Thursday, May 09, 2013

Some Basics

A standard journal article in the social sciences comprises about forty paragraphs. Each paragraph is normally composed of at least six sentences and rarely more than two-hundred words in all. A good paragraph has a clearly defined "key sentence" that states the central claim of the paragraph; the rest of the sentences offer support or elaboration for that claim. If you read only the key sentences of a paper, you would know what the writer is trying to tell you, but not why you should believe it.

A paper consists of a number of stock moves. Normally, it will have to establish both the practical relevance of its conclusions and a theoretical framework around them. It will have to account for the method by which the data that is used to support the conclusions was collected, and it will have to present that data in a clear and surveyable manner. Finally, it will have to draw some implications from the conclusions.

Most of the tasks in a paper are descriptive. As a scholar you do well to learn how to write prose that describes what happens in ordinary, everyday practice. You also do well to learn how to re-describe that practice as the object of a theory, how practical activities look in theory. But a theoretical object can only be observed by following an acknowledged method. So learn to describe what you did to gather your data in a convincing, compelling way. Know what you readers expect you to have done before they'll believe you.

When writing your analysis, keep in mind that you are articulating a series of facts on the basis of the data. You are not just describing your data. You have to claim that the data indicates certain facts that exist independent of the data. You aren't just saying that people answered survey questions in a particular way, for example; you are saying that they believe certain things of their organization. It is your statements about those facts (about what people believe) that are true or false. The truths will have implications and some of them may be normative. So you do well, finally, learn how to write prescriptively, either for practitioners or for theorists.


Jonathan said...

In my field "descriptive" is almost an insult.

Thomas said...

I suppose that makes sense in literary studies. After all, why describe a book that your reader can presumably just go read. In more "empirical" fields there are many respectable descriptive tasks. Of course, some scholars will stil talk about "merely" descriptive work, often to indicates a lack of theoretical significance or explanatory power. But I'm here using "descriptive" in a broader sense, so that you also describe when you present your theory. (I'll grant that might actually not be a very helpful way of putting it. I'll think about it.)