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.

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