Theory Papers and Other Variations

I originally proposed my forty-paragraph outline as a guide for writing what I call “the standard social science paper”. This is the kind of paper that presents the result of an empirical study, framed by a familiar theory, guided by an accepted methodology, with identifiable implications. Many such papers make a “theoretical contribution” too, of course, but some papers, often called “theoretical” or “conceptual” papers, make this contribution by purely theoretical means. I want to write a few posts about variations on the standard research paper this summer, starting with this one, which is perhaps the most common.

Theories, Bourdieu tells us, are “programs of perception”. They condition what researchers see when they look at the world. They are also, systems of expectation; they condition what people expect of your object. But in a theoretical paper, there is no specific empirical object. Instead, there is a general class of objects—the kinds of things you are able to see, but have not looked at. Your reader has certain expectations of these objects, is programmed to perceive them in certain ways. You are trying to change those expectations, reprogram them, and you are trying to do so without showing them anything about any particular object. What you are bringing to bear on their expectations is more theory—that is, other expectations, other parts of their program.

Normally, those who hold a particular theory have a kind of knee-jerk version of it in mind. When you mention a social practice, they’ll immediately theorize it in a certain way, and this will reduce the complexity of their image of the object. In an empirical paper, you use your data to push against this simplified image. That’s how you “artfully disappoint your reader’s expectations of the object” as I usually say. But in a purely theoretical paper, you are trying to reconfigure your reader’s expectations by activating other expectations. This may be accomplished by drawing in other theorists that the reader is, if perhaps only vaguely, aware of but does not use in the initial conceptualization of a practice. You here argue that these other theorists should affect our expectations of the object in question, that they should have a stronger influence on us. If your argument holds, the reader’s expectations will change without being confronted by any new empirical data.

Alternatively, you can offer a closer reading of the theory in question. You can show that our expectations of our object have been formed by superficial or careless readings of the major theorist in the field. Since your readers presumably respect the work of this theorist, this may go some way towards changing their expectations.

What I will be offering here is not a normative guideline for what a theory paper should accomplish, of course, nor how exactly to accomplish it. I’ll leave that to the major theorists, especially those who serve as the editors of the journals that publish such papers. Instead, I will propose a way of organizing twenty hours work such that, at the end of it, you have produced the first draft of a 40-paragraph theory paper. This draft can then be edited into shape for publication. In outline, it will look as follows:

1. Introduction (3 paragraphs)
2. Historical Background (5)
3. State of the Art (5)
4. Critical Occasion (5)
5. Conceptual Analysis (3 x 5)
6. Discussion (5)
7. Conclusion (2)

Remember that each paragraph should make a single, easily identifiable claim and either support, elaborate, or defend it. It should consist of at least six sentences and at most 200 words. It should be written in exactly 27 minutes.

The introduction will consist of three paragraphs. The first paragraph will be devoted to a history of your field up to the present. The scope of this history will depend on your judgment. Whether your history starts in ancient Athens, in eighteenth-century England, or in Paris of 1968 depends on the contribution you want to make. The second paragraph will be devoted to the present state of the theory. What is the reigning consensus or standing controversy that defines your field of research? Obviously, this should be the state you want transform in some interesting way, either by settling a dispute or unsettling an agreement.

The third paragraph should announce your contribution. “In this paper, I will argue that…” Notice that “supporting or elaborating” this claim, which is about your paper not your theory, does not yet require you to argue your position. You only have to describe a paper that would make such a contribution. And that means you will essentially be outlining your paper. Now, you have already introduced the historical background in paragraph 1, which will have space to talk about in part two of the paper, so you don’t have say anything more here. Also, in the second paragraph you have introduced the current state of the theory, which you will elaborate in greater detail the third part of the paper. What is left is to say something about how the theoretical problem you are interested in arose and why you are the right person to deal with it, to outline your analysis a little more, and to tell us why it is important, i.e., to summarize your discussion. That is, the introduction ends with an outline of parts 4, 5 and 6 of the paper.

Part 4 takes the place of the methods section of a standard empirical paper. In a sense, you are still saying what you did, but it is perhaps more accurate to say that you are explaining what happened to you to force you into a theoretical reflection. It may simply be a development within your field (someone else’s or your own empirical results, published elsewhere) or it may be an “event” like the publication of a correspondence or a translation of a previously untranslated work by a major theorist. World events, too, may be relevant here. After 1989 and 2001 and 2008 there were all kinds of reasons to “rethink” the theories that framed work in a whole range social sciences. Since you’re saying how the problem arose, you will also need to say what materials came into view: what texts have you read and how have you read them?

Part 5 will present your argument in detail. It’s a good idea to divide the argument into sub-theses each of which can be demonstrated separately. Two to four sections of three to six paragraphs gives you some manageable space to work with here.

Finally, part 6 will cash out your analysis in consequences, usually for theory, though sometimes for practice. You might want to emphasize the important political consequences of your line of thinking, but a very common and important class of “theoretical” implications center of questions of method. If you’re right that we have to see the world in a new way (a theory is always a way of seeing the world) then perhaps we will have to do things differently too? You may have shown that capitalism is broken and we a revolution, or at least that our theories of capitalism are in crisis and a paradigm shift is coming, or you may simply have shown that if we really want to know how capitalism works we have to look in unfamiliar places.

(I’ll write a post on methodological papers soon.)

The conclusion should consist of two paragraphs, one of which states your conceptual argument in the strongest, simplest terms you can imagine. You may want to use the sentence that completes the key sentence of paragraph three (i.e., everything after “I will argue that”) as a key sentence here. The last paragraph could suitably extend the history of the field that you presented in paragraph 1 and elaborated in part 2 by imagining a possible future.

Like I say, I don’t pretend to have given you a recipe for a publishable theory paper in your favorite journal. I have only described the task in a way that makes it amenable to “writing process reengineering”. It is a way of spending 20 hours, one moment at a time, dealing with the reader’s problems one at a time.

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