Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Dividing Your Time

The other week, it seems, I told one of my writing process groups that it was okay to count the time spent making powerpoint slides for seminars and classes as "writing time". I don't know how I got trapped into saying that, but it does raise an important subject, namely, that of categorizing your tasks.

Needless to say (I hope), it is not sufficient to use your calendar to distinguish only between "work" and "play" (or what some people call "life"). At work, as an academic, you need to distinguish, minimally, between the time you spend doing the three main kinds of work you will normally do: research, teaching, administration. But that is not enough; the confusion arose because writing can play a role in all three kinds of activity. So let's be clear: your writing schedule is a way to ensure you have time to produce publishable prose.

In your calendar, you should block off the time spent teaching as well as the time you spend preparing for class. This includes any writing that you might do to that end, which then does not count as "writing time". Your real writing time should, of course, also be scheduled, preferably so that you write every day (you take weekends off, of course), starting at the same time, and writing at least half an hour and at most four. Make sure you have at least one three-hour block to devote to your writing every week.

You should also leave time for administrative work. Since you do much of this "on the fly", you may find it useful to leave it blank in your calendar at first, then booking in tasks and meetings as they become concrete. If you can stay disciplined, writing only when you have scheduled writing time, and thinking about your classes only when you've scheduled time for that, then administrative tasks should be able to fill the rest of your day in a natural way.

Other tasks that will obviously be booked into your calendar: research seminars and conference participation. The writing you do in preparation for these things will usually count as real writing time. This is because such prose can, at least in principle, end up as published work.

What about writing research proposals? I think you need to distinguish between the prose component of such applications and filling out forms. The important thing, thereafter, is to make sure that you don't define writing tasks in such a way that you can "stick to your schedule" without writing research papers (and book chapters, if you like that sort of thing). If you do spend some of your writing time working on research proposals, make sure that it is explicitly marked in your calendar. You should be able to see at a glance whether or not you are actually leaving time to write for publication.

There are many different ways to classify your activities. Just make sure that your way of doing it keeps competing interests distinct. A writing plan forces you think explicitly about how you are dividing your time among activities that normally compete for it. This allows you to protect the time you need to keep your commitment (to yourself) to get what you know expressed in writing and into that all-important conversation with your peers. Vaguely defined blocks for "research" (or even "writing", if not specified further) is often not enough to build the habit of productive academic writing.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Don't Hold Back

The verb "to edit" is a back formation from "editor". Editing is what an editor does. Merriam-Webster offers "to prepare (as literary material) for publication or public presentation" as the primary sense. Senses that suggest making changes to a text ("to assemble by cutting or rearranging" or "to alter, adapt, or refine") are listed afterwards. The word "editor", meanwhile, comes from the Latin e ditus, meaning "to put foward". Let this remind you that editing is not merely a matter of moving words around on a page. It is the act of putting them forward.

You put words forward to a particular end and in a particular context. It is impossible to edit a text for publication "as such". You must decide where you want to put your ideas forward and why you want to do so. What effect do you want to have? What are you trying to say? And to whom are you trying to say it? In academic writing, both of these questions can be answered concretely. Your literature review, for example, should tell you who is interested in your ideas. Your after-the-fact outline and your abstract can help you to identify your main points.

Editing gives your text direction. And that direction, like I say, is forward. When editing, then, you are reading your text to discover what is holding it back. What makes it unpublishable? What makes it unsuitable for public presentation. Errors of spelling, punctuation, and basic grammar are certainly among the things you are looking for. But those are only minimal barriers to publication. When editing you are not just trying to get your ideas out of your own office; you are trying to get them into the ongoing research of your peers.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Article Length

Teppo Felin at orgtheory.net has drawn attention to Isaac Waisberg's interesting observations about the increasing length of journal articles in the American Journal of Sociology and, in a follow-up post, the Administrative Science Quarterly. Note that the length of articles increases steadily from the 1960s, which correlates with the increasingly "postmodern conditions" of research in the social sciences.

In the comments to Teppo's post, it has been suggested that longer articles suggest less consensus among researchers. This seems plausible to me. With less shared assumptions, articles must explain a greater number of concepts and argue for their relevance and validity. Also, more work must be done to situate an article in relation to past and ongoing work in a field, with which the reader cannot be assumed to be familiar. Commenter Cristobal puts it as follows:

Long winded articles must have something to do with the lack of consensus / cohesion of scholarly inquiry. Most papers require extensive explanation as to why the subject/question is interesting. In disciplines like psychology, economics, medicine, etc, the papers are in the form (1) “I’m testing theory X (you all know what that is, so enough said)”; (2) “here’s my data”; (3) “here’s the findings”. In sociology, the sprawling search for ‘novelty’ leads to longer and longer papers. In other disciplines, more intensive focus on main questions leads to papers that are short and to the point.

An alternative explanation, which has also been offered, is that longer articles reflect the increasing specialization of researchers. A third explanation might emphasize the rise of qualitative research, which uses data that is much more difficult summarize. Articles in ASJ and ASQ may offer empirically "richer" prose today than they did in the 1950s.

Next week, I'm going to have a look at some articles in ASQ from the fifties and the naughties.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Rat Race

"I'm a professional cynic, but my heart's not in it."
Blur

Sometimes I think I represent the aspects of academic life that are least appealing. I'm talking about those that it shares with other forms of life, other vocations. Once you divide your time between teaching and research, and then schedule your research time (your writing time in particular) as rigorously as your teaching, scholarship can come look as much like "one damn thing after another" as, say, marketing or accounting. More disturbingly, once we buy into the link between performance measures (publication) and promotion ladders (tenure, permanent chairs, etc.) it becomes hard to distinguish academia from any other rat race.

There is, indeed, a real danger in letting your awareness of the practical and rhetorical problems of research foster a kind of cynicism about your work. Once you distinguish between what makes a phenomenon interesting to you and what makes it interesting to your peers, as I did in a PhD course yesterday, and especially if you frame this distinction (as I may accidently have done as well) as one between what makes your work interesting and what makes it publishable, or between what you have learned from your research and what your peers should learn from it, it is tempting to think of the social aspect of research as a kind of pretense. The idea that social life is fake is at the heart of cynicism.

The original cynics took the consequences in a radical way. Diogenes, it is said, lived in a barrel on the outskirts of town. He dressed in rags and masturbated in public. He didn't care what people thought. Modern cynics (the reference of the modern sense of the word) are a bit less authentic in their response to the inauthenticity of social life. Since social life is fake, they argue, there is no shame in being instrumental about one's participation in it. It is okay to lie and cheat, it is okay to "perform" according to whatever standards society offers, and it is okay to succeed. When the rat race becomes too much, they argue, you can ("ooops, I've got a lot of money," as the song goes) retire to a country house and be yourself. Why suffer life in a barrel?

Both senses of cynicism turn on the question of whether or not "your heart is in it". That's why that line in Blur's "Country House" is funny, and actually somewhat inspiring. There are aspects of research that you need to be instrumental about if you want to succeed. There are things you'll have to do without your heart being in it. But if you let them constitute your main problem, you risk becoming a real cynic. (These people exist in academia, as you may already know.) Make sure you respect the part of your research that your heart is in. Make sure that you don't find your heart in your cynicism. In a word, be professional about it.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Shapes and Forms

"The Dasein finds itself primarily in things."
Martin Heidegger


Today, it has been exactly one year since I broke my kneecap. (In fact, the annual PhD course that I was not able to participate in because of the accident starts again today.) Needless to say, my jogging schedule was affected quite seriously. This semester I started running three times a week again, but it's been hard going. The knee is fine; I'm just out of shape. I had a really great run yesterday, though, so things are looking up. And I actually didn't do so badly in the relay race on Tuesday, come to think of it.

Also, this semester I'm taking piano lessons during my Friday lunch break. As with jogging, the trick is to practice regularly. I need to get into shape and then to maintain it. I have some exercises to do every day, and I can already, as expected, feel my hands getting stronger and more precise. My main goal with these lessons is to make my left hand a little more independent and versatile. That's all coming along nicely.

Finally, I'm reading Heidegger. His "Dasein" (the "entity" that each of us is, our "being there") is, I'm told, an attempt to interpret Aristole's definition of the human soul as "topos eidon", "the place of forms". Our existence gives "shape" to the world in our perception of it. The mind is "where" that happens. (This may be the source of the imprecise image of a "head full of ideas"). Thinking is an activity that we keep in shape for; our so-called "ideas" come from the shape we're in mentally. And, as with jogging and playing the piano, the only way to keep in shape is through regular practice. It takes discipline.

I very seriously suggest that you train your ability to think, i.e., to shape our world, i.e., to be "the place of forms", on the model of all other practical exercise. As researchers, we can concentrate on staying in shape (maintaining a form) in regard to a relatively narrow range of objects (particular kinds of organizations and managerial practices for most of my authors). And the most concrete way to think of this training is through your writing. Set aside some time every day to practice. Describing things is like practicing scales and running up a hill. It makes you stronger, more precise.

"In every day terms," says Heidegger, "we understand ourselves and our existence by way of the activities we pursue and the things we take care of" (BP, p. 159). Heidegger's preferred example is the craftsman and the "things" in the workshop (tools, materials, end products). Researchers craft their research objects in language, mainly in writing, and, as the appeal to metaphysics suggests, the stakes are pretty high. This is all about keeping yourself "in the world", or, better, of keeping the world in shape.

Friday, September 18, 2009

The Good, the Bad, and the Popular

Gail Hornstein takes up a familiar theme in a recent piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Academic prose, she tells us, is "impenetrable" by nature; the problem of writing well arises in the context of "writing that appeals to a broader public". While she is, of course, right about the state of academic writing in general, I think we need to push back against the idea that only popular audiences (and their editors) demand good, clear writing. Your peers like to understand what they're reading as much as your "public".

My main objection to Hornstein's argument is her suggestion that the academic genre "allows" bad writing. What she forgets is that the proportion of bad writing in popular genres is as high as in academic genres. The majority of all writing is bad. Good writing always finds an audience. Bad writing leaves the audience cold. This is true no matter how small the potential audience is at the outset.

Consider the following attempt to define the difference between popular and academic writing.

Revision requires making choices, something that academic writing allows you to avoid at all costs. Much of what makes that kind of prose so complicated is that nothing gets left out. Writing for a popular audience, in contrast, forces you to figure out what the hell you're trying to say and come right out with it.

This is simply not true. Something always gets left out. The difference will only ever be what gets left out. It would even be misleading to say that academic writing leaves out less material than popular writing because popular writing is, in that sense, also trying to say less. All writing is the tip of an iceberg. There is no useful distinction to be made between leaving nine tenths or eleven fourteenths under the surface.

Hornstein is, of course, right that academic writers do well to consider a "different way of relating to our audience." But she is wrong to suggest that this problem only arises when we shift out of the academic genre, where, she says,

We'd have to start caring about (our readers) interests, learning what they know and what they don't. Popular writing, by definition, invites lots of different kinds of people to invest their time and money in your ideas, and your expression of them.

Knowing what our readers know (i.e., not knowing the same things, but knowing how much of what we are about to say they already know), is arguably more important in academic writing than in popular writing. When writing for a popular audience you can choose your audience; your editor will help you to decide how much your reader will be assumed to know. When writing for academics you are, in principle, writing for the most knowledgeable people on your subject.

Hornstein believes that writing for a popular audience will challenge your "arrogance" and (here's the good news) make you less "lonely".

Academic writing derives its authority from certain conventions, some of them bordering on arrogance. When you're a young professor, it can make you feel powerful to sound as if you know so much. And you can get away with that kind of writing because your audience—other academics—will read your work even if it's impenetrable. But eventually, it can get lonely to have so few people to talk to. What you want to say might actually be of interest to an audience wider than those in your specialty.

But I think this is a very presumptuous thing to say. And it's a tired caricature. Academics do not "get away with" bad writing; nor do your peers "read your work even if it's impenetrable". A great deal of published academic prose goes unread (and certainly uncited) precisely because it is so poorly written. Not all academic writers are lonely, and popular recognition is not the only reward for a researcher. There is a genuine, deep satisfaction in having written a paper that thirty of the most well-informed people on a particular subject read, reread, and discuss. Such papers are rarely "impenetrable".

Hornstein quotes, but quickly dismisses, Gerald Graff's warning not to "exaggerate the distance between the academic and the popular, especially if doing so excuses bad academic habits of communication ... Don't kid yourself. If you could not explain it to your parents or your most mediocre student, the chances are you don't understand it yourself." That's partly right. But you also need to be able to explain it to your brightest student and your professor. They are not a more forgiving audience. In fact, mediocre students and parents are much more likely to bear over with, or even admire, your turgidity.

"Discovering that I could write in a way that appealed to [a popular audience] was surprisingly touching," says Hornstein. "It made my work feel more real, like it actually mattered." I'm sure it did. But it's actually the easy way to feel like you know something that matters. Just find an audience that is bound, but its relative ignorance, to accept everything you say uncritically. Find an audience that let's you "prune" away all the difficult stuff. What is really touching is when three peer-reviewers, an editor, and eventually an audience of a dozen or so experts acknowledge your contribution to expanding the frontiers of the known. To do that you have to write well. Very well.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Style and Grammar

I've been thinking about style and grammar lately. This is mainly because I want to write more regularly about good English and academic prose. In general, I prefer to approach the problem in terms of developing your style, not improving your grammar. Normally, grammatical mistakes are poor style, of course. Errors in verb agreement and punctuation is something you want to avoid if you want to impress your reader as a stylist. But I wonder how much a post on basic grammar can help.

For example, in Danish "er" (pronounced roughly like "air") means "is". So I will often find people writing, say,

Innovation are the key to the success of modern companies.

Well, that's wrong, of course. "Are" should be "is". But I think these authors understand how to conjugate the verb "to be". I think mistakes like this arise mainly out of carelessness.

So my goal, when working directly with authors, is to engage with their prose at the level of style. My aim is to get them to think about how they want to say things. Here the idea that a sentence may be poorly written because the author "isn't good at English" generally gets in the way. It is much more constructive to talk about what the author wants to say and then find ways of saying it effectively. The solution is rarely simply to turn an ungrammatical sentence into a grammatical one. We must turn an obscure sentence into a clear one.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Hyper-focus Hocus Pocus

Bob Sutton recently assured the blogosphere that he is in good health. He had been receiving worried emails because he hadn't posted in almost a month. Here's his explanation:

The reason I have not been posting is that I have been hyper-focused on getting a complete draft of my next book done. For better or worse, when I get close to finishing something like that, I get so obsessed that I don't even realize how much I ignore other things.

I'm glad he qualified the strategy with "for better or worse" because there are real downsides to this approach to the final stages of a writing project.

Note that there is a difference between letting a manuscript occupy increasing amounts of your attention as you get closer to completing it and getting "so obsessed" that you begin to ignore other things (that you value) without realizing it. A writing plan can easily accommodate the former. The latter suggests the absence of a writing plan. Planning is the means by which you consciously (so that you do realize it) prioritize your activities. If you know you will think only about your book for a month, plan not to blog.

Likewise, in periods when you've got things to do that you can't ignore, don't plan to enter this "hyper-focus" mode. That means you should keep your deadlines (and ideally, this does not just mean your editor's deadline) away from periods in which you are doing a lot of teaching or fieldwork. In short, use planning to prioritize your attentions, don't focus on one thing to the detriment of others.

That said, writers need and deserve a bit of a magic circle around their work. Sometimes they need to allow themselves the luxury of dropping everything and immersing themselves in a particular text. They need to sit silently at dinner, brooding on their sentences, and take long walks to try to get things to fall into place. During this time, their friends, family and acquaintances might well ask them whether they are "feeling all right". In the olds days, this was called "melancholia" and was a perfectly accepted (if temporary) state of mind. Maybe "hyper-focus" is a fitting magic word. Invoking it secures a bit of space, a freedom from interruption, and a certain amount of license for anti-social behavior (like not blogging, or, I guess, updating your Facebook profile). It even rhymes with hocus pocus.

Just don't, if you'll pardon it, believe your own hype. Don't begin to romanticize your obsessive process or your disregard for other things. Like all magic, it's a trick. There is a more natural, more efficient, and less dramatic process that could explain how you completed your manuscript too.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Being There, Presence

Gertrude Stein famously said "there is no there there" of Oakland, California. I think she meant it as something of a put-down; after all, a place with no "there" is not much of a place. To be present is to be there, of course. When the teacher took attendance at school, she'd read our names off the class list and we'd say "Present!" or just "Here!". Presence is the state of "being there". In fact, Heidegger's Dasein can be translated literally as "being-there" and, arguably, as "presence" (prae + esse, "being before" us.)

It is not rare to read a text, especially an academic text, and think "there is no there here". In an important sense, the author has not shown up. If you called out her name, you'd get no answer (and you could put a little "x" beside her name on the list, meaning "absent"). Reading such papers is a bit like hearing someone at a conference read their paper out loud without enthusiasm. It is possible to "perform" a reading, which is precisely the act of giving it presence, but when people do not do this, they are just pouring words into the air. The words fail to occupy the space. They just sort of sit there.

The same is true of a written text with no presence. The words are on the page but the page is not a "there", so the words can't be said to be anywhere. They're just sitting there next to each other. How, then, do we give our words presence?

One important rule is to make to sure that each paragraph is trying to establish a single proposition. You express this proposition in a key sentence and orient the rest of paragraph around it (the key sentence is essentially your "there"). In oral presentations, in interviews (like those at Videojug), in conversations with colleagues and students, the trick is always knowing what single sentence you are trying to convince your audience is true. You lose the "there" if something someone says reminds you of a funny story and you then just tell them the story. You preserve the there, maintain your presence, by being always mindful of why you are telling the story. Why are you telling the story at this time and in this place? Why should your reader/listener care?

The story may be true or funny or both. But neither is a reason, in and of itself, to tell it. Once you know why you are telling a story, you are in a good position (the right place) to deliver it effectively, to give it presence. The same goes for factual details and narrative accounts in your writing. Don't fill up the page with true, or even interesting, facts and events. Always be aware of why you are telling the reader something.

Also, presence is established as a sense of "having been there". The reader, as he reads along, must increasingly feel like he's "getting into" your argument. That he is occupying a place (a "there") inside your subject matter. Needless to say, this means that he will think you have already been there and that you've been there for a long time. You should seem at home there. (Travel stories rarely have presence. People come back from vacation and tell stories, but they are rarely compelling. Good travel writers are valued precisely because they are able to give those foreign places presence.) Keep Tarantino's "amusing anecdote about a drug deal" in mind. Write for an imagined audience that might have been there too. If anyone who is familiar with your subject would know you are faking your knowledge of it, then you are unlikely to be writing with presence.

Stein's little jab at Oakland would not still be quoted if readers were likely to say, "Hey! I've been to Oakland, and I can assure you it's all there." The general consensus, I'm told, is that she knows what she's talking about here.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Spoken Words

Presentation, as the word suggests, is the act of making something present. It is the art of giving presence to a theme, and in research this normally means bringing something you know to the attention of someone else. Presentation is therefore not just something that happens to the thing, the object of knowledge; it is something that happens between people, the subjects of knowledge. While a presentation does impart knowledge, that is not all it does. It also leaves an impression of the speaker in the mind of the listener.

To see what I mean, consider the difference between Chris Taylor's presentation of basic investment concepts...


Stock Markets:
Creating A Portfolio

...and Scott Leonard's.


Stock Markets:
Investing Basics

The best way to notice the "impression of the speaker" that these two presentations make on the listener is to ask yourself who seems to better know what he is talking about. I hope we can agree that Leonard leaves a stronger impression than Taylor, even though they are probably equally knowledgeable about the subject.

The simple reason for this is that Leonard is speaking off-the-cuff, apparently extempore, while Taylor is (I'm going to assume) reading his words off a tele-prompter. Watching Taylor, the thought occurs to us that we could make better sense of what he is saying by simply reading his text for ourselves. His own persona is not making a contribution to our understanding. Leonard's manner, by contrast, is so "natural" that we may not give his personality a second thought. His ease and confidence on the subject of investing merely allows his knowledge to get a across. This difference between Taylor and Leonard is important to understand when developing your style of presentation.

On Friday, I want to apply this difference to the written text, which may also differ greatly in "presence".

Monday, September 07, 2009

Expertise

I discovered Videojug on the weekend. It offers an interesting context for an imaginary "gloss" of your knowledge (see this post and this one for my earlier ideas about "glossing" your work). How would you use the four or five minutes of a Videojug contribution?

Not all the videos are stellar, but one expert in particular, Dr. Julie Holland, has caught my eye. She's a psychiatrist who seems to be making a name for herself on the subject of psychedelic drugs. Check out her video about ecstasy, for example. Here is someone who is obviously in command of her subject. She answers the questions straightforwardly and with an easy, confident manner. We know that it is her opinion, but also that it is well-grounded in the available research. It's not just her "personal" opinion; she is stating her professional opinion. She doesn't just know what the right answer is, we might say: she also believes it.

I don't know about you, but I trust her. I happen to be a parent, but I would take Holland seriously also if I were a potential ecstasy user. Or if I were a politician interested in drug legislation. This trustworthiness is essential to expertise. You know the history of the subject and you know your own place in that history. You have an understanding of the basic causal mechanisms. You also have a good-natured understanding of any controversies that your subject is involved in. Your audience becomes more informed and better able to make decisions after listening to you talk.

So just as you can usefully think about what your research would look like in ASQ, or HBR, or the New Yorker, or the Economist, think about how a Videojug video on your subject should look. You may be developing expertise about lean management, or open innovation, or work-life balance. What kinds of questions can you answer in this confident, trustworthy way? What kinds of questions should you be able to answer?

[Update: On Wednesday I'm going to look at the difference in presentation between Chris Taylor and Scott Leonard. Can you spot the basic difference? How does it affect the trust you place in these experts?]

Friday, September 04, 2009

Correcting the Literature

Peter Klein over at Organizations and Markets recently drew attention to Rick Trebino's account of his difficulties getting a "comment" published in a physics journal. It reminded me of the difficulties I face in my attempts to draw attention to elementary scholarly errors in the management literature. I don't want to jinx my efforts, and in some cases I haven't decided exactly how I want to proceed, so I thought I would follow Trebino's example and tell a story without using the real names of the people involved.

A few months ago I discovered that an article in a major journal had plagiarized an article in another journal. It was a pretty straightforward case. In 1992, Exeter had written a detailed book about a particular incident. In 1993, Wyman published a paper that reanalyzed Exeter's account, framing it in an organization-theoretical context. Then, in 2007, Zeeler used the incident as an example in another context. Her account of the incident condensed two pages of Wyman's paraphrase of Exeter into a single paragraph; though some of the details are left out, Wyman's sentences are used verbatim and in the same order. Zeeler cites Exeter, not Wyman, and even uses the page references to Exeter's book that are found in Wyman's paper. That is, Zeeler has probably not read Exeter (1992); she is relying on Wyman's (1993) account but gives no credit to Wyman, claiming the paraphrase as her own reading of Exeter. Wyman 1993 is not cited at all in Zeeler 2007; it does not even appear in the reference list.

I wrote to the journal that had published Zeeler 2007, attaching a brief comparison of the two texts. The journal's editor thanked me and said that Zeeler would be asked to write an erratum for an upcoming issue of the journal. I thought that would be the end of it. The error had probably been the result of poor note-taking and it would be sufficient to admit to the inadvertent plagiarism, explaining that the account had in fact been taken from Wyman 1993.

The erratum appeared in 2008. But it did not admit to plagiarism. In fact, it did not make clear that the paragraph in question had been produced by lifting selected sentences from Wyman (1993). It did not even provide a proper reference to Wyman's paper, nor to the pages from which the sentences had been taken. It was so poorly written, in fact, that it was hard to tell what error it was correcting. It did say that some quotation marks should perhaps have been used to "avoid confusion", but only around a "part" of the paragraph (all of which had been plagiarized). Exactly which part was not indicated. Moreover, she framed the problem as one of not citing a relevant treatment of the incident (i.e., leaving out an obligatory reference), not of failing to cite the real source of her prose.

So I wrote back to the journal, explaining my puzzlement. The editor essentially said that he did not understand even my original objection (he restated the issue as something other than plagiarism) and, strangely, suggested that Zeeler could write another erratum if I could convince her to do so. They would publish it as well. Though I found this very weird, I decided to write to Zeeler. I received no response. I queried her again a few months later but have still not heard from her. That's not surprising, of course.

As in the case described by Trebino, what should have been a simple matter of correcting a basic error in a journal article has become something much more complicated. Something needs to be done to change the editorial practices of journals to make it much easier to publish such simple corrections.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

The Craft of Theorizing

Every Monday afternoon, I moderate an informal colloquium about the craft of research. This week we talked about about how to do a literature review (see this post for some thoughts on that subject). One of the participants suggested that we talk about theorizing next week, so I thought I would some spend some time this morning thinking about the practical side of that often rather abstract activity.

Theorizing is the art of developing a general position on a specific topic. Your theory should establish a connection between the empirical setting you are interested in and other settings of the same kind; it should therefore also establish a connection between your research and the research of your peers. Theorizing and reviewing the literature are therefore quite related activities.

Theory is not concerned with what actually happens in the field of practice we study; it is concerned with what we expect to happen. As our knowledge of what actually happens in specific organizations grows, our expectations of what generally happens in organizations change. Theorizing is the reflective process by which that change is made explicit and by which it is raised as a theme for discussion.

My favourite definition of theory is Pierre Bourdieu's: a theory is a "programme of perception". Theorizing, then, is the act of re-programming your perceptual apparatus. When you theorize, you are consciously transforming your way of looking at the world. Just as planning is not just a matter of intending to do something in the future, merely thinking about your subject does not constitute theorizing. You are theorizing when you are developing (sometimes just tweaking) your programme of perception.

Theorizing is a craft to the extent that your expectations are available to you to handle and manipulate. Your expectations are the material that you shape (craftily) when theorizing. Working with theory therefore has a distinct feel and what you feel when you theorize is a change in your expectations. You feel that the next time you look at your empirical data, you will see it differently. You will notice something new.