Monday, December 26, 2011

Developing and Refining your Thesis

Web Resources: Developing and Refining your Thesis

What is a thesis anyway?
Basically, a thesis is an assertion that a paper or argument is designed to prove/support. At the research stage, a thesis is the reasonable assumption (based on what is already known) that an experiment or observation will seek to prove or disprove. To avoid confusion, composition teachers tend to call this the working thesis. The final thesis is the conclusion that is reached at the end of the research: a reasonable interpretation of the available evidence. A thesis is not a statement of fact. A thesis is not an assertion that no reasonable person would accept based on the evidence at hand. Nor is a thesis something that most reasonable people would conclude based on the evidence at hand. A thesis is an interpretation that explains the data but that could be reasonably disputed by others who have also studied the data.

How does a thesis differ from a topic?
The topic of your paper is the subject you are exploring. Your topic might be "Wicca." You might introduce your topic by saying "I am exploring Wicca in this paper." But that isn't a thesis. Nor is "This paper will explore Wicca, an increasingly popular religion." Even though some might debate Wicca's increasing popularity and others might argue that it isn't a religion, the previous statement isn't a thesis, it is a promise (about what the paper will do). A thesis on the topic might be "Although some refuse to acknowledge that Wicca is a religion, it is one because it meets what we generally accept to be the major characteristics of a religion." The thesis does not need to be written out as one sentence, but by the time readers have reached the end of the introduction, they should be able to write out the thesis in pretty much the same way as the author did [see reviewing papers for thesis]. The introduction to the paper described here should list the characteristics that the writer believes characterize a religion, and the paper would address each one to show how the writer came to the conclusion that Wicca is a religion.

How does one develop a thesis?
In order to write an effective thesis, a writer must consider several features of what we call the rhetorical situation. According to John T. Gage, the rhetorical situation consists of the following:
1) a question at issue
2) a stance
3) a strategy
4) assumptions
Gage argues that (1) and (4) are determined by the audience, and (2) and (3) are determined by the writer ("A General Theory of the Enthymeme" 168-69). Notice that in the description below these features are written in this order rather than in the order listed above:
  • (1) THE QUESTION: The question is the thing that has driven the research, whether it is a point of disagreement between two groups (like the Wicca argument above, which began "Why might one believe that Wicca is a religion?") or something that several people might like to understand ("why is Wicca growing in popularity?"). The audience determines what are appropriate questions ("Should I join a coven?" is not an appropriate question for a college-level research paper, for example), so authors must have a good sense of the expectations of their audience before they begin developing questions.
  • Once you have a good sense of the material relating to your topic (perhaps as a result of writing a background synthesis or an annotated bibliography), make a list of questions that one might ask about that material. Select one or two, and reread your research material trying to find an answer. Don't pick questions that lead to yes/no answers ("do Wiccan's worship specific gods or goddesses?") or statements of fact ("what are the names of the major god and goddesses in Wicca?"). Instead, select questions that will encourage interpretation ("why might one believe that Wicca is a religion?" or "why is Wicca growing in popularity?").
  • (4) ASSUMPTIONS: Just as they must understand what constitutes an appropriate question according to their audience, authors must also understand their audiences' assumptions about other things related to the topic and the larger society in which they live. Arguments draw on the shared assumptions of the author and his or her audience for their success (in the Wicca case, for example, audience and author must assume that it is possible for there to be more than one religion, that discussing what constitutes a religion is a worthwhile expenditure of time, and that the nature of things can be determined by looking at their parts). When the author and the audience share assumptions, the author can depend on a certain logical framework as he or she develops the paper. Students who are learning to write for academic audiences need to spend some time learning what assumptions they can assume their readers share, and they need to bear this in mind as they develop a thesis and a strategy for writing the paper.
  • (2) STANCE: The author determines a stance on the topic based on the answers he or she found to the question (in the example being given here, the stance is "Wicca is a religion"). This stance then becomes the thesis. As you are thinking about your material and continuing your research always ask "what question am I trying to answer here?" If you keep your research question in mind you will read with a view to answering it. If you develop a thesis too soon, you will read only to prove what you already believe. That isn't research (re-search); it is looking for proof.
  • (3) STRATEGY: The author develops a strategy to support the thesis, in the form of the layout of the paper and the evidence that will be used in it. However, in doing so, the author must always keep (1) and (4) in mind, or the paper runs the risk of failing to achieve its goal of both informing and persuading.

What is a Thesis Enthymeme?
An enthymeme is a form of syllogism known as a truncated syllogism. Syllogisms are used in logic in structures like "(a) virtues are praiseworthy; (b) kindness is a virtue; (c) therefore, kindness is
praiseworthy." As long as (a) and (b) are true, then (c) must be true as well. This kind of certainty might be reassuring, but it doesn't help you write a thesis-driven paper because there is nothing to dispute. A truncated syllogism is a syllogism in which one of the premises (a) or (b) is implied ("kindness is a virtue; therefore kindness is praiseworthy," for example, assumes that virtues are praiseworthy, but doesn't say so). But enthymemes are much more than just logical structures. Indeed, rhetorician John Gage argues that we should think of syllogisms as just a kind of enthymeme, and perceive enthymemes to be at the heart of rhetoric.

Why should I make one (how will it help me)?
The value of using enthymemes as you think about writing papers is that they help you to explore all the parts of the rhetorical situation before you start writing. In order to make a thesis enthymeme, you must think about your question, your thesis, your audience, and your assumptions. Once you have considered all of these things you are well on the way to writing a good paper.

How do I make one?
An enthymeme has four parts:
1) An implied question (this is your basic research question, but it is implied
because you don't write it out in the paper)
2) An Assertion (i.e.: a thesis)
3) A "because" clause (like the strategy discussed before, a list of the reasons
you will cite to support your thesis)
4) An implied premise (i.e.: an assumption that readers will share with the writer)
You make one by writing out what your implied question, assertion, "because" clause, and implied premise are. For example,
1) An implied question: Why do some people think that Wicca is a religion?
2) An Assertion: Wicca is a religion
3) A "because" clause: Wicca meets the definition of "religion" offered by other
major religions that I have studied because it is a group of people who join together
to serve or worship a god or supernatural force, it has shared practices and
observances relating to this deity, it demands a commitment to its deities from those
who follow it, etc.
4) An implied premise: Religion can be defined as a group of people who
join together to serve, etc., etc. (I assume that the audience will share
my definition of religion, especially if I show them that others share it too)

Now What?
Once you have made a thesis enthymeme, you are ready to develop an outline of some sort (formal or not) based on the items listed in your "'because' clause." [Check out "Not Your Usual Outline" for a discussion of this.]