Thursday, September 06, 2012

Critical Papers

Methodological and theoretical papers share the problem of making a contribution to the literature on the basis of no particular empirical experience. This does not mean that they don't draw on the experience of the scholar as a researcher; it just means that they do not present original data in support of their argument. This is also true of a third kind of paper, one that I am very much concerned about as a viable art form, namely, the critical essay. Such a paper attempts to contribute to the conversation among scholars simply by reading the other contributions to that literature and assessing the validity of their arguments.

This is a really important function in scholarship, but one that is being eclipsed in some fields by the demand that papers make a theoretical contribution on the basis of methodical study. A good critical essay will generally make a "negative" contribution, much like the contribution that weeding makes to a garden. It will correct long-standing errors and remove tenacious but specious arguments. It will point out underlying and perhaps mistaken assumptions in the work of particular scholars or whole subfields. It will, as much of my work tries to do, point out problematic connections between work that has been published in the literature and its sources. A critical essay is all about putting what we think we know into a larger perspective.

While such work serves a distinct purpose, the process of writing it remains the same. You'll want to introduce your critique quickly and effectively. What's the broader real-world setting (and theoretical issue) on which your essay bears? What's the state of the art of the field you'll be engaging critically with? What conclusions will your critique arrive at, and how will it get there? You'll want to answer these questions within the first 600 words of the essay. That'a about three paragraphs.

I'm currently revising an essay of this kind for resubmission and have decided to use my standard outline as a guide. This means it will have a three-paragraph introduction (as just described), and this will be followed by about five paragraphs of "background" (which in this case will situate an influential account of a social practice in a broader theory of social organization). I will then summarize the account and its standard interpretation (in lieu of a "theory" section, but definitely to remind readers of what they thought they knew). Where an empirical paper would have a "methods" section, I will discuss how I located the sources I've uncovered to push against the standard account. This leaves an "analysis" in which I present the substance of my critique and "implications" section in which I suggest where we might go from here. I'll then offer a standard two-paragraph conclusion.

It'll be interesting to see if it works. If it does, it shows that pretty much any journal article can be thought of as 40 paragraphs divided into sections consisting of 3, 5, 5, 5, 15, 5, and 2 each. That is sort of comforting to know, even if it is only a rough approximation.


Andrew Gelman said...

That last sentence reminds of the tone in Jonathan Coe's book, The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim.

Thomas said...

Is that a good thing? In any case, I think it's directly inspired by Michael Andrews, the painter, who said: "It's reassuring to know these things: right orientation, disposition, atmosphere."