Developing a strong argument requires you to do more than just summarise the main ideas of each source - an approach that is likely to result in a very descriptive rather than analytical paper. To demonstrate your critical thinking, you must synthesise your sources. Snythesising involves combining multiple sources that share similar ideas.

The following statement, for example, points out a similar approach taken by economists and behavioural scientists when investigating a specific issue:

Economists and behavioural scientists have documented cross‐sectional evidence for an approximately U‐shaped path of happiness and well‐being over the majority of the human lifespan (Warr 1992; Clark & Oswald 1994).

How to synthesise?

To synthesise:

  • Identify similar studies
  • Identify contrasting studies
  • Plot the relatedness of the information:
    • Where is there agreement?
    • What are the authors' different viewpoints? What explains these differences?
  • What key issues or themes emerge? How do these issues or themes relate to each other (structure)?
  • Use language to explicitly show how the studies are related to each other
  • Write your synthesis in the context of your overall position and arguments

Identify similar studies

Studies could be similar in a range of ways. Studies can have similar aims, questions, outcomes or make similar arguments. The scholars could belong to the same school of thought (i.e. theory) or adopt the same methodology or approach to their study.

In the following example of a psychology essay on the complex interaction of nature and nurture in face recognition, the student introduces one side of the debate by combining studies that argue that face recognition is 'innate':

Evidence for the experience-independent view of face recognition suggests that there is an area in the brain that is specialised to process faces (Kanwisher 2000; Kanwisher, McDermott, & Chun 1997; Nelson 2001; Tong et al. 2000), an ability which appears very early in life (Pascali et al. 2005) and can operate without exposure to faces (Sugita 2008).

Identify contrasting studies

It is also important to identify studies that offer alternative arguments, perspectives and approaches to more dominant or traditional scholarship. Even studies that take a broadly similar approach or theory can exhibit important differences. For example, in international relations, the realist school of thought is divided into classical realism and neorealism. Furthermore, there are two variants of neorealism: defensive and offensive. Pointing out these differences and interrogating where these differences come from allows you to make more nuanced arguments and connections.

In the same psychology essay, the student introduces the alternative theory or other side of the debate, drawing together studies that argue the skill to recognise faces comes from 'early visual experience':

The experience-expectant theory of face recognition has also gained empirical support, provided by evidence which indicates that early visual experience is essential to the development of face recognition (Le Grand et al. 2003). Additionally, other research found phenomena known as the other-race effect (Sangrigoli et al. 2005) and the other-species effect (Pascalis et al. 2005), which are dependent on experience.  

Note the use of the word, 'additionally' to indicate that the 2003 study is not alone in making this argument. The student goes on to cite two other studies that support the experience-expectant theory.

Plot the relatedness of the information

When reading and note-taking for your assignments, it is important to look for shared ideas, where there is agreement or consensus on an issue in terms of how that issue should be understood, explained and / or resolved. Also, look for different perspectives and ideas, where scholars disagree or have different findings and conclusions. Can you explain the similarities as well as differences?

Identify key issues and themes

What key issues or themes emerge from mapping the relationship between your sources? Are there macro (big picture, overriding) and micro (smaller, more specific) themes? Is there a clear narrative?

This process may involve reframing, highlighting disagreements and agreements that have not been foregrounded previously in the literature. This process can even lead you to new insights and paradigms, which is more of an expectation if you are writing a PhD thesis but not a coursework assignment.

In this published example,[1] the author draws our attention to criticism levelled at one perspectivefor being 'too broad' from at least two sources, and identifies another source suggesting how this problem could be resolved by defining agency more specifically:

The compliant agency perspective has been criticized for defining agency too broadly (Burke 2012; Lazreg 2013), with some scholars arguing that agency should be defined as acting against domination (Moghissi 2011).

This is an important move by the author, who goes on to acknowledge the useful insights of the compliant agency perspective as embodied in the work of one particular scholar (Mahmood 2005), but ultimately argues that the perspective has limitations:

In my view, Mahmood's (2005) work has helped social scientists to see that agency may include different capacities for action, including not aimed at liberation. However, this conception of pious agency as compliant or docile has its limits...

When synthesising, work out what you wish to highlight based on your overall argument. Make sure you pull out the main ideas of your sources and show their relevance or connection to your task.

Synthesising sources is clearly a complex skill and an important way to combine and integrate multiple sources in your work. However, to achieve even better grades, you need to develop your position and voice, as demonstrated in the Rinaldo example above. What do you think about the various arguments and issues? Make it clear to readers where you stand on the specific issues you have identified and why. Distinguish your ideas from others' by showing your critical analysis and developing your voice.

As you will see in the next section on style and authorial voice, developing your voice requires declaring your affinity to certain ideas / arguments and not others within a debate. Avoid fence sitting or ambiguity about where you stand on certain issues or how you feel about the contribution of particular research to knowledge.

[1] Adapted from Rinaldo, R 2014, 'Pious and critical: Muslim women activists and the question of Agency', Gender & Society, vol. 28, no. 6, p. 828.