Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Theory Papers

In general, papers should make a theoretical contribution. While most papers will bring empirical material to bear in order to accomplish this goal, however, some papers, which are often called "theoretical" or "conceptual" papers, accomplish their theoretical aims by purely theoretical means.

Theories, Bourdieu tells us, are "programs of perception". They condition what researchers see and do not see when they look at the world. They are also, I tell people, 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 bring 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.

The new expectations will of course have to be somehow "tested", but in a theoretical paper, this task is left for future research, perhaps done by other researchers. This means that you do well to identify the methodological implications of your research. If we now see the world differently, what should we do differently when we look at it?


Presskorn said...

How do we flesh out (or fill in the content of) the "3, 5, 5, 5, 15, 5, 2"-formula when it comes to 'the theorectical paper'? In the same way as for 'the critical paper'(cf. your latest blogpost)? Or do have to give up the "3, 5, 5, 5, 15, 5, 2"-formula in this case?

Thomas said...

I'll sum it up tomorrow, but, yes, a theory paper can be structured (at least provisionally) in the same way.