Tuesday, December 18, 2012


The theory section should activate your reader's expectations of the object of your research. It should not create those expectations out of nothing, but derive them from the theory you presume already guides the reader's thinking in the area. It should consist of reminders, we might say. Your reader should already expect these things as soon as you explain (in the background section) what sort of thing you are studying (what sort of organization, or process, or social practice).

So, for example, you might be a Foucauldian, and thus writing for others who are familiar with Foucault's ideas about "governmentality". So, by the time you've described the broader background of the policy reform in the public institution you're interested in (a school, a hospital, a prison, or an airport) you know your reader is thinking about how this reform is constituting a new subject of governance through the "conduct of conduct". (I'm simplifying somewhat, of course.) Now comes your theory section. Here you make explicit what you take from Foucault's work and its reception in your area of study. You remind the reader of the expectations the reader has already felt implicitly tingling somewhere in their mind.

These expectations are not about what the analysis will show. In part, this is because you've already told the reader that your analysis will show something slightly different, slightly surprising, i.e., interesting; and in part it is because the reader is expecting to have hisserher expectations challenged by every published paper. They are the actual expectations the reader had before having thought very much about it. Your paper presents itself as an opportunity for such thought.

Now, the purpose of a journal article is to artfully disappoint the reader's expectations of the object of study. Those expectations were articulated ("set up", if you will) in the theory section. The point, remember, is not to disappoint your reader's expectations of the author or the paper, but of the object that the paper describes. This can lead (or even force) the reader either to revise the theory (which was disappointingly wrong about practice) or suggest reforms in the practice being studied (which was disappointingly inept in the light of the theory).

I'll say a bit more about these two possibilities in relation to the implications section on Thursday. For now, keep in mind that the disappointment is supposed to be literal and objective, not literary and subjective. The reader will not feel disappointed by your writing. Rather, the reader has high hopes for the theory or the practice, or both, and these hopes are to be somewhat dashed. But this is precisely what the reader is hoping for, because that it was it means to learn something new.

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