An End of a Road – Insight, Analysis and Writing

We have come to an end of a road.  Needless to say, you could go further.  There is always more information waiting to be found and other interviews you could do. However useful your current overview about how the pieces fit together, your research could be deepened by focusing on any one of the steps, by looking more closely at institutions or discourse or law or whatever.

Example one: If you have followed the steps described here, you will have covered discourse only minimally. A deeper study of the discourse on the public issue of welfare would be very interesting.  Your overview, now completed, sets the background for the deeper study.  Your work to date is like an exploratory study.  Now you could select a larger body of material to examine. You do your examination of its discourse very systematically.

For many people, the overview resulting from following the steps in this book will have to do.  Done well, this amount of research should produce enough material to support a major paper or even a hundred-page Masters thesis. With a little more work to develop recommendations, your overview could become a fifty-page government or consultant report.  Follow up with a deeper study of one aspect of your public issue, and you have the basis for a doctoral thesis or even a book.

 In the last chapter, we discuss the process of developing insights and analysis.   The focus in the last chapter was on power and influence but it also brought together the research done thus far. There is always more to a story than power and influence.  There is even more to a story than simply accounting for outcomes.   Both of these are important, but this chapter will deal with other aspects of arriving at insights, analysis and conclusions, so that your research can answer not only the narrow question posed originally but also address broader concerns.

Developing insights, analysis, arguments and writing takes time.  Plan on spending up to twenty-five per cent of the total time after the research is done on this last task, the other 75% being for the research itself.  You need to tease out and pull the pieces together, organize the material and do additional reading, especially of the secondary literature. The temptation is to begin writing at the same time as figuring out the analysis and locating gaps in information. In this chapter, we provide three separate steps in research in order to emphasize that each task is different from the others.


Background Discussion:

The notion of telling a story

It seems strange to talk about telling a story in connection with research.  Telling a story conjures fiction or exaggeration. Obviously neither is the point of your writing now.

However, in any piece of writing, no matter how much based on observation, documents and analysis, you need to reach for coherence.  You need to tie the details together in a way that is informative, useful and coherent.  Telling a story is simply our way of signaling the importance of this task.   A good synonym might be sense-making.  You put your material together in order for it to make sense.  The details are folded into the basic story or sense that is being conveyed.  The details do not stand on their own. They become your means of documenting your general observations, furthering the arguments you want to advance and the conclusions you want to draw. Your research becomes the evidence that is used to support your observations, arguments and conclusions. This is what we mean when we use the expression story to be told.

The phrase telling a story serves as a useful reminder that research is never complete or fully conclusive.  As we said at the start of this chapter, always there is information that cannot be found or is inaccessible.  Only late in a study does it become clear which details need extensive follow-up, but now there is no time for you to do the follow- up work. Telling a story is a way of saying that you appreciate that not all is known. You appreciate that conclusions are being drawn on the basis of information that might later prove less than complete.

Telling a story is not an excuse for sloppy work or drawing conclusions not supported by the material at hand.  It indicates instead that, despite all your careful attention to detail, these are not the only insight, arguments or conclusions that could be reached.  It is a way of saying that there is always more work to be done.

 Audience (see also chapter thirteen)

The point has already been made here that style is a good indicator of the intended audience for any piece of writing. Earlier, we defined style very broadly to include the elements that were included, the order that information was presented, the use of authorities, the specialized language employed, the conventions drawn upon to establish the credibility of the author etc.  We included the degree of reliance on theory as part of the style also, even if this stretched the meaning of style.   We also said that a piece of writing written for academic purposes does not look much like a government report.  A consultant report might look different yet again.

Finally we made the point in the first chapter of this book that even among academics, very different conventions about style are employed.  An article written for a sociological journal looks different from one written for an economics one.  An article written by those who subscribe to a view of regulation compatible with public choice theory will look different from an article written by an “institutionalist” about the same topic.  Different networks are involved in each case (see chapter three).

Before beginning your writing, you need to be very clear about the audience for the final product.  for the kind of research of interest here, there are many different ways to do the write-up.  Remember, we are talking about the writing phase here.  To the greatest extent possible, the research itself should not be shaped with an eye to the audience.  If it is, you will be tempted to leave out information that your chosen audience does not want to find out.

In the writing phase, if you are working with an advocacy group, your final product should look like other material written by and for the same advocacy group.  If the product is to be a government report, you should examine other government reports to determine the appropriate format and style.   If you are working on a major paper or thesis, you should look at other major papers and theses to see how they are organized and written. In preparing academic research for publication, your task is made much easier if you identify in advance one or two journals for which the final product would be suitable.  This is a matter of content, methodology and discipline but it is also about the way that your material is organized, the amount of detail about the research that is required, and the scope and place of theory etc. After finding a few articles that bear resemblance to the one that you intend to produce, you can deduce the appropriate style for your writing.

Establishing the credibility of your research

Until now, we have spoken about assessing the credibility of the information found in various types of documents. Now we need to turn attention to the credibility of your own work.

It is worth stating at the outset that having a sense of justice or a strong sense of right and wrong is not, in itself, an indication that the writing is credible.  A document that contradicts your fundamental beliefs can be highly credible in terms of the information it presents.   In turn, a document that supports your viewpoint or belief might not be very credible in terms of the information it presents.    It is also the case that something widely perceived to be true might not be quite so true upon close examination. When an author is trying to persuade or influence someone, the moral and political perspective matter often more than the credibility of the information itself.  The perspective establishes the author’s credibility as a person and a spokesperson.  The author can be right, even if a few of the facts might be wrong.

If your main goal is to portray a factual situation, you do need to worry about the credibility of the information.  If you are reporting on your research, you need your writing to be credible as well as persuasive. The same rules apply to your own writing as apply to your assessment of the credibility of others’ research.  Your title, if there is one, needs to accurately reflect the information that follows.  You need to provide information about the limitations of your study,  about of the methods you have used, and about why you draw the conclusions you draw. Sources of the original information must always be noted.

Example two: You should write:  “In a report on climate change, published in 2007 by… published in France by the department of….,  after an assessment that included… it was suggested that…”

Example three: You should write: “In its report on planning in Ontario, an advocacy group called… suggested that…” In both cases, you add details about the writer or group and the information used to support the arguments.  It is also helpful in establishing your own credibility to explore whether a conclusion is widely shared or accepted by those who hold different viewpoints.

Example four You should write: “In light of debates going on at the time about development in the downtown core, it is useful to consider the views of the downtown ratepayers association.  In an interview, its spokesperson said…. The ratepayers association has been in operation since…It  represents….  Its activities include…It is funded by…etc.”

In law, something is authoritative when it reflects precedents established by the courts.  In your writing, you have no precedents to follow. Just because someone has said something previously does not mean it can be depended on as reliably sound.  Bad habits are developed in this regard in writing undergraduate essays.  Here one properly quotes from the articles and books to establish particular points.  In the case of research based on documents, observation and interviews, a quote is nothing more than whatever someone has said.  Its veracity is open to question, as we have discussed in conjunction with primary documents (intended to persuade) and tertiary documents (always needing to be contextualized in order to be assessed.)  Even in the case of secondary documents, care should be taken not to use quotations as if they were proof.  Chapter four was about learning to read with sensitivity to the debates and controversies that surround all academic writing.


Steps in arriving at insights, analysis and conclusions:

Reviewing the materials and filling the gaps in information.

As noted, the first step in this task is to review all of the material in your files.  This step was partly done in the last chapter while you were looking for evidence of power and influence. You need to return and examine the same material now with a wider focus.  You need to remember your broader questions from chapter two. Jot down observations and insights about things that seem interesting as you read.  A list will do. No subject matter is off limits. No thoughts, observations or insights from the material are irrelevant at this stage.

In step two of your review, you decide which items in the list are worth pursuing further. You do not have time to pursue all the ideas or chase all the missing information.  With respect to the items on the list you now deem especially important, it will quickly become obvious where the material in hand is skimpy.  By now, you know how to pursue the missing bits.

Step three in your review requires returning to your B list, that is, the material taken from the secondary literature that provided background or contextual information. Now you know what is needed in the way of background.  The B list is your private reference library.  In this step, it is also useful to consult the web yet again as well.  You are warned. It is all too easy to get diverted into a new piece of research.  Your goal in step three is to gather only as much background material as is essential to convey the ideas you have deemed to be important.

Step four in your review is a renewed literature search. You might need to reconstruct the A list, but now it will be a much easier job.  Once the A list has been finalized, you read the items on the A list carefully and supplement any annotations done earlier with new material.

Step five in this review involves returning to newspapers and news magazines. Previously, the only material of interest from news sources was names, dates, event, reports etc.  Now you are interested in the story being told, that is, how others have put together information about the same or similar public issues.   Your goal here is not to adopt a news story as your own or to accept its conclusions. It is to compare what you think has happened with others’ accounts so that you gain perspective on your material.  Even now, you will locate further decisions and events of interest. Pursue them only if they help contextualize the material in hand.

Step six in this review involves talking to people who might have other observations, insights and conclusions.  This step can involve casual conversations or even another round of interviews.  If you do interviews, these are different from those you did at an earlier stage of research.  Now you are seeking other opinions and perspectives in order to challenge your own insights and understandings.

Developing insights and analysis

It is time to mull.  It is also time to return to the process used in getting started (see Chapter two). The task now is figuring out the significance of what you found. To the extent that you were interested in a broader picture, it is time for you to mull how your research fits into it.

Mulling is the kind of activity you do while walking, sitting on a bus, otherwise wasting time, even playing games on the computer.  It has no immediate pay-off in the sense of light bulbs flashing.  That said, its importance should not be underestimated.  Nor should it be shortchanged in terms of time allocated.  You need a sense of the whole, however vague.  You need again to determine what is important to you before you develop your more systematic insights and analysis.  Mulling is step one in developing your analysis.

Step two in developing your analysis involves writing a summary of what you now know. This summary need not be long. It need not be detailed. Recall that your research also began with a summary of what you knew then.  Now it is time for you to repeat the exercise, to write a second stream of consciousness overview. This second summary is done with books closed and files put aside. It is an exercise in introspection, not a matter of sorting out details.  Indeed details will distract you from the sense-making exercise, from arriving at the big picture. The summary should be ten pages at the very most.  Ten pages allow for very little detail and no tangential thoughts.

Step three in developing an analysis involves writing a one-paragraph summary of the summary just written. Your goal is to arrive at a short list of crucial findings and observations and a conclusion. This is best done in the space of one paragraph. A few examples of summary paragraphs will help:

Example five:  “This research dealt with the uses of science and the role of scientists in the making of standards.  It was based on a study of documents, participant organization in several standards development organizations and interviews.  I will argue that the science used in standard setting is quite unlike the mental picture of science that most people have. It also bears little resemblance to the kind of scientific work done by researchers publishing in academic journals.  Not only is this science more akin to “screening” than exploration, but its relationship to political and value debates is made explicit.  Even where little bias is involved, political agendas set the terms and scope of the scientific research, as well as the uses of the conclusions drawn from it.  I will conclude that the differences between mandated science and science proper need to be recognized, even if a clear distinction between the two is not always possible.  Mandated science needs to be evaluated with appropriate norms, that is, with methods of assessment that correspond to its particular character.”

Example six:  “Using the concept of “essentially contested concepts” most clearly described by William Connolly, I describe the debates in progress about government deficits.  My case study is from the United States, in the years 2007 through 2010, a period that saw significant change in economic conditions and important changes in political leadership and shifts in political discourse.  The material examined includes selections from ten magazine-style publications that dealt with politics, including both publications considered to be liberal and conservative.  I will argue that political debates among intellectuals and politically-sophisticated people were not grounded in rational argument so much as symbolic discourse.  Even the most careful analyses made extensive use of essentially contested concepts. They relied heavily on ideographs and keywords.  Metaphors were the primary mode of transmitting ideas.   This finding holds true across the span of political opinion.”

Notice how these summary paragraphs are constructed.  They each begin with a statement of the problem.  They next described the research, that is, what was examined.  They then provide a very short summary of what was found.  They use two or three sentences to do so. They conclude with a statement about what it all adds up to by way of conclusions. If you have such a paragraph – the summary of your summary – you will know what to write later, and in what order.  You will have distilled your insights into a few sentences.  You will have identified your analysis.

You will have difficulty constructing the summary paragraph if you did not do the summary at the beginning of your study.  No one can arrive at the few points of real insight immediately, without musing on paper first and without comparing the before and after of the research.

Some people also find it useful to create a plan for organizing their findings and conclusions. Organizational plans and tables of contents do not replace the task of preparing long and short summaries.  It is in writing the summaries that your central arguments become clear.  Once you write the summary of the summary, you know what it is you need to write about.


Everyone has a way of writing, something that works to get words on the page that tell a story.  There is nothing to be gained in laying out steps for writing, other than to say that the analysis done earlier provides a backbone for the writing, that details matter and that everything should be carefully referenced to the documents and interviews from your research.

Instead, we will comment on the many ways to organize the material collected through the research, the many ways to tell the story, in other words.

One way of writing involves using the chronology as the backbone of the story to be told.  By now your chronology should very lengthy and comprehensive.   Major gaps should have been filled by documents research, by interviews and by the results of the first six steps described in this chapter.  You now can say: ”This happened…then that…”.   In writing on the basis of the chronology, further information can be inserted from your actor and institutions files to round out the picture.

If you chose the chronology route, you explain the evolution of your public issue.  You can then comment on the factors that influenced it and the eventual outcome. The chronology-based approach to writing is the most straightforward. It is especially useful when the research findings stand on their own,  without the benefit of much of a literature review.

A second way to tell the story is to focus on a single event, decision or deliberation.  You provide the background to this event or decision, using your files and your secondary literature review to do so.  You explore the interactions among actors and the constraints that produced this single event, deliberation or decision. Again, you draw the material from your own research.  Needless to say, a single event, deliberation or decision does not tell the whole story.  Chosen well however, it serves as a microcosm of the whole and as a basis for your further discussion.

A third way to use research to tell the story is to focus on the controversies and debates that have occurred.  Here, your original choice of time frame becomes especially important.  The controversies of interest now are those that occurred within this time frame or have a direct impact on it. In analyzing controversies, you write not only about the various positions taken by protagonists, but also about how their arguments were made credible and authoritative.  Identifying metaphors, keywords, ideographs and essentially contested concepts allows you to move beyond a fairly straightforward discussion of protagonists’ arguments into an appreciation of their significance in a broader sense.

A fourth way to organize research and tell a story is to focus on one of the academic debates identified in your literature review.  Some of these debates will be fairly theoretical in nature, but others are more pragmatic.  Obviously, for this approach to writing, the academic debate is drawn from the items chosen for the A list.  To choose this fourth way, you need to have done a very thorough literature search.  You need to be fully conversant with the debates in the literature, not just a single author or two.

This fourth way of telling the story requires you first to explicate the views of the authors that you have chosen and the debates they are part of.  You write about what these authors have said.  You write about the issues they are focused on in their debates with each other.  Your own research then becomes something akin to a case study.  After your case study is described, that is, after the findings from your research are described, you return to the authors and academic debates discussed earlier. You say what your research contributes to these debates.

This fourth way of telling the story also helps place what is otherwise your somewhat narrow research into a broader discussion. In other words, when you return to the explications of the various authors, you engage in a dialogue with them. “This is what you have argued”, you say, “…but this is what I found.”  You then indicate how the results of your research might affect what other authors have concluded.  Your goal is to extend, revise or rebut the arguments that have been made by other writers or the theories upon which these other authors depend. Your contribution is based on your own research.

A fifth way to tell a story is to take one institution and one deliberation or instance of decision making, and use it as a way of highlighting the elements in play between and among actors operating under the constraints of law, institutions, global factors and discourse.  Here you focus also on the push and pull of power and influence but again only in terms of the institution and deliberation that you have chosen.

A sixth way to tell a story is in conjunction with policy analysis and recommendations, possibly but not necessarily for a government body or consultancy.  In this case, your conclusions come first, and often are presented in point form.  These are followed by detailed rationales for each conclusions, where the research becomes the supporting documentation.

Each of these ways of telling the story works well.  Each has a different purpose and a different audience in mind.  You cannot do all of them at once.  You must make a choice if the task of writing is to be manageable. The way you chose to tell the story matters because it determines your audience.







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