In my last post, I proposed the following thesis statement to organize a paper around:
T: The relationship between leaders and followers is often managed by the strategic use of boundary objects.
The next step is to decide why exactly a paper needs to be written to support this thesis. Who would have a hard time with this claim? What would the difficulty be? My three candidate difficulties are not intended to be exhaustive, but they do capture the most common rhetorical challenges of academic writing. Will the reader find it hard to believe, hard to endorse, or hard to understand?
If the reader will find it hard to understand it will be because it introduces notions (often drawn from another discipline) that are unfamiliar in the discipline for which you are writing. In this case, the concept of "boundary objects" may be unfamiliar to the scholars working on leadership. The most likely reason for this, in turn, will be that actor-network theory is not often used by these scholars to understand their material. (I don't know how true that is, but let's assume it is for a moment.) You can then write three quick sentences to mark the background conditions under which a statement about the strategic use of boundary objects will be hard to understand:
1. There have been few attempts in the literature to use actor-network theory to understand the relationship between leaders and followers.
2. The role of boundary objects, specifically, has not been studied at all.
3. These objects are normally taken to condition epistemic relationships, like those between knowers and non-knowers, not ethical ones, like those between leaders and followers.
Here we make it clear that leadership scholars may be forgiven for not immediately understanding the thesis. Even if they know what "boundary objects" are, they will be surprised to find the concept applied in their context. This sets up the rhetorical problem for the paper quite nicely.
But what if the problem was not one of understanding but one of belief? In such a case, the reader will be presumed to understand the claim and to hold certain additional beliefs that make it difficult to assimilate. Sentence 3 above may actually also be part of the background for this construal of the claim:
1a. Boundary objects are normally taken to condition epistemic relationships, like those between knowers and non-knowers, not ethical ones, like those between leaders and followers.
2a. Indeed, previous studies have shown that boundary objects rarely have an affect on power relations in organizations but are, rather, contingent on them.
3a. Moreover, even in epistemic situations, boundary objects appear to play a mainly tactical, not strategic, role.
It is not difficult to see how the claim that boundary objects play a strategic role in leadership processes might be hard to believe on this background. But it is also clear that if the reader and writer share this background, and the writer knows T (on the basis of a thorough field study, for example), then there is good reason to write the paper. The same is true in the case of the first background I constructed. The claim (T) is the same, but the rhetorical problem differs. We have here framed two different arguments around the same thesis.