Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Critical Posture

Because it is a part of a conversation, a journal article should always be seen as the site of possible disagreements. For every claim you make, you should imagine the sorts of disagreements it might occasion. In fact, the paragraph that you compose in support of a claim is a way of providing precisely such a critical occasion. You are trying to shape the disagreement you and your reader might have.

The paragraph does not just support your claim, it sets it up for criticism of particular kinds. We might say that a paragraph gives the claim a certain posture—a stance—and is inviting the reader to take a position and push back against it in a particular direction. And here it can be useful to distinguish between the kinds of claim you might make in a paper in terms of the kinds of criticism you might inspire. There are, roughly speaking, three kinds of claim in an academic article: empirical, theoretical, and methodological. You are telling the reader either about what is going on in the world, or how we see the world, or what you have done in an attempt to improve our knowledge of it. Because the basis of each of these claims differs, the sort of criticism that might be levied against them differs too. Sometimes it can be helpful to imagine the disagreement you are setting yourself up for when trying to decide what kind of claim you are making.

Indeed, when we talked about this issue in Monday’s workshop, we discovered that what we thought were empirical claims were in fact theoretical ones, and vice versa, simply by imagining the sorts of issues that a reader might have. Some claims are a bit ambiguous about whether they are empirical or theoretical. Consider this one:

The concept of work-life balance is unable to capture the complexity of a job in a professional service firm today.

This claims something about a concept (work-life balance) and is therefore a theoretical claim, but it also says something about a corner of reality (what it is like to work in a professional service firm). We can imagine two different paragraphs for which this might be a key sentence. One will tell us how simple-minded the concept of work-life balance is; the other will tell us how complicated the work of consultant can be. Notice that the critic will be able to disagree with our claim on one or both of those bases: the critic may either claim that there is nothing simple-minded about the concept of work-life balance, or that consultants tend to exaggerate the complexity of their tasks.

To see this more clearly, consider the previous claim expressed in two sentences:

The concept of work life-balance depends on a simple distinction between work on the one hand and life on the other.

This concept is unable to capture the complexity of a job in a professional service firm today.

If we take these claims as the key sentences of a whole paragraph each, we can see what sort of support we have to provide in each case. In the first, we will cite the relevant literature to show that the distinction is actually made, and here we must keep the critic in mind as well. Will there be any disagreement about this distinction. Given post-structuralism, theorists are sometimes reluctant to admit that they distinguish sharply or “simply” between entities that are obviously also related. Will you have to catch them explicitly drawing the distinction (in their own theoretical pronouncements) or will you have to base your claim on a careful reading of major studies of work-life balance, showing that the distinction is implicitly drawn even where it is explicitly eschewed? In the case of the second claim, you will probably have to draw on studies that your reader has some initial respect for, in order to ensure that the complexity you describe is credible. The paragraph might argue, for example, that the time a consultant spends on Facebook is never clearly a professional or personal activity, and that one can therefore at no time weigh it in the scale of “work” and “life”. But notice that this observation itself depends on how sharply we draw the distinction and that your critic might not trust your own judgment. This is why you want to find other scholars who explicitly reach the conclusion you need.

We discover, then, that the meaning of a claim emerges from the support you provide for it. This support, in turn, should anticipate the sort of criticism you are likely to receive. Most importantly: you have some say in what in what kind of criticism you will open yourself up to. That, too, is part of the meaning of the claim you are making. You get to choose the place that you and your critic will meet. That is what it means to take a position. Whether the occasion is constructive depends on your stance.

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