write a list of ‘facts’ or findings from your research. All the important elements that need to be included in your thesis. You can write these as a list, a mindmap, on post it notes…whatever works for you.
Then, turn these facts in to a story. Put them in to a order that makes the overall argument or story unfold, and think about how you are connecting the individual facts or findings. These connections will be crucial to articulate the thread of your argument through your thesis.
Activity 2 – Better than Donald
This blog post from The Thesis Whisperer outlines the Beardsley-Freeman method of argument mapping. An argument map is a visual representation of your argument, traditionally using a box arrow structure to demonstrate the logic or building blocks of an argument or hypothesis. In this (now very dated) post she compares the arguments proposed by Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton in the 2016 American Presidential Election using the argument mapping method, and in doing so demonstrates how to develop the building blocks of your thesis argument.
Develop an argument/thesis map using the following prompts.
- To begin, write out your argument, thesis statement or contribution. Try to articulate it simply in one sentence – the argument map will get at the detail.
- Do a mindmap of all the evidence and justifications you have for this argument, without judgement. Don’t try to order then or connect them, just write them all down.
- Now it’s time to make your argument map. The most simple form of argument is premise -> conclusion. But these arguments aren’t convincing – they need more detail. By this we mean a series of premises, with bridges and connections between them, that lead us logically to a conclusion. Using your mindmap, begin to articulate the key premises of your argument, the bridges between them, and how they lead you to a conclusion. Map this visually, to allow you to see the building blocks – which premises rely on each other to be convincing and the order they need to be presented in to lead us logically to your overarching argument/conclusion.
You can use The Thesis Whisperer’s blog post to help you map your argument as well as this example, which maps the argument in Dr. Edward Mills, former PGR in Modern Language’s thesis.
Activity 3 – Argue against yourself
This blog post from Pat Thomson suggests that to make your case stronger, you should argue against yourself. Try these strategies to develop and strengthen your arguments.
Here’s five playful but serious starter ideas for getting your head around arguments other than your own. These starters may well help you to see where you need more clarification, more boundary drawing, more references or additional information.
1. Re-examine your original problem or puzzle.
Imagine that yourself are someone who thinks about this problem or puzzle differently. Become Reviewer 2 and write a short rebuttal of your initial premise. Be brutal. Suggest other reading. Point out the omissions, lack of definitions, the assumptions. Wait a day. Now look at how you have presented your opening gambit, the warrant for your work. What do you need to say to head off Reviewer 2? Do you need to explicitly reject their views or do you simply need to strengthen your own position?
2. Become devil’s advocate.
Brainstorm all the various ways your topic might be understood. Take just one of the different points of view. Sum it up in a sentence. Free write for fifteen or twenty minutes starting with the sentence. Leave the text for a day, then come back to it and ask yourself what this exercise might teach you about how to better present your case. What do you need to add, remove, rewrite?
3. Become a three year old.
Three year olds ask why all the time. On and on and on. Why? Why? Why? Do the same. Ask why about each move you make in the argument. Why? Why is this the next step? What else might come here? Where would an alternative move take the argument? Is this alternative defensible? Where do the whys lead you, do you need to re write your argument “red thread”? Add new steps? Change the order? Get rid of some information? Add more citations?
4. Think like a hack tabloid journalist.
Imagine you are a newspaper columnist or a political speech writer who supports exactly what you are arguing against. Write half a page about your research from their point of view. Make it colourful. No words of more than two syllables. No sentences longer than fifteen words. Wait a day. Then read the piece asking what this polemic might suggest you need to do. (This exercise is particularly good if you are about to write for non academic audiences).
5. Be a sci-fi writer.
Make like George Orwell. Or George R. R. Martin. Get dystopian. Imagine that the things you have suggested as So What and Now What – the implications of your study – have actually made things worse. Brainstorm what has happened. Wait a day and then use this information to analyse the weaknesses in your argument, conclusion and implications.
These negative strategies may be most helpful to you as part of getting from a first to second draft. They speak to the choreography of the argument as well as its details.