Wednesday, November 05, 2014

Theoretical and Conceptual Papers

I originally proposed my forty-paragraph outline as a guide for the writing of what I call "the standard social science paper". This is the kind of paper that presents the result of an empirical study, framed by a familiar theory, guided by an accepted methodology, and with definite implications for theory or practice. I was recently asked about theoretical papers and, since I get this question often, I was sure that I could just point to a post on this blog that answered it. It wasn't quite as easy as I thought (though there is this post), and I thought the best solution would be to just write a fresh post on the subject.

What I will be offering here is not a normative guideline for what a theory paper should accomplish, of course. I'll leave that to the major theorists, especially those who serve as the editors of the journals that publish such papers. Instead, I will propose a way of organizing twenty hours work such that, at the end of it, you have produced the first draft of a 40-paragraph theory paper. This draft can then be edited into shape for publication. In outline, it will look as follows:

1. Introduction (3 paras)
2. Historical Background (5)
3. State of the Art (5)
4. Critical Occasion (5)
5. Conceptual Analysis (3 x 5)
6. Discussion (5)
7. Conclusion (2)

Remember that each paragraph should make a single, easily identifiable claim and either support it or elaborate it. It should consist of at least six sentences and at most 200 words. It should be written in exactly 27 minutes.

The introduction will consist of three paragraphs. The first paragraph should be devoted to a history of your field up to the present. The scope of this history will depend on your judgment. Whether your history starts in ancient Athens, in eighteenth-century England, or in Paris of 1968 depends on the contribution you want to make. The second paragraph should be devoted to the present state of the theory. What is the reigning consensus or standing controversy that defines your field of research. This, obviously, should be the state you want transform in some interesting way, either by settling a dispute or unsettling an agreement.

The third paragraph should announce your contribution. "In this paper, I will argue that..." Notice that "supporting or elaborating" this claim, which is about your paper not your theory, does not yet require you to argue your position. You only have to describe a paper that would make such a contribution. And that means you will essentially be outlining your paper. Now, you have already introduced the historical background in paragraph 1, which will have space to talk about in part two of the paper, so you don't have say anything more here. Also, in the second paragraph you have introduced the current state of the theory, which you will elaborate in greater detail the third part of the paper. What is left is to say something about how the theoretical problem you are interested in arose and why you are the right person to deal with it, to outline your analysis a little more, and to tell us why it is important, i.e., to summarize your discussion. That is, the conclusion ends with an outline of parts 4, 5 and 6 of the paper.

Part 4 takes the place of the methods section of a standard empirical paper. In a sense, you are still saying what you did, but it is perhaps more accurate to say that you are explaining what happened to you to force you into a theoretical reflection. It may simply be a development within your field (someone else's or your own empirical results, published elsewhere) or it may be an "event" like the publication of a correspondence or a translation of a previously untranslated work by a major theorist. World events, too, may be relevant here. After 1989 and 2001 there were all kinds of reasons to "rethink" the theories that framed work in a whole range social sciences. Since you're saying how the problem arose, you will also need to say what materials came into view: what texts have you read and how have you read them?

Part 5 will present your argument in detail. It's a good idea to divide the argument into sub-theses each of which can be demonstrated separately. Two to four sections of three to six paragraphs gives you some manageable space to work with here. Finally, part 6 will cash out your analysis in consequences, usually for theory, though sometimes for practice. (You might want to emphasize the important political consequences of your line of thinking.) An important class of "theoretical" implications here is "method". If you're right that we have to see the world in a new way (a theory is always a way of seeing the world) then perhaps we will have to do things differently too?

The conclusion should consist of two paragraphs, one of which states your conceptual argument in the strongest, simplest terms you can imagine. You may want to use the sentence that completes the key sentence of paragraph three (i.e., everything after "I will argue that") as a key sentence here. The last paragraph could suitably extend the history of the field that you presented in paragraph 1 and elaborated in part 2 by imagining a possible future.

I hope that's useful. Don't hesitate to add your own suggestions or questions in the comments.


Presskorn said...

Science is to the world what theory is to history? (That's not quite right, is it?)

And although I get the point; I'm not exactly sure that substitution of the "world" (in social science) for "history" (for theory) is quite right or at least not sure that it's a very helpful way of phrasing it. Paragraph one, it seems to me, should not be history straight. Even if describing history, it should be "presentist". E.g. I think the first paragraph could read something like "Much like modern social theory, Aristotle wondered whether ...", but it strikes me as quite odd to start off with history straight along the lines "In his book De Anima from the 4th century BC, Aristotle wondered whether..."

The problem repeats itself later in the model, where I think I would "the critical occasion" further up towards the beginning...

Thomas said...

No, science is to the world what politics is to history.

The oddness you might experience reading a history that begins "straight off" in any particular place or time only says something about what field you're in. "Durkheim was, perhaps, the first sociologist to face directly the question of what a 'social fact' is. Accordingly, he was also the first to fail, seriously, to answer it."

In most social science theory papers, perhaps, it's hard to imagine starting with De Anima, but it's not at all impossible in a paper on social metaphysics, written in a recognizably "continental" or "postmodern" style. For example, couldn't you imagine a Agamben or Zizek starting more or less exactly that way?

On my model, the critical occasion will be mentioned already in paragraph 3, and then detailed after the history and the state of the art have been unpacked.

Presskorn said...

The Durkheim sentence is good, mind if I use it? :-)

And actually, I did occur to me when I wrote it that someone like Agamben (or Russell or Grice in their brilliant short 5 page articles) might actually start with something "In his book De Anima from the 4th century BC, Aristotle wondered whether...". Agamben will typically go on to say everything about Aristotle's questions are completely indeterminate (due to some non-standard reading of some obscure medieval sources), while Russell or Grice will go on to say that they now conclusively answer Aristotle's questions in 5 pages.

Zizek, on the other hand, almost always starts from critical occasion (e.g. "A spectre is haunting modern academia...") or the world (e.g. "The Danish Cartoon Crisis conclusively shows the misery of comtempoary political...") But I guess you've also previously given us reason to think that we should emphatically *not* model our writing on Zizek (or Agamben).

There is, I guess, something immodest (perhaps even arrogant) about starting as Agamben (or Russell or Grice). And I wonder if that is something to cultivate in a model for writing theory articles. After all, not many of us can back up that sort of immodesty by filling the shoes of someone like Russell.

Haitham Jafar said...

V good read, thanks.

One issue -for me- is how to move from intro to background and so on. I mean moving in such an eloquent + engaging style.

* Forgive my ignorance but why 27 minutes exactly? I did not get that!

Thomas said...

27 minutes.

Haitham Jafar said...

*reading it*


Thomas said...

@Presskorn: The fear of sounding arrogant should never undermine your responsibility to sound like you know what you're talking about. If you can't confidently assert what Aristotle's project was in De Anima you should obviously not write a paper that traces its history back to it. If you can thus assert, however, and if you are going to write such a paper, then you should not worry about sounding arrogant. Your choice of subject matter has already marked you pretty unambiguously as a particular kind of person, with a particular set of interests and ambitions.

Thomas said...

P.S. Sorry, I may need to use that sentence about Durkheim myself.

Presskorn said...

Understandbly, it a good sentence :-) For some reason, I would change the last preposition though. I don't think there is a strict grammatical reason [?], but I much prefer "...also the first to fail, seriously, in answering it" or "...also the first to fail, seriously, at answering it".

Also, before being too rough with Durkheim's supposedly "positivist" notion of a social fact; remember that what he wrote was actually "fait social" - cf.