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Friday, October 8, 2021

The thesis and the smoking gun

 Let's not make too big a deal out of the thesis. It is simply a guiding idea, susceptible to being phrased in a sentence. I learned that a piece of scholarship should have such an idea. Not all of them do, and I think those that don't suffer from that.  It's sort of like saying a play should have a central action, like Aristotle thought.  

Now I think a good thesis has to be true and significant. There are plenty of ideas that are true about a work of literature, that might be too self-evident, i.e., not significant enough. We can't just point out the obvious. There are also ideas that are counter intuitive, or surprising, but that aren't true either. Ideas without evidence except, "I think so."  It is easy to see that these ideas are not interesting  or significant either, because they are not true (backed up by evidence). So truth is a condition of significance. 

Suppose my idea is that space aliens dictated 100 Years of Solitude to its author. Highly significant, if true, but just an irrelevant fantasy if not.  

My late colleague Debicki  used to say he would rather be interesting than correct. But you cannot be interesting unless you are first correct. 

Here's one: in two novels, Miguel Delibes refers directly to the reforms of Vatican II, and puts the critique in the mouths of conservative characters. (Cinco horas con Mario / Los santos inocentes.) That would be a good thesis for undergraduate paper, because, while not counterintuitive or surprising, it it worthy of note and development. You would have a read-made organization for the paper. Explain Vatican II, explain the support of the church for Franco regime, and vice-versa, and then write two separate sections on the characters who criticize it: the conservative Carmen who narrates 5 horas, and the cruel Señorito Iván of Los santos inocentes.  

There could be some wiggle room around the edges. We want students to be a little bit daring too. There could be a thesis that is arguably true but won't convince everyone. In those cases I like to see the "smoking gun," in other words, the piece of evidence that tips the balance to the validity of the argument.  


Thomas Basbøll said...

For the social sciences, I always recommend a thesis statement that is theoretically significant and empirically true. So you don't just say "This paper shows that sensemaking is sometimes a prospective process." You say, "This paper shows that the R&D department of XYZ Corp. engages in prospective sensemaking." This is significant because sensemaking is normally considered a retrospective process, but it true (if it is) because of what is going on in a particular department of a particular company. To make the claim, I must have conducted some kind of empirical study (interviews, surveys, ethnography, etc.), but in order for my readers to understand it, they have to be familiar with sensemaking theory.

Jonathan said...

So that would be a good example. I have my doubts about "sensemaking," though. Those doubts are due to your own critiques of Weick, since that's the only context I have encountered the term.

Thomas Basbøll said...

Yes, I'm using it only as an example. You would have to be part of the sensemaking community (that rejects my critique ... and me!) to find the paper interesting. But that's also part of constructing a meaningful thesis statement: it has to be meaningful to "Kuhn's two dozen" peers, whose minds would have to change for there to be a "paradigm shift".