Structuring the argument of a theoretical paper in the social sciences
A guideline for presenting original ideas convincingly
Successful academics are those who repeatedly attract the attention of other leading international experts in their specific area. They do that by saying and writing things that those colleagues find interesting. The work is then published in leading journals, and subsequently frequently cited. Young researchers who succeed at this game are more likely to get academic positions that allow them to devote their lives to research and teaching.
That raises an interesting question. What is a good academic text? That is hard to answer, because there are so many different kinds of text. But if we narrow things down to the social sciences, good academic texts usually demonstrate the following:
- A clear statement of an interesting research question.
- The author's understanding of current literature that is relevant to the research question in different academic disciplines.
- The author's skill in critical thinking, that is, her or his ability to draw on available arguments and evidence (often including the author's own empirical data) to draw new, plausible conclusions and thereby contribute to "expanding the boundaries of knowledge".
- On that basis, a clear statement of new or original ideas that seem both plausible and useful to expert readers.
Undergraduate students often wonder what it would be like to have an academic career. How hard would it be to achieve that? What should I be doing now? This document tries to answer those questions by taking a detailed look at the gentle art of identifying, addressing, and answering interesting questions in academic contexts. The document is intended for advanced bachelor's and masters students who are considering a possible future academic career.
For master's students, the next stage will be the doctorate. As a doctoral student, you will need to be skilled in the above points: formulating a research question, understanding the relevant literature and available evidence (including the results of your own empirical work, if relevant), applying general principles of critical thinking, and on that basis formulating new, interesting, plausible ideas.
Skills of that kind do not emerge overnight. So it's a good idea to start practising early.
How to follow this guideline
First, read the main text at this link: argument_how.doc. Please study this document carefully and ask if anything is unclear. I always welcome questions and suggestions. Please also check out the following document, which is longer and more explanatory: argument_why.doc.
If you are in the final year of the BA in Musicology in Graz, or somewhere in the MA, and you successfully completed everything in the first two years of the BA, that should be enough. You should not need to read the following. The same probably applies for other BA programmes in the humanities. But nobody's perfect, and the same ideas can be presented in different ways, which is why I put together the following additional materials.
Additional materials, step by step
If you are unsure about some aspects of this approach, try going through the following list, one point at a time:
- Browse general literature on academic writing, e.g. good essay writing. and ten simple rules.
- Learn the citation style corresponding to your main discipline, e.g. APA for social sciences, Chicago or MLA for humanities. For APA, use these citation guidelines, sample paper, and submission checklist.
- Browse through my additional guidelines for structuring an argument (doc, ppt, pdf) and using examples.
- Formulate your question. It should be concise and understandable without additional explanation. There should be a few different possible answers (not just "yes" or "no").
- Find the best relevant literature. Combine different search terms. Google Scholar is the most convenient but depending on topic you may need different databases. If there is not enough good relevant literature, change your question or plan an empirical (masters?) study to address it.
- Create a tabular argument (see argument_how.doc) and present it in class. If you are writing a BA-Arbeit or MA-Seminararbeit, include this filled-in table as an appendix and make sure the main text corresponds to the appendix.
- Ask for feedback and learn how to independently revise your materials. Do so repeatedly as your argument develops. Be creative!
- If necessary, challenge accepted dogma. Intellectual courage is part of critical thinking (more).
- Watch out for logical fallacies in relevant arguments (your, mine, others').
- Set a date for your talk. Present your research in a way that motivates your audience to discuss. Here's an example of what that might look like. Write down the suggestions, remarks and questions of your audience and refer to them later when writing the paper.
- When writing the paper, base your text on the tabular argument, but avoid referring directly to the terms in the left column. Do not talk about the "main topic", the "main thesis", and so on. Instead, your paper should read like a regular academic text. Here is an example of such a paper (in German).
- Imitate the writing style of your main cited literature. Every sentence should be as true and informative as possible. Avoid exaggerations or clichés. An exception to this rule is the presentation of examples at the start. They should be vivid and help your audience to quickly understand the main problem.
- Avoid long summaries of literature sources. Your paper should not read like a series of summaries. It is your argument, not someone else's! Refer to the literature only to support your argument. If you want to summarize a given article, chapter or book, limit yourself to half a page.
- Avoid plagiarism, the theft of intellectual property. There are two main kinds: copying wording (Formulierungen) and stealing ideas. Regarding wording, it's best to completely avoid copying and pasting. I can think of three exceptions: direct quotations that will appear as such in your work with author, date and page number ("(Smith, 1997, p. 98)"); entries for your reference list; and words with strange spelling, to avoid mistakes (e.g. the name "Csikszentmihalyi"). If you want to say something that many people agree upon, say it in your own words. Regarding ideas, don't present somebody else's idea as if it were your own; instead, cite the source. To decide what is plagiarism and what is not, imagine that you are the author of the material you are using, and ask yourself how they would feel about your text if they read it. Before submitting your essay, enter it to a free online plagiarism checker.
- Revise your abstract to match your revised tabular argument, and revise your table to match the main text. Everything in the abstract should be expanded upon in the table, and everything in the table should be expanded upon in the main text.
- Avoid problems encountered by other students (ppt).
- An example of a paper in this style is here.
Incidentally, it is a good idea to write your text in English, even if you could more easily write in another language:
- Writing an academic text in a university seminar is an unusual and important opportunity to improve your English with expert guidance.
- If you put your text in the internet, roughly 10x more people will read it (or at least the abstract) if it is in English by comparison to another major language such as German.
- Getting started with English now makes it easier to write in English later. Take the plunge!
- Having written your text in English, you will find it easier to give an effective conference presentations in English.
- Writing an academic text in English will impress most of your target future employees, regardless of where you work later on.
Richard ParncuttCentre for Systematic Musicology
8010 Graz, Austria