Category Archives: Academic writing

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.

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?”

Structure: Once upon a time….

The end of Jean Cocteau's introduction to his film version of Beauty and the Beast.
The end of Jean Cocteau’s introduction to his film version of Beauty and the Beast.

Writers of nonfiction, including the academic variety, can often learn useful lessons from the more “artful” storytelling world of novelists, playwrights and filmmakers. The phrase “Once upon a time…,” despite or perhaps because of age (it’s apparently been in use since 1380), still evokes a sense of wonder. It’s a sense that has been exploited in numerous ways over the years, including George Lucas’ “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away….” in Star Wars to the title of Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West.

The introduction to the first Star Wars movie.
The introduction to the first Star Wars movie.

Sometimes opening words can take on a life all their own. Think of the first paragraph of Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” or “Rosebud,” the first word spoken in Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane. While Tolstoy’s sentence sets the tone for his novel, the dying word of Charles Foster Kane sets up a mystery (a question if you will) which the film’s story attempts to unravel.

Students are taught to write introductory paragraphs that clearly state what you are going to write about and how you are going to go about it. Unless you have been assigned to do one of those five-paragraph essays, your opening statement does not have to be your opening paragraph—it might even be several paragraphs long.

For instance, you could start off by telling an anecdote whose relevance to your topic is not initially evident. It could set up a mystery or question much like Welles did with “Rosebud.” One might also begin with an evocative quotation, such as “Once upon a time….” to start a book review of Bruno Bettelheim’s The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales, or Tolstoy’s “Happy families” to introduce your essay on the dynamics of families coping with schizophrenia.

While the use of anecdotes and/or quotations to start off your book or essay might seem a bit of a cliché, they can be useful literary devices to get you going. After all, it’s much more interesting than starting a term paper for your American Literature class with something as cut and dry as, “John Steinbeck was born on February 27, 1902, in Salinas, California.”