Remember that your analysis has artfully disappointed your reader’s (theoretical) expectations of your (empirical) object. This isn’t a bad feeling. It’s what the reader wanted to happen, since they wanted to learn something from your paper, not merely have their existing beliefs affirmed. But learning has consequences. The reader’s mind has changed. In your discussion section you should make those changes explicit.

Think about this in terms of the implications of your results, either for theory or for practice. Your results will generally show that there is some tension between what the theory expected of the people you studied and how they actually behaved in practice. This tension has to be somehow resolved; something has to give.

You can propose changes to the theory that incorporates the experience of your subjects. Next time you study a similar kind of practice, then, you will expect to find (or will at least not be “disappointed” to find) the same kinds of behavior. You are explaining to the reader how they should look at the world going forward, what they should notice, and what they should not be blind to. You are adjusting their perspective on the world, setting it in a new light. The locus of this adjustment (the “knobs” you are turning, if you will) are the concepts that the theory organizes into a system. You might propose to add a concept or remove one. Or you might propose some “tweaking”, a slight adjustment in the scope or application of the concept. Whatever you do, remember that you are making future observations easier or harder to make; you are giving the reader new or better tools to form judgments about their own data.

(Make sure you set the theoretical implications up in your theory section.)

Alternatively, you can propose changes to the practices you have studied. This might involve sketching new policies that could govern those practices in ways that bring them more into line with the expectations of the theory. You are here assuming that, even though it the study didn’t find what your reader expected, its the practice, not the theory, that is to blame. There are lots of papers like this. They will derive “best practices” or “codes of conduct” from the results of the study; or they might prose changes in government regulations. Some will be explicitly political, stating a clear policy objective (about which their may be controversy in the public sphere). This shows that there’s a lot of “rhetoric” in a discussion section. It’s not about how things are but how they ought to be. Accordingly, the practical implications will often turn on the readers’ emotions, just as theoretical implications hinge on their concepts. That can be a good thing to keep in mind while writing.

(You should set your practical implications up in your background section.)

In any case, try to keep your discussion section focused on a limited set of key points. Each will propose a change in how the reader sees or does things. You are trying to bring about a shift in the reader’s understanding and/or engagement with the world that you share. Give a paragraph to each proposed change. Argue as best you can for why your results demand this change. Throughout, make a deliberate effort to appeal to the reasons and the passions of your readers–their conceptual and emotional apparatus. At this point in your paper, after all, they should be ready for a change.

[Back to outline.]