Structure Of A Qualitative Dissertation

When starting a project (or embarking on a life journey), whenever possible, it is always good to start with the end in mind. This gives you a sense of direction and purpose, pulls you towards your goal and usually saves you time in the long run.

This philosophy can also be applied to planning and writing a dissertation. Instead of chaotically gathering the needed material and organizing it along the way, it can be much more efficient to prepare an outline of the chapters at the beginning, and use the outline as a (rough) guideline for the journey ahead. Also, it is very likely that creating a chapter outline will be required when submitting a research proposal. If done correctly, creating a solid structure will give your application more credence and scientific rigor.

Note that for the purpose of a research proposal, the chapter outline does not always have to be very specific (unless you believe you already have everything worked out). It’s more like a preliminary table of contents (typically less than 200 words long).

Here are some common forms of structuring a dissertation:

1) A Five-chapter Dissertation

Many students opt for a standard, five-chapter dissertation outline — especially when doing quantitative research. The chapters usually follow the outline of a typical academic article:

  • Chapter 1: Introduction
  • Chapter 2: Literature review
  • Chapter 3: Methodology (description of the research design)
  • Chapter 4: Results
  • Chapter 5: Discussion

This conventional outline can also be followed by students pursuing a qualitative project. (The terminology may need to be adapted in some cases to reflect the nature of the qualitative research; for example, you write about “findings” in qualitative research instead of “results.”)

However, some qualitative studies might require a slightly different outline to capture the flow of a qualitative process. This is described below:

2) Qualitative Dissertations

The structure of a dissertation that uses qualitative methodology might vary depending on your study and writing style. The nature of qualitative study calls for flexibility, so you can let the material guide you and change your study direction if needed. Your chapter outline needs to be able to adapt to allow for any adjustments that might be needed as the study progresses.

One option in qualitative dissertations is to organize your chapters around the future findings. But, since these are not known yet, you need to leave room for potential maneuvering. It is probably best to explain in your proposal that you’re submitting a rough plan and that modifications and fine-tuning might be required after you complete your analysis.

Many qualitative studies will follow this chapter outline:

  • Chapter 1: Introduction, background of the problem, purpose of the study, research question, significance of the study, outline of the study.
  • Chapter 2: Literature review (often done later, so it doesn’t bias the researcher when collecting and analyzing data).
  • Chapter 3: Methodology
  • Chapter 4 – chapter X: Analysis of the material/data
  • Chapter X – chapter Y: Presentation of the findings
  • Final chapter: Discussion and conclusion

3) Three Article Dissertation (TAD)

This type of dissertation structure is becoming increasingly common. It simply means that the student prepares at least three publishable articles/manuscripts, which represent the essence of the dissertation. The dissertation can be structured in the following way:

  • Chapter 1: Introduction
  • Chapter 2: Article 1
  • Chapter 3: Article 2
  • Chapter 4: Article 3
  • Chapter 5: Conclusion (linking all the articles together, presenting the material that could not be included in the articles, and writing about the general implications of the collective results/findings).

For more details, see the previous post on the TAD dissertation format.

Structuring the Qualitative Dissertation in Information Science

This webpage has been provided at the request of students who have contacted me to ask how they should structure a qualitative dissertation. Your mileage may vary: you should always consult with a knowledgeable faculty member in your field before making decisions as to dissertation structure.

Structure 1: a "traditional" qualitative or mixed methods study

1. Introduction & Motivation for Research

Provides an overview of the research problem, discusses why this is an important problem for the field of study and (briefly) why you wanted to research this problem, then provides an overview of how the thesis is structured (with specifics of the study identified, to help the reader understand the important elements and locate information easily).

2. Conceptual Background (literature review)

This section explains the conceptual underpinnings of the research study, discussing the state-of-the-art with regard to the research problem and domain:
 the theoretical and conceptual frameworks that underlie the field
 what is known about the research problem (empirical findings in the specific domain of study)
 issues of method that pertain to this domain (for example, have most findings resulted from experimental studies that may not be representative of the domain at large?).
lacunae (gaps) in what-is-known and/or issues arising from limitations in the way that the larger research question has been investigated (methodological issues).

Useful tip: construct the literature review to reflect 2-3 different conceptual areas of the research domain that you intend to explore and let each section (and subsection) end with a detailed research question that reflects lacunae or limitations of the literature. This presents the rationale for your specific research questions neatly and avoids the need for complex justification.

3. Research Methods

This chapter provides a discussion of methods and site selection, both philosophical and pragmatic. It includes sections on:
methods used for both data collection and analysis
criteria for selection of method
criteria for selection of data collection site(s) and sampling (criteria for selection of data for analysis and decisions about what is "enough" data)
issues of rigor in data collection and analysis and how these were managed (see Lincoln & Guba, 2000)
generalizability and limitations of method.

4 - N. Findings

Depending on the type of study and the research paradigm, this may be just one, discursive chapter or may consist of 3-4 separate chapters that discuss distinct studies (data collection sites/instances) or distinct analyses of the data collected.

For example, your chapter scheme might be:
4. An ethnographic analysis of a longitudinal study.
5. A separate analysis of the longitudinal data, analyzing specific phenomena that were identified as significant from the ethnographic study or based on a framework for action that you identified in the literature review.
6. A separate analysis of the same data that applies a specific analytical frameworks (such as actor-network theory) to the data.

Or your chapter scheme might be:
4. A qualitative analysis of case study 1.
5. A qualitative analysis of case study 2.
6. A qualitative analysis of case study 3.

Each chapter should reveal different insights, so each could usefully be written up separately, to understand the different contribution to knowledge of using various analytical lenses or data "samples".
My own criterion is to ask if this chapter could be published as a separate journal paper? (Obviously, any paper resulting would need to be top-and-tailed with a targeted lit. review, a more condensed/focused discussion of findings and a conclusions section.)
By using this approach, it is markedly easier to publish from the dissertation later (publishing qualitative research is hard enough, without having a really unstructured dissertation to mine!).

N+1. Synthesis of findings.

This is a summary section, that pulls together various analyses or findings, synthesizes the findings with regard to extending the conceptual underpinnings of the lit. review, and evaluates the impact of the findings (I use Lincoln & Guba's criteria for evaluation of both rigor and impact).

N+2. Conclusions.

This chapter discusses the contribution of the dissertation, its potential impact on the field, and any limitations on generalizing or extending these findings. It ends by (briefly) mapping out a future research agenda that is made possible by this work.

Structure 2: A Grounded Theory Study

In Grounded Theory studies, there would be less emphasis on lit review preceding the findings and more justification of why existing theory fails to account well for the situation studied, with a lit. review *following* the findings, possibly as a large part of the synthesis chapter, to place the substantive theory in context of academic knowledge. See my book chapters on Grounded Theory, listed on the Publications page.

1. Introduction & Motivation for Research

Provides an overview of the research problem, discusses why this is an important problem for the field of study and (briefly) why you wanted to research this problem, then provides an overview of how the thesis is structured (with specifics of the study identified, to help the reader understand the important elements and locate information easily).

2. Conceptual Background (very brief literature review)

This section explains the conceptual underpinnings of the research study, discussing the state-of-the-art with regard to the research problem and explains why and how existing theory fails to account well for the situation studied.
For example, you may conclude from an initial literature review that not much is known about how people do X, or that existing studies do not examine aspects A, B, C of activity X in context, leaving a need for Grounded Theories of action. You still need to justify your selection of a research question and your decision to employ Grounded Theory approach by reference to limitatiions in state-of-the-art knowledge.[1]

3. Research Methods

This chapter provides a discussion of the Grounded Theory approach and your site selection, both philosophical and pragmatic. It includes sections on:
description of the Grounded Theory approach and its limitations
criteria for selection of data collection site(s) and sampling (criteria for selection of data for analysis and decisions about theoretical saturation)
issues of rigor in data collection and analysis and how these were managed (see my book chapters, listed on the Publications page).

4 - N. Findings

Once again, depending on the type of study and the research paradigm, this may be just one, discursive chapter or may consist of 3-4 separate chapters that discuss distinct studies (data collection sites/instances).

For example, your chapter scheme might be:
4. A GT analysis of case study 1.
5. A GT analysis of case study 2.
6. A GT analysis of case study 3.

Or you might focus on:
4. A GT analysis of elements A, B, C of a longitudinal study.
5. A GT analysis of elements D, E of the same study.
6. A GT analysis of elements F, G of the same study.

Each chapter should reveal different insights, so each could usefully be written up separately, to understand the different contribution to knowledge of using various analytical lenses or data "samples".
Again, my criterion is to ask if this chapter could be published as a separate journal paper (with top-and-tailng, as above). Studies can be distinguished by site or sampling occurrence, or by conceptual emphasis (different areas of a substantive theory of action).

N+1. Secondary literature review and synthesis of findings.

This is a summary section, that pulls together the various analyses or findings, synthesizes the findings with regard to extending the conceptual underpinnings of the lit. review, and evaluates the impact of the findings (I use Lincoln & Guba's criteria for evaluation of both rigor and impact).

The difference from the traditional dissertation is that this chapter discusses the results of a secondary review of the literature, that examines work that investigates similar theories of action to those identified through the GT method but in other fields, or that investigates similar domains in the same field. For example, if you identified powerand influence issues as the main constraining factors in your (GT) substantive theory of action, you might search the literature in other fields to see what theories of power-influence are similar to your own findings, then discuss how your substantive theory relates to theories-of-action in other fields.

N+2. Conclusions.

This chapter outlines the substantive theory generated by your research, discusses the contribution of the theory to your field and to other fields, and any limitations on generalizing or extending these findings. It ends by (briefly) mapping out a future research agenda that is made possible by this work.

Note [1]:  Glaser & Strauss (1967) argue that you should not read in your own field of research until you have performed the GT study. Most academics accept that this is not a feasible constraint and that you should read enough to assure yourself that (a) you have a research problem (question) that has not been completely resolved and (b) that you can make a worthwhile contribution to theory in your field by identifying shortcomings of existing theories.

References

Glaser, B.G. and Strauss, A.L. The Discovery of Grounded Theory Aldine Publishing Company, New York NY, 1967.
Lincoln, Y.S. and Guba, E.G. "Paradigmatic Controversies Contradictions and Emerging Confluences," in: The Handbook of Qualitative Research, N.K. Denzin and Y.S. Lincoln (eds.), Sage Publications, Beverly Hills CA, 2000, pp. 163-188.

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