Monthly Archives: February 2015

How to Read a Journal Article

Colloquium: Thursday, February 26, 14:00 to 16:00  in room A 2.35 (inside the CBS Library at Solbjerg Plads)


“I have heard it said that the two standard tutorial questions at Oxford are “What does he mean?” and “How does he know?” I doubt the report—no university could be that good…”

Wayne Booth


The first thing to remember about a journal article is that it is, ideally, written by one of your peers. (One of the things that reading can discover is that the author is not really working in your discipline, and in that case your reading strategy will be very different. I’ll save that kind reading, i.e., reading outside your discipline, for another post.) By a “peer” I mean someone who has been trained in the same methods and steeped in the same theories that you have. A peer is someone who speaks your language and sees the world much like you do.

The next thing to keep in mind is that the article has been published in order to make you more knowledgeable than you would be if it hadn’t been published. That means that it addresses you as someone who already has a great deal of knowledge but who presumably does not know this thing that the article’s author has recently discovered. One of the things you’ll be noticing as you read is what the author presumes you know, and don’t know, about the subject. When you’re reading, be on the lookout for what you are actually learning from the reading. What do you know to be true after reading that you did not know before.

Paragraph for paragraph, you can apply Booth’s Oxford tutorial heuristic. Ask yourself, What is the author trying to say (trying to convince me is true) in this paragraph? You’ll be looking for what we call the “key sentence”, which should also be the focus of your own writing. Sometimes (hopefully not too often) you’ll have to construct a key sentence that is not in the paragraph. More often, the challenge is just to identify the sentence that makes the point of the paragraph. Then ask yourself, How does the author know? What kind of support does the author adduce for the claim made by the paragraph? Why should you believe it? And at this point you have to invoke your own authority as a reader, a researcher, a peer. You have to decide whether or not to believe it.

The claims in a paper are of course not just stated in any random order. They are normally grouped into sections. There’s an introduction, a background, a theory section, a methodology, an analysis, a discussion and a conclusion. Or something like that. Each section is trying to produce a different effect on you as a reader: to get your attention, to  inform, to make you expect something, to win your trust, to challenge your expectations, to reason with you about the implications of that challenge, to say goodbye. Be aware of these rhetorical postures, which change throughout an article. It might be useful to label the key sentences you’ve identified in terms of the effect its truth (or falsity) has on you.

Just as writing a paper essentially means making about 40 claims and supporting or elaborating them. Reading one means understanding about forty claims, some of which you already knew before reading and some of which contribute something new. When reading concentrate on finding those claims. They are what the author is trying to tell you.

Encyclopedic Knowledge

Colloquium: Thursday, February 19, 14:00 to 16:00  in room A 2.35 (inside the CBS Library at Solbjerg Plads)

Research contributes to the growth of knowledge. So it is reasonable to ask how much knowledge we have before our research is completed. What is it that supposedly “grows” by the addition of my research results? One answer is found by doing a literature review. Here you try to characterize the current “state of the field”, i.e., what is known within your specialty, by people who use your theories and your methods, and often also people who have investigated the same or similar phenomena. This kind of knowledge is part of a conversation; it is highly active and dynamic.

But there is also a much more stable store of existing knowledge. It’s what you find in dictionaries, encyclopedias, and handbooks. While these resources are becoming increasingly specialized, they are not, normally, sites of conversation. Rather, they are repositories of common, uncontroversial knowledge. They constitute the background against which the conversation proceeds. Ideally, then, a specialist reader will have no cause to dispute what an encyclopedia or dictionary says, even when its subject matter is embroiled in controversy.

To take a simple example: the Oxford English Dictionary defines “capital” both as “real or financial assets possessing monetary value” and as “the holders of wealth as a class” (and as many other things besides). That is, it provides both the economic and sociological meanings of the words. Neither an economist nor a sociologist will take issue with the presence of the other sense of the word in the dictionary. They will even be tolerant of imprecisions in the definition of “their” sense of the word. They understand that a dictionary is only able to provide a very broad, somewhat vague, definition. A place for the layperson to begin.

The same goes for more substantive issues. While an article in the journal of Organization Studies, may be committed to a postmodern perspective, the entry in The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Management about “postmodernism” will describe it in neutral terms, as a “cultural movement”, as one way among others to view the world. While what the journal article says may not be able to hold up if postmodernism is finally wrong, the handbook entry will not be affected. A good encyclopedia will have articles on defunct sciences and cultural movements too. And if it has an article on postmodernism it will also have one on modernism.

Note, however, that The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Management doesn’t have an article on modernism. This is because there was never a distinctly “modernist” movement in management science. Indeed, management science is better thought of as an aspect of modernity in general. This is not true in the arts, where both modernism and postmodernism deserve their own entries. This is an important insight to be gathered from reading an encyclopedia.

Next Thursday, we will look at the CBS Library’s dictionaries, handbooks and encyclopedias. Many of them (and pretty much all of the ones you’ll want to use) have online access. For this reason, we’ll also look at how best to cite these resources in our writing. (But with the caution that scholarship normally does not rely on handbook knowledge; rather, handbooks rely on scholarship.) And we’ll consider the most famous alternative to the library: Wikipedia. This resource is becoming an increasingly important tool in the craft of research. It’s well worth talking seriously about.

Mixed Methods, Combined Theories, and Multiple Paradigms

Colloquium: Thursday, February 12, 14:00 to 16:00  in room A 2.35 (inside the CBS Library at Solbjerg Plads)

Interdisciplinarity is normally approached as a meta-theoretical issue. This week’s craft colloquium will be devoted to its infra-methodology. If the meta-theoretical issue is one of why we should mix our methods, combine our theories and multiply our paradigms, the infra-methodological questions turn on how to go about it. I should say at the outset that this is difficult work, and to fully appreciate this difficulty we must count it as a reason (though not an overpowering one) not to do it. What this means is that we should have our meta-theoretical arguments for interdisciplinarity in place before we struggle too much with the materials of the craft. We need a reason to make the effort.

This actually reproduces the basic problem of matching theory and method in general. After all, methods don’t provide easy routes to knowledge. Rather, they prescribe a particular set of difficulties that make possible a particular degree of precision in knowledge. They are the means by which we can come to know difficult things. Since the application of a method, then, means grappling with a particular set of difficulties, we must have some good reason to do it. And it is our theory that requires this effort of us. The conceptual apparatus that govern our thinking indicate the methods that generate our data. The precision of our concepts make demands on the precision of our instruments.

Now, in traditional, paradigmatic research, which is to say, in Kuhnian “normal science”, one does not, properly speaking, choose one’s theories and methods. They are given in advance of any research project, and are what we were taught in graduate school. At some point in time, early on in our careers as scholars (while we’re still students) we chose our discipline and, subjecting ourselves to it, we learned the received theories and their associated methods. Being a competent researcher meant knowing what combinations of theory and method were acceptable to our peers. It was a matter of doing ones part in the community.

Interdisciplinary work is precisely a challenge to this community feeling. The founding theoretical and methodological choices that are “normally” experienced as necessary, are now experienced as contingent. We see ourselves as having a choice of what theories to invoke and what methods to employ. And this, finally, means giving ourselves a choice of what company we keep, what community we are going to work in. We even sometimes imagine we have the ability to found an entirely new community, establishing an entirely novel combination of theory and method. In any case, the problem is to a large extent that of constructing your audience.

Consensus, Controversy, Contribution

The more I read Golden-Biddle and Locke’s  Composing Qualitative Research, the more I like it. (This is, of course, because great minds think alike.) In preparation for today’s colloquium on literature reviews I’ve been rereading chapter two, with a focus on the second and third “moves that authors use to establish theorized storylines” (p. 27). Like I say, I’m basically in agreement with them, and on the one point were I’m inclined to disagree I have to grant that their suggestion follows convention. (It’s just the convention I disagree with.) What I’m going to do in this post then, is re-describe their approach in terms of my own suggestion for how to write the second paragraph of a three-paragraph introduction to a standard-issue social science paper.

The first paragraph, by the way, does exactly what Golden-Biddle and Locke suggest as the the first “move”. It situates the paper within a practical set of issues that gives the study its significance. The second paragraph, then, re-situates these issues within a theoretical problematic. As I like to put it, the first paragraph describes the world, the second paragraph describes the science you use to study it. Broadly speaking, there are three things you can say about a science by way of introducing your theoretical problematic, the last of which I don’t recommend, but which is certainly often, even conventionally used. (I’d be remiss if I didn’t tell you about it.)

The first is to characterize the founding consensus that defines your discipline. This is what Golden-Biddle and Locke call “coherence”, and they have an interesting take on it. They distinguish between “synthesized” and “progressive” coherence. The first is a consensus that you, the author of the paper, are able to discern in the literature, but which isn’t talked about much among scholars. It may appear as an implicit, underlying assumption that is taken for granted. The second is an openly recognized, often-touted agreement among scholars, part of their identity as members of the discipline. In both cases, I’d recommend presenting the consensus as an “easy sell”; that is, if you have to spend a great deal of time convincing your readers that they are in fact in agreement about this point, you’re not “theorizing your storyline”, you’re outright theorizing. You should be writing a theory paper, not a qualitative study. Your literature reviewing should give you the materials you need to essentially just remind the reader of what he or she shares with all your other readers. This invocation of community is an important move in writing.

The other option is to remind your readers, not of what they have in common, but what keeps them apart. There’s nothing sad or wrong about this; disagreement in science is very normal. Golden-Biddle and Locke refer to this as “noncoherence”. As they put it: “In articles constructing noncoherent intertextual fields, we find referenced works presented as belonging to a common research program, but whic are now linked by disagreement” (p. 36). That’s exactly right: the articles are “linked by disagreement”. Hopefully, you will not have to conclude that the whole field is subtended by incoherence, however. Your literature review, will find localized coherence, i.e., sub-communities of scholars working in different “camps”. The point is that you’ve chosen to define your scientific community  by one of its constitutive controversies, rather than by its foundational consensus.

In my view, you’re now already in a position to make your “contribution” to the literature. But Golden-Biddle and Locke insert an intermediate step, famously (and in the circles under my influence infamously) called “problematizing the literature”. Here the existing literature is explicitly described as something that needs your study’s conclusion. To my mind this goes without saying: your study will either provide a reason to doubt the founding consensus of your discipline (why else did you remind us of it?), or it will choose a side in one of its defining controversies (why else did you tell us about that?). It may, alternatively, propose a controversy to replace the consensus, or a consensus to transcend the controversy. In any case, you’ve already set the stage for your contribution. This is more or less the strategy that Golden-Biddle and Locke describe as presenting an “incommensurate” thesis (p. 41). Colloquially speaking, you’re going to claim that we’ve gotten something wrong and you’re here to set it right. We can put that in a slightly kinder and gentler way: you are going to be “pushing back” against the literature.

But as Golden-Biddle and Locke point out, there is another way to “problematize” the literature: you may characterize it as “incomplete” (p. 38) or “inadequate” (p. 39). Here, the goal is to “create a gap” in the literature in order “to argue the uniqueness and value of the theorized storyline” (p. 37). It’s true that this is a strategy that does often work, i.e., it helps you get published and/or a doctoral degree. But it is, to my mind unseemly. I’m out of time, so I won’t argue the point further now. Until I return to it at this blog, I’ll just refer you to a post on my other blog, in which I discuss Jörgen Sandberg and Mats Alveson‘s critique of this practice. As a scholar, I recommend against it; but as a writing consultant I’d be remiss not to tell you about it. It’s one of the tricks of the trade, though it will hopefully one day fall into dis-use through dis-repute.