Avoid Textbook Definitions to Make Creswell Work for You -->

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Avoid Textbook Definitions to Make Creswell Work for You

To understand your argument, readers need to understand the terms you use. When you use a term that is unique to your field or your study, or if you use a term in a unique way, it needs to be defined.

In showing how a definition aligns, readers need more than just the definition and a few lines that say, “This is the case of my study.” The discussion that follows a definition must be stated in terms of the definition. Readers need to know how the tool (definition) fits the job (your study), rather than just learning the characteristics of the tool. So instead of simply discussing Creswell's ideas on mixed-methods research, also describe what Creswell's ideas have to do with your own.  In sum, the definition and the discussion need to be interwoven.

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According to Gary Burkholder, Senior Research Scholar at Walden U, abstract, textbook definitions should be avoided. Instead, they should reflect the context in which they are used. Otherwise they may fail to clarify the relationship between a term and how you use it in your study. Since such terms vary so greatly based on the context of the particular study, imprecise use often creates confusion for readers. Here are some common errors (which are true especially of quoted definitions):

  • It may be too broad or too narrow for your study
  • It may may lack detail or include extraneous material
  • It may reflect an angle or nuance that does not align with your study

Students in the social sciences commonly quote the definitions of experts—Creswell or Merriam or Lincoln and Guba, among others. But such quotes must also align fully with your study. They can't be too broad, too narrow, too short, or include extraneous material. Paraphrasing or summarizing often works better.

And by using paraphrase and summary to your advantage, you can choose to avoid explicit definitions. So, rather than starting out by writing “Creswell defines x as _________ ” and following with a discussion of your study in light of Creswell, you could first tell your readers the nature of your study, for example, and then use Creswell for support (typically as a parenthetical citation). Of course, the Creswell citation must truly contain material that supports your study. This model avoids the stricture of leading a paragraph with a (quoted) definition.

To illustrate the importance of contextualizing such definitions, here are two examples from recent Walden dissertations. In the first example, the writer defines the nature of qualitative research. (The a/b/c list format was added to help show the topic sentence defines the contents of the paragraph.)

Quantitative research is “(a) deductive, (b) objective, and (c) general” (Morgan, 2013, p. 47). In this research method the researcher uses a (a) deductive reasoning that starts with a premise and hypothesis, followed by standardized procedures, and ends with a logical conclusion.... Quantitative research is also (b) objective because it minimizes the researcher’s personal biases by using standardized measurements (Morgan, 2013). The purpose of standardized measurements is to separate the researcher’s beliefs from the results and conclusions. (c) Generality is another characteristic of quantitative research because the researcher can study a wider range of people and settings (Morgan, 2013). Generality leads the researcher to develop research questions based on the elements or variables found in theoretical or conceptual frameworks.

As you can see, what the student implied she would explain is, indeed, explained directly and in the same order. Support for the definitions is given parenthetically, which improves clarity and flow. Note that only three words are quoted in the paragraph.

The case is different, however, in the following paragraph by a different author. They are weakened by issues with context, completeness, and flow. (To simplify commenting on the problems, I’ve added my own analysis within brackets.)

Other research designs such as ethnography [this term would need to be defined] and phenomenology are not adequate…. Phenomenology is an approach with many nuances and addressing subjective experiences (Gill, 2014), such as perceptions of an organizational leader about succession. Phenomenology is a way to explicate diverse experiences, reducing the unique individual experience to the common experience and revealing the experiences as universal (Van Manen, 1990). [An explanation would be needed about (a) why either approach—ethnography or phenomenology—would not be adequate and (b) the relationship of the design(s) to the student’s research.]
In this case, the introductory (topic) sentence is not a guide to the paragraph’s content. Parts of the definitions are incomplete and are not shown to be aligned with the study. Some terms within the paragraphs have yet to be explained.

No one knows better what you want to say in your study than you do. Definitions are an important part—sometimes pivotal—and readers don’t have the chance to ask questions. It is up to you, the author, to ensure that no questions need be asked. This extended discussion of definitions, quotations, and flow can be summarized in three points:

  • Readers may be confused if you don’t define terms as needed and if your definitions do not speak directly to your study
  • The meaning of some terms may not be as obvious as you think
  • Paraphrasing or summarizing is preferred to quotations and both approaches make it easier to tie together your ideas, from sentence to sentence and paragraph to paragraph

* Special thanks to the brave souls who volunteered to have their writing shared with the world in this post and to all those writers who have shared their work with me over the years* 

Tim McIndoo came to Walden University in 2007 with over 30 years of editorial experience, including work as translator and photographer. He lives in Minneapolis with four cats.

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  1. What a great set of thoughts with such clear examples! Hopefully those of us reading this will feel liberated and empowered to think beyond quoting when it comes to definitions. Often in the past I thought definitions needed to be quoted directly and fully; perhaps I thought this way because of past instructors or because of my own distinction of definitions. It's nice to know that, just like assertions or even data sets, definitions can be reworked to be more fluidly incorporated into the writer's context.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Molly! We are glad that you found this post empowering!