Monthly Archives: January 2015

Theory and Literature

I’m reading Karen Golden-Biddle and Karen Locke’s Composing Qualitative Research (SAGE, 2007) these days. The second chapter is called “Crafting a Theorized Storyline” and in it they work through four “rhetorical moves” that resonate nicely with my 3-step proposal for writing an introduction. As far as I can tell, my second step essentially combines their second and third moves. This is because Golden-Biddle and Locke distinguish between the literature review and the theory section while I, following Ezra Zuckerman, prefer just to write a theory section grounded in a reading of the literature.

If you have access to the CBS Library, you can read the chapter here. On page 27, they outline the moves as follows:

  1. Articulate study significance
  2. Situate study in literature
  3. Problematize literature to make space for study to contribute
  4. Foreshadow how the present study addresses problematization

Interestingly, they allow you to make these moves within the same paragraph and even within the same sentence. My approach is less open-minded, I guess, prescribing three distinct paragraphs:

  1. Write a paragraph that describes the part of the world that interests you.
  2. Write a paragraph that describes the state of the science that studies it.
  3. Write a paragraph that describes your paper.

Done right, these paragraphs will accomplish the same thing that Golden-Biddle and Locke suggest. You’re free to discover for yourself which works best. Next week, in any case, I’ll work through each move/step. I certainly agree with Golden-Biddle and Locke that theorizing the stories you tell in qualitative research is an important part of the writing process.


Albrecht Dürer, Great Piece of Turf, 1503

“Learn of the green world what can be thy place.”

Ezra Pound

One of my authors …

(as a writing coach, I have “authors” like other coaches have players, and lawyers have clients, and doctors have patients …)

One of my authors recently expressed a familiar frustration that is, ironically, and perhaps tragically, often occasioned by an initial moment of gratification, which we then proceed to undo with vanity. She had been praised for her writing — her vivid imagery, her clear line of argument, her readable language. The problem was that the text in question was something she had written in Danish, her native language. When writing in English, she said, such praise was conspicuously absent, indeed, her readers were sometimes altogether unkind. Since she knew she could write well (in Danish), she was having a hard time accepting the judgment of her English readers that she is a “bad writer”.

The problem, she said, not implausibly, was that she lacked “the words” (including the subtle joints of the grammar needed to put them together) to do in English what she could do in Danish. She simply wasn’t good enough at the language. As she put it, it was like trying to paint grass without having any green on the palette.

Now, as her coach, I happened to have some insight into her writing process, so I asked her if she experienced the act of writing in English differently from the way she experienced the act of writing in Danish. That is, does writing “well” feel different from writing “badly”? (For the sake of argument, we would agree that her Danish was better written than her English.) Of course it does! she exclaimed. Writing in her native language is an enjoyable adventure, while writing in English is a torment, an incarceration. In Danish she is able to describe her experiences as they are, while in English she is painfully aware of the inadequacy of her language. The world is green. But she has no word for green in English!

Sometimes I’m a very wise soul. And since I’m telling this story, I can tell you I was very wise here. In reality, of course, I never know how well I get through to people. But listen to what (I think) I said. I hope you’ll agree it was at least a little clever.

Eric Robert-Ayme,
Homage to Dürer
, 1995

I asked her to think about exactly what she does during the hours that she spends writing in Danish. Does she start on time? Take regular breaks? Sit up straight? Does she concentrate? Does she let herself be distracted? Does she start with a clear sense of what she wants to say? Most importantly: is she having fun? Then I said: whatever it is, just do that when you’re writing in English too. Sure, you don’t have any green to work with. But then paint the green grass in black and white. Once you’ve accepted that it’s not going to be green in the usual way, and perhaps not green at all, you can learn how to use the colors you do have to produce something pleasing. Accept your limitations, and then insist on making the most of it. In Danish, you enjoy saying things as well as you can (you will admit you are not perfect, right?). Even if you’re not as good at it, insist on that enjoyment in English too. The joy of doing the best you can.

From the point of view of the author, the difference between good writing and bad writing is neither in the raw materials nor in the finished work. It’s in the process. Here’s the secret: the joy you feel when working well is the sensation of getting better at something.

Ethics, Epistemology … and Poetry

In an interview with Nikola Danaylov from a couple of years ago, Noam Chomsky made an important observation (starting at around the 17:30 mark) that has stuck with me. He pointed out that science learns about how organisms like worms and insects work through some pretty invasive procedures, or through experiments that we wouldn’t easily subject humans too. Our moral sense simply gets in the way, at least most of the time. There are some familiar exceptions, like the sorts of experiments that were carried out in Nazi concentration camps, and even some that hit closer to home, like the Milgram experiment and the Stanford Prison Experiment, though I suppose moral censure here is less universal. The point is that we are constrained in our research practices by what we are willing, morally, to do to our research subjects.

Every now and then we find some smaller examples in the social sciences that are worth considering even if they don’t approach the full-scale evil of a concentration camp. Consider the case of a business school professor who sent over two-hundred letters to restaurants in which he claimed to have been food-poisoned after eating there. Not only had he not been poisoned, he hadn’t even visited the restaurants. He just wanted to study how they responded to the complaint. What he had not considered is that the possibility that one’s kitchen is not up to standard is a very distressing one for a self-respecting chef. Such charges are taken very seriously, and cause a great deal of trouble for the accused restaurant (investigations, meetings, suspicions about who’s to blame). While the researcher was not intentionally trying to cause trouble, there was something cruel about the experiment. It was sort of callous.

It may, of course, have given the researcher insight into the problem he wanted to study. A less invasive method would have involved sending questionnaires to the restaurants about how  they would, hypothetically, respond to such a letter. Or setting up interviews or focus groups that probe the issue. From a scientific point of view (and depending on the question) the fake letter may have been the most effective (it was probably also the least costly), but it should have been ruled out by a moral sense, a sense of decency, an ethical consideration.

It’s important to recognize this ethical limit to our knowledge of society, which must be seen as an important part of the epistemology of the social sciences. After all, the radical alternative to a scientific, dispassionate interest in people, which therefore risks cruelty, is that of the romantic poets, who “suffer” personally for whatever knowledge about human beings they acquire. The limit of their knowledge is set not by the cruelties and humiliations they are willing to inflict on others, but on those they expose themselves to. Science is understandably favored by many over this “school of hard knocks” for learning how the world works. We just have to make sure science itself doesn’t become what’s knocking people around.


Doing research in the space between disciplines is hard work. But this does not seem to discourage very many people, especially PhD students, from making the attempt. A great many dissertations combine theories and mix methods, probably on the assumption that pluralism is a good thing, and that a single perspective is too limited. When I talk to students about this issue I always try to push back a little on that assumption. Adopting multiple points of view is not a good thing in and of itself. Researchers should always ask themselves what a proposed additional point of view will make possible. Why is the approach of an established, unitary, well-defined discipline not enough?

Here it is important also to distinguish between kinds of interdisciplinarity. Some scholars take great pride in working (and some pains to work) outside any established area. They bring two or more theories together that have never been combined before. Or they apply a novel mix of methods. Or they test a theory using a method no one has tried before. Or they interpret a particular kind of data with a theory that is normally applied to another kind of data set. This is very difficult to pull off, in part because the novelty of it precludes the existence of good “exemplars” (in the Kuhnian sense of completed work). Also, there is no clear audience to consider, no well-defined readership.

That’s why I always recommend doing interdisciplinary work within an established, as it were, inter-discipline. Don’t try to invent a new combination of hitherto uncombined approaches, especially if you’re a PhD student. Instead, look for an interesting community of prospective peers that are already combining some of the approaches you are interested in. Learn from them, not just the details of the individual theories, but the means by which they can be combined. From a social, rhetorical point of view, this is not very different from working in a classical discipline. There is a standard to work to, and there is a body of received knowledge to learn. It takes discipline.

If you try to define your own unique interdisciplinary position, the only people you can turn to for guidance are in the disciplines you are moving between. All too often, you find them too tolerant to learn anything from. Your understanding of their theories and methods may be merely adequate, and they may not comment too much on it but then turn around and speak enthusiastically about the use you are making of the other discipline, though they don’t know enough about it to criticize you. The same thing might then happen with members of the other discipline. What you lose is critical feedback. You come to work in an environment where you’ve given no one the authority to tell you that you’re wrong. This can be exciting in the short term, but is not very satisfying in the long run.

Disciplines and Discipline

We sometimes forget that academic disciplines are just that–disciplines. The organization theorist Karl Weick has said that his own approach, what he calls organizational sensemaking, is less a “theory” than a kind of “disciplined imagination”. This echoes earlier attempts by philosophers like Michel Foucault and Thomas Kuhn to shift our focus from scientific theories, our understanding of which they felt (in 1960s) had been dominated by logical positivists, to “discursive formations” and “disciplinary matrices”. The basic idea is that scholarship is always shaped by social forces and that scholarly competence requires us to subject ourselves to discipline.

Indeed, Foucauldians will be sensitive to the pun implicit in the idea of an “academic subject”. In ordinary speech, it denotes an area of study, a topic of inquiry, like management accounting or renaissance poetry. But “the academic subject” can also be the center of a particular kind of experience, and a particular way of talking–what Foucault sometimes calls a “point of subjectivity” and sometimes calls an “enunciative modality”. It is what we also sometimes call “the self”, though philosophers differ about how much “personality” subjectivity requires. My self-as-scholar may be very different from my self-as-father; that is, scholarship and fatherhood may involve wholly different forms of subjectivity even in the life of the same person. The question is, Who am I when I am a scholar? (When I’m writing, for example.) How did I become him?

Jonathan Mayhew has emphasized the importance of “self-fashioning” in scholarship, retooling Stephen Greenblatt’s concept for the purpose. In my view, the aim is to become more articulate. And this, of course, requires “discipline” in the sense of resolute, orderly practice. It also requires a sort of “discipleship”, i.e., the resolve to follow a master, a teacher. We subject ourselves to discipline, it almost subjugates us. This is what produces the particular kind of articulate subjectivity we’re after as scholars.