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Organizing Your Social Sciences Research Paper: 8. The Discussion

Definition

The purpose of the discussion is to interpret and describe the significance of your findings in light of what was already known about the research problem being investigated, and to explain any new understanding or fresh insights about the problem after you've taken the findings into consideration. The discussion will always connect to the introduction by way of the research questions or hypotheses you posed and the literature you reviewed, but it does not simply repeat or rearrange the introduction; the discussion should always explain how your study has moved the reader's understanding of the research problem forward from where you left them at the end of the introduction.

Importance of a Good Discussion

This section is often considered the most important part of your research paper because this is where you:

  1. Most effectively demonstrates your ability as a researcher to think critically about an issue, to develop creative solutions to problems based upon a logical synthesis of the findings, and to formulate a deeper, more profound understanding of the research problem under investigation.
  2. Present the underlying meaning of your research, note possible implications in other areas of study, and explore possible improvements that can be made in order to further develop the concerns of your research.
  3. Highlight the importance of your study and how it may be able to contribute to and/or fill existing gaps in the field. If appropriate, the discussion section is also where you state how the findings from your study revealed new gaps in the literature that had not been previously exposed or adequately described.
  4. Engage the reader in thinking critically about issues based upon an evidence-based interpretation of findings; it is not governed strictly by objective reporting of information.

Annesley Thomas M. “The Discussion Section: Your Closing Argument.” Clinical Chemistry 56 (November 2010): 1671-1674; Bitchener, John and Helen Basturkmen. “Perceptions of the Difficulties of Postgraduate L2 Thesis Students Writing the Discussion Section.” Journal of English for Academic Purposes 5 (January 2006): 4-18; Kretchmer, Paul. Fourteen Steps to Writing an Effective Discussion Section. San Francisco Edit, 2003-2008.

Structure and Writing Style

I.  General Rules

These are the general rules you should adopt when composing your discussion of the results:

  • Do not be verbose or repetitive
  • Be concise and make your points clearly
  • Avoid using jargon
  • Follow a logical stream of thought
  • Use the present verb tense, especially for established facts; however, refer to specific works or prior studies in the past tense
  • If needed, use subheadings to help organize your discussion or to group your interpretations into themes


II.  The Content

The content of the discussion section of your paper most often includes:

  1. Explanation of results: comment on whether or not the results were expected and present explanations for each set of results; go into greater depth when explaining findings that were unexpected or especially profound. If appropriate, note any unusual or unanticipated patterns or trends that emerged from your results and explain their meaning.
  2. References to previous research: compare your results with the findings from other studies, or use the studies to support a claim. This can include re-visiting key sources already cited in your literature review section, or, save them to cite later in the discussion section if they are more important to compare with your results than being part of the general research you used to provide context and background information.
  3. Deduction: a claim for how the results can be applied more generally. For example, describing lessons learned, proposing recommendations that can help improve a situation, or recommending best practices.
  4. Hypothesis: a more general claim or possible conclusion arising from the results [which may be proved or disproved in subsequent research].


III. Organization and Structure

Keep the following sequential points in mind as you organize and write the discussion section of your paper:

  1. Think of your discussion as an inverted pyramid. Organize the discussion from the general to the specific, linking your findings to the literature, then to theory, then to practice [if appropriate].
  2. Use the same key terms, narrative style, and verb tense [present] that you used when when describing the research problem in your introduction.
  3. Begin by briefly re-stating the research problem you were investigating and answer all of the research questions underpinning the problem that you posed in the introduction.
  4. Describe the patterns, principles, and relationships shown by each major findings and place them in proper perspective. The sequence of this information is important; first state the answer, then the relevant results, then cite the work of others. If appropriate, refer the reader to a figure or table to help enhance the interpretation of the data. The order of interpreting each major finding should be in the same order as they were described in your results section.
  5. A good discussion section includes analysis of any unexpected findings. This part of the discussion should begin with a description of any unanticipated findings, followed by a brief interpretation as to why you believe it appeared and, if necessary, its possible significance in relation to the overall study. If more than one unexpected finding emerged during the study, describe each them in the order they appeared as you gathered or analyzed the data.
  6. Before concluding the discussion, identify potential limitations and weaknesses. Comment on their relative importance in relation to your overall interpretation of the results and, if necessary, note how they may affect the validity of your findings. Avoid using an apologetic tone; however, be honest and self-critical [e.g., in retrospective,  you wish you had included a particular question on a survey instrument].
  7. The discussion section should end with a concise summary of the principal implications of the findings regardless of statistical significance. Give a brief explaination about why you believe the findings and conclusions of your study are important and how they support broader knowledge or understanding of the research problem. This can be followed by any recommendations for further research. However, do not offer recommendations which could have been easily addressed within the study. This would demonstrate to the reader that you have inadequately examined and interpreted the data.


IV.  Overall Objectives

The objectives of your discussion section should include the following:

I.  Reiterate the Research Problem/State the Major Findings

Briefly reiterate for your readers the research problem or problems you are investigating and the methods you used to investigate them, then move quickly to describe the major findings of the study. You should write a direct, declarative, and succinct proclamation of the study results.

II.  Explain the Meaning of the Findings and Why They are Important

No one has thought as long and hard about your study as you have. Systematically explain the meaning of your findings and why you believe they are important. After reading the discussion section, you want the reader to think critically about the results [“why hadn’t I thought of that?”]. You don’t want to force the reader to go through the paper multiple times to figure out what it all means. Begin this part of the section by repeating what you consider to be your most important or surprising finding first, then systematically review each finding.

III.  Relate the Findings to Similar Studies

No study in the social sciences is so novel or possesses such a restricted focus that it has absolutely no relation to previously published research. The discussion section should relate your results to those found in other studies, particularly if questions raised from prior studies served as the motivation for your research. This is important because comparing and contrasting the findings of other studies helps to support the overall importance of your results and it highlights how and in what ways your study differs from other research about the topic.

IV.  Consider Alternative Explanations of the Findings

It is important to remember that the purpose of research is to discover and not to prove. When writing the discussion section, you should carefully consider all possible explanations for the study results, rather than just those that fit your hypothesis or prior assumptions and biases.

V.  Acknowledge the Study’s Limitations

It is far better for you to identify and acknowledge your study’s limitations than to have them pointed out by your professor! Note any unanswered questions or issues your study did not address. Describe the generalizability of your results to other situations, if it is applicable to the method chosen, then describe in detail problems you encountered in the method(s) you used to gather information.

VI.  Make Suggestions for Further Research

Although your study may offer important insights about the research problem, there are likely to be other questions related to the problem that remain unanswered. Moreover, previously hidden unanswered questions may have become more obvious as a result of conducting your study. You should make suggestions for further research in the discussion section [ or, you can choose to note them in the conclusion if you prefer, but not both!].

NOTE: Besides the literature review section, the preponderance of references to sources in your research paper is usually found in the discussion section. A few historical references may be helpful for perspective but most of the references should be relatively recent and included to aid in the interpretation of your results and/or linked to similar studies. If a study that you cited disagrees with your findings, don't ignore it--clearly explain why your research findings differ from theirs.



V.  Problems to Avoid

  • Do not waste entire sentences restating your results. Should you need to remind the reader of the finding to be discussed, use "bridge sentences" that relate the result to the interpretation. An example would be: “In the case of available housing to single women with children in rural areas of Texas, the findings suggest that..." [then move to the interpretation of this finding].
  • Recommendations for further research can be included in either the discussion or conclusion of your paper but do not repeat your recommendations in the both sections.
  • Do not introduce new results in the discussion. Be wary of mistaking the reiteration of a specific finding for an interpretation.
  • Use of the first person is acceptible, but too much use of the first person may actually distract the reader from the main points.

Analyzing vs. Summarizing. Department of English Writing Guide. George Mason University; Discussion. The Structure, Format, Content, and Style of a Journal-Style Scientific Paper. Department of Biology. Bates College; Hess, Dean R. "How to Write an Effective Discussion." Respiratory Care 49 (October 2004); Kretchmer, Paul. Fourteen Steps to Writing to Writing an Effective Discussion Section. San Francisco Edit, 2003-2008; The Lab Report. University College Writing Centre. University of Toronto; Sauaia, A. et al. "The Anatomy of an Article: The Discussion Section: "How Does the Article I Read Today Change What I Will Recommend to my Patients Tomorrow?” The Journal of Trauma and Acute Care Surgery 74 (June 2013): 1599-1602; Research Limitations & Future Research. Lund Research Ltd., 2012; Summary: Using it Wisely. The Writing Center. University of North Carolina; Schafer, Mickey S. Writing the Discussion. Writing in Psychology course syllabus. University of Florida; Yellin, Linda L. A Sociology Writer's Guide. Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon, 2009.

Writing Tip

Don’t Overinterpret the Results!

Interpretation is a subjective exercise. Therefore, be careful that you do not read more into the findings than can be supported by the evidence you've gathered. Remember that the data are the data: nothing more, nothing less.

Another Writing Tip

Don't Write Two Results Sections!

One of the most common mistakes that you can make when discussing the results of your study is to present a superficial interpretation of the findings that more or less re-states the results section of your paper. Obviously, you must refer to your results when discussing them, but focus on the interpretion of those results, not the data itself.


Azar, Beth. Discussing Your Findings.  American Psychological Association gradPSYCH Magazine (January 2006).

Yet Another Writing Tip

Avoid Unwarranted Speculation!

The discussion section should remain focused on the findings of your study. For example, if you studied the impact of foreign aid on increasing levels of education among the poor in Bangladesh, it's generally not appropriate to speculate about how your findings might apply to populations in other countries without drawing from existing studies to support your claim or because this was an aspect of your original research problem. If you feel compelled to speculate, be certain that you clearly identify your comments as speculation or as a suggestion for where further research is needed. Sometimes your professor will encourage you to expand the discussion in this way, while others don’t care what your opinion is beyond your efforts to interpret the data.


Azar, Beth. Discussing Your Findings.  American Psychological Association gradPSYCH Magazine (January 2006).