A Bigger Iceberg (3)

If you want to do science you’re going to need theory and method, and you’ll have to write about them. Here, too, Hemingway’s ratio holds. The theory section will not exhaust your theoretical understanding, and the methods section will not be able to explain everything you did to collect your data. Below the surface of your text lies all the reading of the literature in your field that you’ve done, and all the care you took in selecting, sampling, observing, recording, transcribing, coding and so on. You could write a whole book on the theories that frame your research (thankfully that’s usually already been done for you). You could talk for days about your fieldwork or experiments or surveys. The dignity of the movement of your writing depends on all the things you could say but don’t, all the questions you are able to answer if someone should ask.

Think of theorizing as a particular kind of reading. It’s not just reading, of course; it takes a lot of thinking too, but much of this thinking can be understood as a way of engaging with what other people have written. You can’t tell the reader about everything you’ve read, and there should be a reserve underneath the surface of the text. You should have a much wider knowledge of the discourse than you make explicit in your theory section. What’s important is to approach your theory as a shared framework for thinking about your research. Your reader is as theoretically sophisticated as you are; their mind has been formed by the same discipline that yours has been shaped by. You review the literature, not so that you can spare your reader the trouble of reading it, but learn how your reader thinks. The theory section is mainly a reminder to the reader of what the theory should lead us to expect of the analysis. It activates the reader’s theoretical dispositions.

This makes it very different from your background section, which is intended to inform the reader about things the reader may not be aware of. The sources you use in your background section will therefore not be as familiar to the reader as those you use in your theory section. The background is provided by newspaper coverage, popular histories, non-fiction books, company reports, official statistics and so forth. You are telling the reader something that you are entitled to presume the reader doesn’t know. You will be explaining it in those terms, in a particular, helpful tone of voice. But again you will not be able to tell them everything there is know about the subject. Think about the sorts of questions a reasonable, curious reader might have and make sure you’d be able to answer them from the depth of your knowledge. There should be many more details under the surface than you make explicit in your text.

Your methods section explains how you gathered your data. It is important to keep in mind that your basis for writing it is your own experience, i.e., what you actually did to collect your data. This part of the iceberg is actually very similar to the little anecdote we began with. The tip is just your honest narration of a number of things you did. Of course, it is framed by the methodological literature as well, and it also requires you to reflect seriously about sources of error and ethical issues, but the substance of your methods lies in your own personal research experience, “the sequence of motion and fact,” we might say, cribbing from Hemingway, which produced the data and which might ensure its validity going forward. Need I say that you will have done much more in this regard than you can say? The tip of the methodological iceberg is just a simple story, but underneath it are all the questions you can answer about how and why you did the things you did.

Finally, we have that special class of experience we call “data”, “the given”. These are the brute facts that you can take for granted in your analysis and interpretation of your research objects. The reader has been induced by your methods section to trust that this how the people in your sample answered the surveys, or this what they said during the interviews, or this is how they behaved during your field visits. Or the reader trusts that the data has been collected responsibility from a publicly available database and organized properly for analysis. The data that is available to you for analysis should far exceed the data points you present in the analysis section of the paper. You will present summaries of your data, not the raw data itself. But the raw data should, of course, exist. Indeed, these days you are likely to receive an email from a critic who’d like to examine it. So make sure it’s there. Your dignity depends on it.

By distinguishing the reading you share with the reader (theory) from the reading you don’t (background), and the experience that is yours alone (method) from the shareable product of that experience (data), you get a good sense of what the iceberg of your text looks like under the surface. In my next post I’ll try to bring it all together into a coherent image of a whole research paper.

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