Monday, February 06, 2012

Standard Issue Results

In a standard-issue academic paper, the analysis of your results occupies about 37.5% of the text, or fifteen out of forty paragraphs. This morning I'd like to say something about how those fifteen paragraphs should be written. Keep in mind that this is the section in which you are the epistemic authority. Unlike the theory and method sections, your reader is not presumed to understand in advance what you are saying. Unlike the background section, your reader is not presumed to have access to sources that might contradict you. In the results section, you have the data. Your readers are, on the whole, going to trust you when you tell them what your data says.

I suggest you divide the section into two to four main parts, perhaps framed by an opening paragraph or two and a concluding summary. (It possible to do away with this frame by letting your methods section outline the structure of your results section and opening the implications section with a summary of the results.) The results section will be making an overall claim, which will have been summarized in the third paragraph of your introduction ("This paper shows that..."). But this claim will find support in a number of sub-claims. I suggest coming up with two to four claims mainly to give us that much-needed sense of finitude, each claim can then be given three to four paragraphs of support. In some cases, however, you'll have ten or more claims, each of which will have its own paragraph. The point of these proportions is not impose a set form on the presentation of your results but to get you to think about how the space of your results section will be structured.

The structure of the space will make it easier to organize your time. You goal, as always, is to get your prose into good enough shape to let you write a coherent paragraph (six sentences of prose that support a single, well-defined claim) in thirty minutes. Since you'll be writing fifteen paragraphs, you'll need seven and a half hours to do it, or three two-and-a-half-hour sessions. So when you are looking over your data, try to analyze it into claims that your are able to support in this way. This is the key to "prosing your world", to putting what you have seen into writing.

A good results section is an account of your observations. It's not an account of everything you've seen or heard in the field, nor an exhaustive presentation of your data set. It is a summary of the data in support of empirical claims, i.e., claims about "what is the case". Your background section also makes claims about what is the case, but let's call these claims merely "factual" and not "empirical". Like your empirical claims (your results), you must strive for the truth, but unlike them they are not based on observation. It is in your results section that your claims are based on your own first-hand research experience (that's what "empirical" means). This is where you come to represent the world of practice. It is where you make it available for theorizing.

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