Monthly Archives: August 2016

Scholarly Writing: Theoretical Frameworks

Charles Darwin.
Charles Darwin.

Theoretical frameworks, according to a Trent University “Online History Workbook,” “provide a particular perspective, or lens, through which to examine a topic.” One might say they provide a ready-made set of questions to pose when trying to make sense of a particular data set.

It is a concept many tend to associate with science, as with Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, though they can be used in any scholarly discipline. (Their use is actually wider, but I won’t get into that right now.) The use of theoretical frameworks in science is easy to understand, though application to other fields, such as in the arts and humanities, can be difficult for some to grasp.

A scientific theory explains the evidence and allows one to make predictions about future evidence, and change or adapt as new evidence requires different explanations. For instance, in 1980 the father-son team of Luis and Walter Alvarez’s raised the hypothesis that the mass extinction of dinosaurs being caused by an asteroid impact 65 million years ago. This was something of a challenge to the then accepted view that evolution according to Darwin’s Theory of Natural Selection proceeded in gradual increments. In the end, biologists were able to accommodate this into Darwin’s theory, which continues as the foundation for explanations biological evolution.

The theories used in writing about the arts, social sciences and humanities are not seen as readily verifiable as those in the hard sciences. However using a theoretical framework to understand literature, history and sociology in a more nuanced way. In fact, there may be a wide range of theoretical approaches which can be used to examine the same evidence, perhaps with equal validity.

For instance, Finnish scholar Yrjo Engeström in his article, “Activity Theory and the Social Construction of Knowledge: A Story of Four Umpires,” illustrates how the same event can be read differently, depending on your framework. He begins by citing H.W. Simons’ story about three baseball umpires who disagreed on

“calling balls and strikes. The first one said, ‘I calls them as they is.’ The second one said, ‘I calls them as I sees them.’ The third and cleverest umpire said, ‘They ain’t nothin’ till I calls them.’”

The differences, according to social psychologist, Antti Eskola, are as follows:

“The one who believes in the possibility of describing the world objectively says: ‘I whistle [i.e., call] the ball foul when it is a foul ball.’ The subjectivist who understands the constructive, observer- and instrument-dependent nature of knowledge confesses: ‘I whistle a foul ball when it seems to me that it is a foul ball.’ The third umpire for whom the world is socially constructed says: ‘The ball is foul when I whistle it a foul ball.’”

However, Engeström provides a fourth way using his own Cultural-Historical Activity Theory (CHAT), which puts the game in a larger social context (i.e., baseball as what he calls an “activity system”) rather than being focused on the reactions of individual umpires.

How to decide which theory to use is something we’ll discuss in a future post.

Research Methods: Evaluating Scholarly Sources with Google Scholar

The weight of Gods word against traditions

In writing term papers, many students instinctively do a Google search and pick the first few items that come up, which will frequently include a Wikipedia article. This, however, is not the best way to find sources that your professor might accept. For those doing more scholarly research, such as doing a review of literature, the challenges are more substantial

Fortunately, there are a number of good websites, usually maintained by academic libraries, which go over the basics of identifying and evaluating scholarly sources. For instance, the University of Southern California Library’s page on “Organizing Research for Arts and Humanities Papers and Theses: What are Scholarly and Non-Scholarly Sources,” does a good job of going over the basics. It is also useful for delving into the peculiarities of research in the arts and humanities; for example, it notes that in certain instances, “The author may be a multi-disciplinary intellectual of a transnational stature, who does not rely on the commonly acceptable scholarly apparatus.”

This is all well and good, but once you’ve identified a number of sources, how do you judge their relative value? One way is by using a feature of Google Scholar, which limits its searches to scholarly books and articles in English, which provides a handy way of finding out the popularity among scholars of particular sources.

The YouTube video above, from Charles Sturt University, in Australia, provides a good overview of how to use Google Scholar, especially in conjunction with a school’s library and with whatever bibliographic management software you’re using—in this instance Endnote. (Zotero isn’t one of the options listed, but the program can easily import citations from Google Scholar. You can also generate citations that you can copy into your paper.)

One feature the video doesn’t really deal with it is how many times an item has been cited by others. All things being equal, the number of citations can be used as a barometer on how much the scholarly community values a source. For instance, the top result for a search I did on “global warming” was for Root, Terry L., et al. “Fingerprints of global warming on wild animals and plants,” by Terry Root, et al., which appeared in Nature in 2003, which shows it was “Cited by 3471” sources. In comparison, James E. Hansen’s “Sir John Houghton: Global Warming: The Complete Briefing” that appeared in the Journal of Atmospheric Chemistry in 1998, was “Cited by 1566.”  (If you click on the “Cited by…” link, you can bring up the sources which cited the item in question.)

While the Root article has been cited twice as many times as the Hansen, the comparison is not really that cut and dried. The former was published in a relatively popular natural science journal, while the latter is a book review from a more specialized publication dealing with atmospheric chemistry. Used with care, though, it’s one more way to identifying useful scholarly material.

What is the Difference Between a Literature Review and a Term Paper?

Austrian painter Carl Schleicher's A Controversy Whatsoever on Talmud.
Austrian painter Carl Schleicher’s A Controversy Whatsoever on Talmud.

Merriam-Webster  defines a term paper as “a long essay that usually requires research and that is written by a student as part of a course or class.” In a term paper, the writer makes an argument about what the research says on a particular topic.

For example, I wrote an undergraduate term paper on marriage practices of the nobility in 17th Century France. I read a number of secondary sources and looked at some of the estate records that were compiled in volumes in the library. I came to the conclusion, surprising to me, that most members of the French nobility in the 17th Century did not marry, but were forced into the convent (women), the army or the priesthood (men). I wondered about how this contributed to the long-term consequences for French society, the consolidation of power that led to the explosion of the French Revolution.

The purpose of a literature review, however, is to lay out the scholarly conversations that are relevant to your topic. What kind of research are people doing, and what are they writing about? Where does your topic fit in?

Books on how to do research— one of my favorites being The Power of Questions: A Guide to Teacher and Student Research by Beverly Falk and Megan Blumenreich (2005)—commonly suggest that the novice writing a lit review for a research proposal identify research articles related to their topic, and pull out three or four themes that seem to emerge in reading them.

This is good advice, but it misses the point: Research is a conversation.  People who do research talk with each other, build on each other’s work, refute each other’s work, etc. The literature review is your “map” of that conversation. What you do in your literature review is show where your proposed study fits in.

I have found that graduate students don’t understand they are making a transition from being an undergraduate who consumes knowledge to a master who produces knowledge. Many students feel stymied, and bemoan, “I can’t find anything on this topic!”

“That’s great,” I say. “That means you are doing research on something we don’t already know. What are the conversations your study is related to?”