Changing Voices
: a diachronic and synchronic study of legal theses written by PhD students at LSE between 1925 & 2015

  • Alison J Standring

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Education (EdD)


Genre analysis has informed EAP (English for Academic Purposes) research and pedagogy since the 1980s and has been vital to understanding how discourse communities use rhetorical structure and lexico-grammar for communicative effect. However, most analysis has been of research articles rather than student-produced texts like PhD theses and, where analysis of PhD theses has taken place, it has not been in the field of law. Moreover, while increasing attention has been paid to the social contexts shaping genres, few EAP researchers have taken a diachronic perspective and thus genres are not fully understood as historically-developed and continually changing.

In this dissertation, I conduct a diachronic and synchronic study of legal theses written by PhD students at LSE between 1925 and 2015. More specifically, I compare a corpus of ten theses written between 1925 and 1938 with a corpus of ten theses written between 2014 and 2015. Focusing on the thesis introductions, I use a mixture of discourse analysis and corpus analysis, to analyse three areas: rhetorical structure, writing style and use of literature with the aim of examining what changes, if any, have taken place. To complement my textual analysis, I also examine the disciplinary and institutional contexts and use a combination of surveys and semi-structured interviews to obtain insights from PhD supervisors and students in the Department of Law. As such, my dissertation is grounded in an EAP approach to genre analysis but differs from typical approaches by containing a diachronic dimension.

My results demonstrate that diachronic change has clearly taken place. The overall trend is toward longer introductions with a greater focus on presenting the research; a writing style which is less readable but more engaged; and use of a far greater quantity of literature in a more integrated manner. By showing that PhD theses are a complex genre exhibiting both inter- and intra- disciplinary differences, I underscore the importance of genre-based approaches celebrating individuality as well as homogeneity, and by taking a diachronic perspective, I provide an insight into how texts are affected by context in the belief that understanding how genres have evolved makes teachers and students better equipped to cope with how they will evolve. My research contributes to existing knowledge in that, to my knowledge, a synchronic analysis of PhD legal theses has never been conducted, nor has a diachronic analysis of PhD theses in any discipline.
Date of Award26 Nov 2020
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Bristol
SupervisorFrances Giampapa (Supervisor)

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