Some notes on synthesis/analysis

Following Pat Bazeley's advice1, you need to read, reflect and then explore connections between the ideas, concepts, models, themes, categories and metaphors you find in each paper. Each paper needs to be read and re-read. Begin with a quick skim to get an overall idea of what is being presented. Remember the paper you are reading is the product of doing what you are doing, except they were working from transcripts of interviews, observations, field notes etc.

While it is relatively straightforward, allowing for different ways of describing the same theme or category in papers, to map the pattern of themes across papers, generating secondary or analytical themes from them means you have to do some work. Just as the folk who wrote the papers did, you need to write as you read. When you have finished a paper, take some time to pause and think. You have, for the moment a good understanding of that paper. Now is the time to think about it. Ask questions, think about connections to other papers you have read. Why was the study done? What were the key findings? Does anything strike you as odd about the paper? Have you learned anything new from this paper? Has it added to your collection of concepts that contribute to your research focus?

All of this can go into your trusty notebooks. With anything that goes into a notebook you must date and time stamp it.

It may well be that knowing what others in the group are working on there is an idea or insight that has come to mind. Write it down. Send them a note about it on Slack.

Your day-to-day feelings matter as well. Write about them as you play with ideas from and across papers. When you stumble upon an insight write about your initial thinking, where it came from, why you think it matters and so on. All of this will be invaluable when you come to craft the account of your analysis.

If you only write in your notebooks and never return to them they will serve no useful purpose. Go back to your earlier writing about a paper and annotate your thoughts. What has changed since you made your initial notes? Does it look like it is a useful shift?

Most contemporary software will allow you to make connections via hyperlinks to documents, files, or other text.

For each paper, try and sum up, in your words not the author(s), what the paper is arguing.

It may seem silly to talk about playing with the data, your collection of papers but it is a useful way of getting away from leaping to conclusions about what you have. So instead of opting for the first dot joining that comes to mind, pay attention to things like the missing dots, the ignored dots or the anti-dots. In other words try for a number of different syntheses. Then road test them with colleagues or friends.

All accounts of research are framed. The ways in which the findings are told will employ metaphors, perhaps a model below the surface of a paper's logic. It is easy to slip into agreement with a bleedingly obvious frame, as in "yep that's how it all works". You can interfere with that problem by trying to generate as many different frames for the issue you are working with as possible. May2 calls it framestorming. The approach to generating frames is asking lots of questions, particularly about the ideas or patterns you have taken for granted.

Mental models
In working with your collection of papers you will likely have been employing a mental model of the issue or problem in which you are interested. That is what we all do when faced with new phenomena. We find a familiar model that helps explain things to ourselves. What you can do to disrupt your comfy model is to try an inversion or create an opposite world.

To illustrate. Seelig3 uses the example of a circus in a course she teaches on entrepreneurship and innovation at Stanford University. She shows them a few clips from the 1939 Marx brothers movie at the circus and asks them to write down all of the characteristics of a circus. Typically she ends up with a list like this: a big tent, animals, cheap tickets, barkers selling souvenirs, several acts performing at once, playful music, clowns, popcorn, strong men, flaming hoops… She then asks her students to turn things upside down. This generates an opposite world of: small tent, no animals, expensive tickets, single act, one act performing at a time, sophisticated music, no clowns etc. She then has them pick items from the traditional list that they want to keep and the things they want to change. They typically end up with a list for the features of Cirque du Soleil.

You may have noted that some of the sources for these ideas come from what some education academics would label the dark side, i.e. the world of business. It's as if the practices that go on on that side of things are somehow inferior and tainted because of profit motives. In fact, many of the problems faced by business are similar to many of the problems teachers and policy makers grapple with. To ignore a source on the basis of a silly prejudice is just silly. Drawing on sources such as these can be hard work because so many of the examples are given in terms of business problems. It's worth the effort.

Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 License