Expressing Scholarly Speculation Effectively in Your Thesis or Dissertation
Reporting the methodological processes and final results of most research is relatively straightforward, and advanced students tend to do an excellent job of it in their theses and dissertations. However, the factual evidence presented in a thesis or dissertation must be discussed and interpreted at some point; conclusions must be drawn, implications must be considered and recommendations must be made. Although these aspects of scholarly writing should always be firmly based on and logically supported by the research and results presented in a thesis or dissertation, they cannot be achieved through factual report alone. Analysis, speculation, generalisation, conjecture, theorisation, interpretation and the like are necessary to a greater or lesser extent depending on the nature of the study, and recording such patterns and subtleties of thought in writing can be challenging indeed.
It is essential that the members of your advisory and examining committee as well as future readers of your thesis or dissertation understand when you are writing in a speculative mode and therefore expressing your own logical views and opinions. This does not mean that you should imply that you are being whimsical, erratic, biassed or overly subjective in your interpretations and conclusions. Such patterns of thought have no place at all in scientific or academic prose, and any speculation you include should be directly related to the facts of your study as frequently and persuasively as possible. It is nonetheless important that you distinguish speculation from factual reporting, especially when the two are blended in a single sentence, paragraph or section. When separate sections of a thesis or dissertation are dedicated to interpretations and conclusions, it will be clearer to your readers that you are speculating on the basis of your evidence, but when your interpretation of results is blended with your report of them, it is vital to use tentative language that clearly indicates the speculative or theoretical nature of your interpretations and conclusions, particularly if they take you slightly beyond a strict understanding of your results.
Many English words and phrases are available for marking speculative thoughts and distinguishing them from factual reports, and you may want to use several different ones to avoid repetition and imply the subtle differences between one idea and the next. Words such as ‘seems,’ ‘appears,’ ‘may,’ ‘might,’ ‘probably,’ ‘could,’ ‘perhaps’ and the like will effectively distinguish analytical speculation and logical interpretation from factual reports. Longer phrases are also useful, with ‘the results appear to indicate’ obviously expressing something very different than does the more direct ‘these results clearly show,’ and ‘a possible explanation for this trend may be’ arguing in a far more tentative manner than does ‘the obvious reason for this trend is.’
Language of this kind should be used only when necessary, since it can, if excessive, undermine the persuasive power of your argument. If used selectively, however, it can render your argument more plausible and convincing by presenting your thoughts for the reader’s consideration in light of your findings and your comprehensive analysis of them rather than attempting to force your interpretations and conclusions on potentially sceptical examiners as facts. While insightful interpretations and speculative conclusions certainly do contribute significantly to the advancement of knowledge in any field of study, they tend to be most successful when they are supported by sound evidence and clearly expressed as probabilities and possibilities, no matter how reasonable, plausible and persuasive they may be.
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