What is a Thesis?

When I ask students to bring me a copy of a thesis from the library, they’ll come back with a 200 or 300 page document. ‘Thesis’ in this sense means the written product submitted at the end of the research project. We’ll refer to this as the ‘thesis-asartefact’.

‘Thesis’ also means what is argued in that written product: the argument, the position established and developed. We’ll call this the ‘thesis-as-argument’.

Sometimes students (and some supervisors) concentrate on the thesis in the first sense, the thesis-as-artefact, and lose sight of the thesis-as-argument. Conversely, some students and supervisors focus on the thesis-as-argument to the exclusion of the need to produce a readable document able to persuade the reader to the writer’s point of view.

Masters and (especially) doctoral theses must have a thesis in the second sense—they must have a central argument. In this sense, the thesis might be viewed as the guiding principle in terms of which all of the material, examples, evidence, illustrations, analysis and hypotheses that constitute your work are coherent and relevant.

The thesis-as-argument must be clearly explicated. Otherwise the examiner may miss, for example, the way in which your evidence, analysis, hypotheses, etc. are coherent and relevant. Your argument needs to be clear, explicit and explained.

From the very early stage of your project you should be focussing on developing your thesis-as-argument. At this stage it’s likely to be hypothetical, something to be tested. Expect your argument to change over time, as you read, research and reflect. But without a sense of what you propose to argue, you lack a framework and point of reference informing even what evidence you collect, what data you collate, what theories you apply, and what methodologies you develop.

Thesis as ‘filling the gap’

It’s common to hear academics talking about a thesis as ‘filling a gap’ in the literature—in what is known about a particular topic. Many students (and some supervisors) are mystified as to how to locate the gap and how to go about ‘filling’ it.

It is important to realise from the outset that the gap isn’t like a pothole. It’s not as if you are ambling along a country road and before you know it you’ve stumbled into a hole.

The gap is a space that you—guided by your supervisor and your own reading— create and  articulate, at the intersection of the literature (existing knowledge) and your research (emerging new knowledge).

Think of the literature as what we know about something. This is why reviewing the literature is fundamental to research, because in reviewing the literature you are reviewing what we know. Only then are you in a position to say how your research is contributing something new to knowledge.

Finding the gap is a creative exercise. It requires reading with purpose—where the purpose is to  locate unexplored or under-explored questions or dimensions. It doesn’t mean that you have to come up with a revolutionary new theory. But it does mean that you are aware of (and can articulate) how you are addressing a question, or an aspect of a question, which has not been adequately dealt with in the literature. This implies that there are good intellectual reasons why this particular question or aspect needs to be more fully explored, as you propose to do in your thesis.

It might be a remark in the conclusion of a book or another thesis on the need for further research that points you towards a gap. Or it might be a comment tucked away in a footnote drawing the reader’s attention to how a claim being made might need to be further tested to establish if it applies to other groups, or times, or circumstances. Or it might be your nagging sense that something is missing in what’s been written on a topic—that something important remains unsaid or unexplained.

As we will consider at greater length in the next section, as a research student you tend to begin with a broad topic of interest. As you become more familiar with the literature and what research  as already been done, you will begin to see the gaps in  knowledge of the area.

As you read the literature you will be on the lookout for a gap in our knowledge (as represented by the literature) that your Research Question can address—so that you end up with an original contribution to knowledge. As you begin to frame your Research Question this will guide your reading—just as your continuing reading will refine and modify your Research Question.

It’s a bit of a chicken and egg situation as to whether the Research Question emerges out of the reading, or vice versa. But the practical benefit of striving to frame a Research Question from the outset is that your reading becomes more focused, because you’re on the lookout in the literature  for what’s been written that might be relevant to your emerging Research Question—and in terms of finding a gap, what hasn’t  been written.

You need to be careful that you don’t make exaggerated claims about ‘the gap’—its nature or its significance. Exaggerated claims will be dismissed by the examiner, and will affect the credibility of your thesis.

At the same time, the contribution your thesis is making to knowledge (‘filling the gap’) needs to be clearly signalled to the examiner. Getting the right balance is important, and expect to be guided and assisted by your supervisor in getting the balance right.


According to Phillips and Pugh’s How to get a PhD, what makes a textbook perse inadequate for a PhD is its lack of a thesis-as-argument. But there is no reason why a thesis shouldn’t read as well as a book! The difference is, it must have a thesis-asargument.

You might approach constructing your argument as establishing the relationship between your THESIS (argument or claim), the EVIDENCE you adduce to support your claim, and the THEORETICAL-CONCEPTUAL FRAMEWORK that makes the evidence relevant to your claim.

Let’s consider a very simple example of the way in which applying different theoretical  approaches to a body of evidence can fundamentally change the thesis-as argument that we arrive at. Imagine that you are writing a thesis on the extent to which the position of female workers in the Thai silk industry has improved over the last decade. Note how, depending on the theoretical model you apply, the same evidence can lead to quite different conclusions.

Marx and Weber were both interested in understanding why certain people and groups in society exercise more influence than others. Think of their respective theoretical frameworks as a window or prism through which they viewed the evidence and constructed their explanation (or thesis).

You might have noticed that the two theories are not incompatible or mutually exclusive. They’re really talking about different things. Thus, according to a Marxist framework that focuses on one’s relationship to the means of production—and which might therefore be particularly interested in the evidence for owning shares in the industry—of course the position of workers has not improved over the last decade.

But if, following weber’s model, we want to assess improvement in terms of levels of income, status and exercise of power (such as having a role in the trade union), we can interrogate the evidence and arrive at a fundamentally different answer to our Research Question.

If you were, in fact, writing a thesis on the position of female workers in the Thai silk industry, you could accommodate both theories in your work, both showing how they mediate our understanding of the situation.

The critical issue in using theories is being aware of what you are doing. In the natural sciences theory tends to refer to a body of law-like generalisations which can be used to explain empirical phenomena. In the social sciences, it’s more the set of assumptions and concepts we use for understanding the object of our inquiry. In both areas, theory simultaneously involves detachment and attachment—stepping back from the empirical data, and at the same time getting ‘inside’ it by giving it meaning.

The etymology of the word is instructive. The Greek word theoria has the sense of ‘looking at’, ‘viewing’, ‘contemplation’, ‘speculation’. Notice how active these qualities are: looking at, viewing, contemplating, speculating. All of them imply a self-consciousness, an awareness of what you’re doing—a level of reflectiveness and reflexivity, which gives to any theory a certain hypothetical quality.

Theory is not always used in this way—as a means of understanding and explaining data. It can also be used for determining what counts as data—which can mean that evidence that might disprove the theory is not even considered because it’s not recognised as ‘evidence’. A related issue is the extent to which—if at all—it is possible to conceive of evidence that is not already saturated by theory. These issues point us to the deeper epistemological question of how we know what we know.

From a sociology of knowledge perspective, ‘theories’ are considered not only to describe phenomena, but also to shape them. As sociologists of knowledge Peter Berger Thomas Luckmann pointed out back in the 1960s:

Reality is socially defined. But the definitions are always embodied, that is, concrete individuals and groups of individuals serve as definers of reality. To understand the state of the socially constructed universe at any given time, or, its change over time, one must understand the social organization that permits the definers to do their defining. Put a little crudely, it is essential to keep pushing questions about the historically available conceptualizations of reality from the abstract ‘what?’ to the sociologically concrete ‘Says who?’

In relation to your own research, what do you discover when you ask of the ‘what’— ‘says who?’ What happens when you consciously set out to find others who might define reality according to a different theoretical perspective—who work with a different conceptualization of the ‘what’?

In terms of the epistemological issue of how we know what we know, try posing some beginning pragmatic questions like: ‘How applicable is my theory?’ ‘what is its explanatory power (or, what is it explaining)?’ And, ‘what are its limitations?’ You certainly need to know—and indicate—why the theory you’re using is (the most) appropriate for the issue you’re investigating, for the question you’re answering.

Then ask yourself: ‘what other theoretical approaches have I considered?’ ‘what other theoretical approaches are there?’ ‘where do I look for them?’

For the last question, most of you would probably answer, ‘In the literature’. And you’d be right. But for the exercise to be meaningful, it is necessary to adopt a critical stance vis-à-vis the literatures3 you are ‘interrogating’. And, as Barbara Kamler and Pat Thomson have noted:

Being critical involves making a number of judgements and decisions about which literatures to engage with, and which to ignore, which aspects of texts to stress and which to omit or downplay. Adopting a critical stance to a text means paying attention to: definitions; underpinning assumptions; theoretical resources mobilized; epistemology and methodology; method (who, what, where, how); and findings.

Note that being critical doesn’t mean being indecisive. It doesn’t mean that you can’t have confidence in the theory or theories you’re using in your research. But it does mean that you have satisfied yourself (and ultimately your examiners) that the theory is applicable, useful and valuable for understanding what it is you’re investigating— that you haven’t accepted it simply on the say-so of your supervisor or some other authority without asking the kinds of questions suggested above.

what you have to be on guard against is that you don’t accept theory uncritically, and put it in place of the evidence rather than using it as a means for apprehending and understanding the evidence.


Ron Adams (2013). DEMYSTIFY YOUR  THESIS (p.20) . Victoria University.

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