Abstracts and Nutshells

“I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space–were it not that I have bad dreams.” (Hamlet)

For some scholars, writing an abstract is a nightmare. For others, it causes nightmares later on when they try to write the paper that the abstract promised. But for you, after you have read this post, writing an abstract will be like ruling an infinite kingdom.

Let’s begin with why it is called an “abstract”. While laypeople find academic writing itself rather abstract, it’s important to keep in mind that the more words you have at your disposal the more concrete you can be. Every word you write specifies your meaning further and ties what you are saying to facts that can, hopefully, be verified or replicated by your reader. At one level you are saying that “organizational culture is supported by sensemaking”, but at another level, a much more concrete, you are describing the cognitive processes of particular managers in a particular organization. At a still more concrete level, you are describing what they said to you in an interview or what they did while you observed them. That is, you are describing an entirely finite, entirely bounded dataset that has been collected by a series of actions that you executed. These actions were as concrete as those of the people you studied.

So an abstract is “abstract” relative to the concreteness you are able to establish in the associated paper. Even a purely “theoretical” or “conceptual” paper is ultimately about the concrete sources (books and papers with authors and dates) that you draw on to frame and support your arguments. You don’t mean simply “capital” or “discourse”; you mean these words in the sense bounded by the tradition of Marxist and Foucauldian scholarship, for example. Or, alternatively, in the tradition of economic or linguistic science. And even these words — “Marxist”, “Foucauldian”, “economic”, “linguistic” — are abstract in a sense that can be made concrete by invoking particular sources, particular traditions.

Always approach your abstract as expressing something that can be made more concrete by saying more words. Remember to include a statement of your conclusion that carries both a general meaning and a specific truth. It should mean something to a reader before reading the whole paper, but its truth should be apparent only afterwards. The reader should need your paper before making up their mind about whether you are right. Remember also to include a clear statement of your methods and a summary of your data, all while accepting that this will immediately tell some readers of your abstract that they are not the intended reader of the paper. Your methods will not appeal to everyone, your data set may be too small for particular readers to take seriously. Finally, make sure there’s a sentence or two telling your reader what you believe the implications of your result are. Are they mainly theoretical or practical? How should the world or the science change in recognition of your result.

Imagine your reader. An abstract should give your reader information that will help them decide whether to read the paper or attend your conference session. Likewise, it should give your journal editor enough information to decide who should review your paper and your conference organizer enough information to decide whether and where your presentation fits into the program. Imagine a reader with these limited ambitions and don’t feel hemmed in by the space constraints. Remember that they are there precisely to save the reader time. If you respect that, you’ll be better able to decide how to spend your own time writing the abstract. Count yourself a king of infinite space even when you are bounded in a nutshell. Use your imagination.

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