Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Standard Issue Background

It is commonplace to begin a paper with a few commonplaces about the world in which we live. This world will be described in a way that emphasizes the social practices that the paper will offer a scientific analysis of. But the description will not itself be scientific. It will, of course, be "knowledgeable", but the knowledge it contains will not be dependent on either the theory or the method that supports the analysis. Instead, it will be based on sources that are also available to the reader, that is, published work.

That first paragraph of the paper, which establishes a common place where the reader and writer can share their interest in a particular corner of social life, will sometimes require elaboration. That is what the background section is for. The reader may know something about lean management practices, for example, but nothing about the manufacture and distribution of cardboard boxes in Sweden. Or the reader may need to know some general, historical facts about the company or companies that the writer has studied. The information that the writer provides here will, again, be available to the reader (and the writer does well to cite some good sources of the information along the way) but the writer is providing it anyway, for the reader's convenience. It is information that the reader could be aware of but presumably isn't. The reader will not find it presumptuous of the writer to assume that reader is ignorant about it.

The first paragraph of the introduction and the (roughly) five paragraphs of the background section really state the same claim. The introductory paragraph is the top of the iceberg (the summit), the background section is the tip of the iceberg (the part that is above water), and the dignity of the movement of this iceberg comes from everything the writer knows but does not say about the company, country or industry that the paper discusses. This is important to keep in mind as part of your growing base of knowledge. If you are doing a case study in a particular industry you will have a great deal of specialized knowledge about a particular company or, even more specifically, a particular team in a particular company. But you are not an expert on what that team does if you do not learn something about the factual world that it is embedded in. A scholar who has spent a lot of time within a company should be an interesting conversationalist about both that company and the industry it works in. That scholar should also be a reliable "go to person" for ordinary facts related to it.

The content of the background section can be easily distinguished from that of the "analysis" or "results" section by being "factual" but not, properly speaking, "empirical". The facts that are adduced here are not drawn from the experience of the writer, but from hearsay and reading (in the case of the former, preferably confirmed by the latter). By contrast, the facts that are presented in the results section are supported by "data" that have been gathered by way of a "method". This has an important consequence: the writer has a special authority to speak about his or her results. Because a valid method has been applied, we are entitled to trust the author's presentation. Moreover, we have no easy way of validating the results themselves. To do so, we'd have to requisition the writer's data. Even then, we'd have to trust that it wasn't just made up. So, to be really sure, we'd have repeat the study, i.e., carry out our own observations of the same phenomena, i.e., have the same experiences. It is only in extreme cases that we'd go through that kind of trouble.

But the background section can be "fact checked" in a more workaday sense. The reader can simply read the sources that the writer uses to support his or her claims. We can even find some better sources, where these are available. That is, because the background consists of commonplace claims, the writer has no special authority to make them. The text is also open to critique in a quite different way here than the results section is.

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