Friday, August 31, 2012

Theoretical and Methodological Papers

My advice, whether here on the blog or in my seminars, is focused mainly on what I call "the standard social science article". The core of such a paper is composed of a theory section, a methods section and a substantial empirical analysis. But people often ask me for advice about writing whole papers, not sections, devoted to theory or method. I'll say some quick things this morning and then take up the subject in greater detail next week.

First, the basic approach doesn't change. You'll still have to sit down and write about 40 paragraphs, so you'll have to organize your time to make that possible. Also, you'll have to reach an understanding of what your reader believes before reading your paper, and you'll have to devote some of the paper to presenting this current state of the art. You'll have to situate the paper in a "world" of shared concern with this reader as well. All this means that the introduction will have a similar form as an empirical paper.

Recall that the ideal introduction begins in the world, proceeds to the science, and ends in your paper. In one sense, theoretical or empirical papers begin with the science not "the world"; in another sense, however, it is simply the world of the scientists that you begin with. So you want to start with some claim about the state of research that is more general than the state of the specific theory or method you want to discuss. You might, for example, start with trends in the underlying epistemology of the field, or with some broader theoretical orthodoxy—one you don't intend to challenge or question.

Then narrow the focus, in the second paragraph, to the part of the theory (or method) that your paper wants to make a contribution to. And then, in the third paragraph, introduce the concepts or techniques that you have invented. As in a standard paper, this will either challenge the consensus you've outlined in paragraph two or weigh in on a controversy. Importantly, it will not directly affect the underlying situation you've sketched in paragraph one. That remains the world of concern you share with your reader. Paragraph two has presented that part of your reader's mind you hope to influence.

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