All good things must come to an end — even your empirical research article in the social sciences.
In terms of structure and content, of all of the sections, the conclusion section of a research article in the social sciences has the fewest common expectations and the greatest variability.
What is the conclusion section of a research article?
Some folks think that conclusions should not present any new information. Others think this is the place for speculations and interesting and relevant stuff that didn’t seem to fit anywhere else (like the footnotes). There isn’t even a consensus on what to call this section. Some prefer “Discussion,” others “Conclusion and Discussion.”
Given the variability, there are still some good ways to structure it and some nearly-always useful content to provide.
In this post, I discuss how to write the conclusion section of a research article in the social sciences.
I recommend the book Writing Science: How to Write Papers That Get Cited and Proposals That Get Funded by Joshua Schimel (OUP 2012). I refer to specific page numbers and chapters from that book, but even if you have not read it, the following advice is straightforward.
1. Summary of what the article is about (a short paragraph, ca. 3 -4 sentences)
Unlike an abstract or an introduction or even a theory section, here you can summarize the (a) purpose and (b) the knowledge gap and research question and (c) the methods and data with specificity. You can assume that you are writing to an audience that has read the other sections of the paper. You do not have to define concepts or explain what the theories mean because you already did that in the preceding sections. You are writing to “experts” in a way; their expertise comes from reading the previous sections of your article.
2. If you have hypotheses, the fate of each one, in order (one or two paragraphs, depending on how many hypotheses you have)
After a summary, you slowly answer the research question that you posed in the beginning of the paper. Start with the hypotheses. Do they have empirical support? If so, to what extent? And if not, what happened? Here some anomalies can be raised. You can address the anomalies in detail towards the end of the conclusion.
3. Re-pose and answer, in a straightforward way, the research question(s) (one to three paragraphs, depending)
You’ve summarized and you’ve answered the specific research question.
4. Discuss limitations, but turn them into strengths
If you have important data limitations, you can raise them here, and see if you can turn those limitations into strengths. Schimel, in Chapter 18, tells the reader to raise these limitations earlier:
“Deal with the limitations as early as possible, get that discussion out of the way, and then get on with developing a strong story” (180) and “Depending on the issues, you may need to address limitations in any part of a paper or proposal; as a rule, earlier is better” (181).
Later (p.184), Schimel clarifies this:
“When constraints are methodological detail, address them in the Methods. When they go beyond that to affect how you interpret the data, you must address them in the Discussion.”
A key idea is that the limitations are actually strengths. “The limitations of X are a, b, and c. Although we did X, we still got a robust explanation for Y. In addition, through X, we were able to observe interesting features of Y that expand what we know about the phenomenon. Specifically…” (See also Schimel 2012: 187 – 188).
Imagine re-writing a grant proposal (like Madlibs) in the social sciences from Schimel’s earth sciences example (p. 183). It might look like this:
“Each of the methods proposed has potential limitations, and the utility of several have been questioned. However, we believe that we have constrained the limitations adequately. We have done this by being careful in interpreting what the data actually tell you (e.g. X1 rather than X2) and in part by carefully integrating different approaches to complement each other. Thus we believe that this suite of methods will do a good job of characterizing Y.”
5. Other: Anomalies, Speculations, Policy Suggestions, and Future Research
If you have interesting anomalies, discuss them here. If you want to posit future research questions, i.e. where this study can go next, pose them here. Likewise for policy suggestions or broader social impacts. Here is also a good place to discuss alternative explanations for the phenomenon, i.e. speculations. This is also a good place to address specific-yet-minor suggestions from the reviewers.
6. Last statement (one paragraph) in the conclusion section
Here is where you can remind people of your main “take away” message and why it is a contribution to the field of study. Yes, it is a bit of a repetition. But, this is a chance to formulate a clearer, stronger message that, if you had 100 -150 words, what you would want people to know about this article.
Copyright The Sociology Place 2022
Joshua K. Dubrow is a PhD from The Ohio State University and a Professor of Sociology at the Polish Academy of Sciences.