Theory, Method, Style

The theme of your theory section is your reader’s expectations; the theme of your methods section is your own competence. In the theory section, where you conceptualize your object, you are reminding your reader what they expect of it. In your methods section, you are preparing them to accept the disappointment your analysis will (ever artfully) bring about. The trick is to preempt the reader’s rejection of your data, their attempt to maintain their theory in the face of your conclusions. You want them to trust you long enough to reflect on the significance of your results for their view of the world, forcing them to consider the possibility that their perspective needs to be changed. This is delicate work; it takes most researchers a long time to figure out how to manage the tension between theory and analysis. But some scholars are able to get around this problem, or, if you will, rise above it, on the strength of their charm, their wit, or their sheer good manners. In a word, they have style. They write their way out of the difficulty.

You don’t need to have a theory in order to have expectations. A theory is just a way of making explicit the expectations we have of the things that are lying around in our environment. When we see something, we expect certain things of it, and this makes an “object” of it all by itself. We understand, not just that it’s a thing, but that it affords a number of specific opportunities for action. It’s possible to sit in a chair, for example. It’s not possible to walk through a wall. It’s possible to lock a door. The expectations we have of things are what give them their air of “objectivity”, and our understanding of what a thing makes possible is our “concept” of that thing. When we “theorize” we take our concepts and organize them into a system, we build what is sometimes called a “conceptual frame” through which to look at things. Ultimately, this also organizes our expectations into a system, which can then guide our reasoning through a complex space of a possibilities. Quantitatively minded people might call this a “probability space” and go on to model it statistically. But none of that is, properly speaking, necessary to ensure the objectivity of things. All that is needed is a certain regularity of experience, the ability to make repeated observations.

Now, you don’t need a method in order to make observations. Here, again, what we call “method” is merely a way of making explicit why our reader should trust our data. They should do so because we collected it in a careful manner, and we can explain exactly what we did because we followed a deliberate method. But the actual doing, and the seeing that it makes possible, is of course an altogether ordinary and, in fact, rather “subjective” affair. You planned and conducted interviews, or designed and distributed surveys, or gained access to an organization and observed its members. This may result in a set of “data”, which is then “given” to you for analysis; and your reader may want to know why they should take it for granted that these are in fact the things you saw and heard; but at the end of the day, they have only your word, your words on the page. If you write about your observations in a credible and confident way, perhaps that is all your reader needs. After all, your methods section, too, is only made of words.

Scientific writing is not, as is sometimes assumed, just writing with the style stripped out of it. Indeed, the French naturalist, Georges-Louis Leclerc de Buffon, is perhaps better known for his style than his science. “Writing well consists of thinking, feeling and expressing well, of clarity of mind, soul and taste,” he said, adding his now famous aphorism: “The style is the man himself.” Scientific writing is, we might say, a style of writing, one that befits a particular kind of person, a scientist. As I have been stressing throughout, the normal procedure is to make your theory and method explicit, to be open with the reader about how you’re playing their biases and winning their trust. If you did not signal these moves explicitly, they may suspect you of manipulating them. But every discipline is different; every discipline has its own tolerance for tricks and gimmicks. Sometimes it will be sufficient to allude to the concepts that shape the reader’s expectations; sometimes the reader will trust you on the basis of a detail they recognize from their own work. “The truth,” said Marcel Proust, “begins when the writer takes two different objects, establishes their relationship, and encloses them in the necessary rings of his style.”

You don’t have to approach all your writing this way. In fact, when you’re starting out, and especially in your academic writing, I would strongly suggest making your reader’s expectations and your own competence explicit to yourself — as theory and method, respectively. But once the probability space of your research has become familiar to you, once you know what your reader expects and is willing to believe, you might consider exploring beyond the structure of your field and into its finer texture. You may never (nor should you perhaps ever) completely transcend the problems of theory and method. But if you can bring out a sense of both the possible and the credible, presenting them with the nonchalant air of necessity, as though the reader already sees, as you so, the same ethereal rings that surround the things of experience, you will have expanded your repertoire as a writer and built your strength as a scholar. You will have become the particular kind of person we associate with that particular style. What you must think of me now!

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