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General guidelines for theoretical writing

  • Be sure that you discuss each theorist in her/his own terms:
    • Use the theorist’s vocabulary.  For example, when reviewing exchange theory use concepts such as equilibrium, profit, utility maximization, transaction costs & rewards, etc.
    • Don’t use technical vocabulary other than that of the theorist under discussion.  For example, when reviewing exchange theory do NOT use concepts such as domination, exploitation, deconstruction, etc.
  • Be sure to relate each theorist’s vocabulary according to her/his own logic.  As a direct consequence of this guideline, please note that the following types of arguments are off-limits (i.e., do NOT use them in your papers for this course):
    • The theorist does not examine her/his assumptions.  Assumptions are (by definition) assumed, and are thus never examined empirically.  It is your task to make these assumptions explicit, even if the theorist does not.
    • The theory does not apply in all social situations.  This refers to the “domain” of the theory.  Most theorists acknowledge that their theory has a finite domain.  (Of course, if the theorist claims her/his theory’s universality your critique might involve a counter-illustration or two.)  Again, it is your job to specify the conditions under which a theory applies, although one would hope the theorist would be explicit on this.
    • The theory does not take something (you name it) into account.  Every theory is a theory “about something,” where “something” is usually quite abstract (e.g., what motivates human behavior, why there isn’t a war of all against all, etc.).  To require that a theory is about everything is tantamount to saying, “Yours is not the only theory,” or worse, “There is a process so fundamental that any theory should take it into account.”  Such statements merely reveal your refusal to examine the theory on its terms, and your insistance on examining it only on your own terms.
    • The author’s motivation for authoring the theory is unlike the motivations of the people her/his theory describes.  This is a special case of the previous point.
    • The author is unclear.  Such a criticism cannot stand on its own.  To make this claim, you must specify precisely where there is a gap in the theorist’s argument.  Otherwise, the lack of clarity may be due to your confusion rather than the theorist’s not having developed her/his ideas sufficiently.
Other tips to keep in mind in your theoretical writings are accessible via a link in this sentence.  Please look them (plus the above points) over each time before you begin any written work for this course!


Format for theoretical papers

Both your position paper and your term paper should be formatted with one-inch margins on all sides of each page, using the Times New Roman font with a size of 12 points.  Papers should be double-spaced, and should have been carefully proofread.  Each paper is to be submitted as a Microsoft Word document attached to an e-mail sent to prior to midnight on the paper’s due date.
If you use the words of another author, you must enclose those words in quotation marks and indicate your source and page number in a form like the following: (Wilson, Sawyer, and McDonald 1992:123).  Not to do this is to plagiarize.  It should go without saying that copying from another person’s writings is plagiarism--an activity that risks a lower grade or even failing the course.  Please plan ahead.  If you put off writing your papers until the last minute, poor performance (and pressures for quick-fixes) may result.
Each paper should have a bibliography attached as an additional page.  The bibliography should list all the works and only the works mentioned in the body of your paper.  For the position paper, the bibliography should list at least four works, at least two of which should be ones not listed on the Readingspage; for the term paper, the bibliography should list at least ten works, at least five of which should be ones not listed on the Readingspage.  All works cited in your research papers must be primary sources (i.e., works written by the theorists themselves).  You should make no use of secondary sources (i.e., works written about theorists by "experts") at any time during the course.  Although websites may be listed in your bibliography, they count toward the totals of neither the four works to be listed in your position paper’s bibliography, nor the ten works to be listed in your term paper’s bibliography.  See for information on how to reference websites in your text and your bibliograpy .  The following are three illustrations of references as they should appear in your bibliographies:
Marx, Karl.  2003.  “Alienated Labor.”  Pp. 6-13 in Social Theory: Roots and Branches, edited by Peter Kivisto.  Los Angeles, CA: Roxbury.
Mountie, Ima.  1987.  Politics in the Klondike.  San Diego, CA: Wichita Press.

Smith, Mary, Joe Blow, and Jan Johnson.  1986.  “Exorcism Made Easy,” Journal for the Religious Study of Science 45:1-23.

Note that the first reference is to an edited collection of essays, the second is to a book, and the third is to a journal article.  Be sure to alphabetize entries in your bibliography by authors’ last names, and to use the formats of these references exactly.


Position paper

    The position paper should be no less than 3 pages (excluding bibliograpy) in length, and should describe a theory (or school of theories) as a system, including both of the following:
    • the theorist’s vocabulary (i.e., key concepts) and grammar (i.e., assumptions and logic)

    • an explanation of how this vocabulary and grammar are interrelated such that, if people acted in accordance with this theoretical language, their interactions would be self-sustaining, and would thus persist over time

    Please note that biographical information about theorists should not be mentioned unless you clearly link such life events to  the theorists’ ideas.  Also, do not summarize theorists’ ideas; synthesize them as you have been learning to do in your notes and in class.


Term paper

The term paper should be no less than 10 pages (excluding bibliograpy) in length, and should contain the following:
  • a concise introductory section containing syntheses of at least two theories, or schools of theories, that are based on theoretically distinct (i.e., inconsistent or incompatible) assumptions  (The purpose here is to set out the theorists’ key vocabularies and grammars.  These “one-minute syntheses” should comprise only 10-20% of your term paper.)
  • pairs of arguments--one from each theory's (or theoretical school's) perspective--each pair of which gives a distinct answer to a "why question"  (This part of the term paper should be divided into at least 3 sections, each devoted to a pair of arguments on a theoretical issue [a.k.a. a pivotal concept], and should comprise 70-80% of the paper.  Each pivotal concept should be used as a [left-justified] header for the section in which a "why question" derived from it is addressed.  Be sure to choose pivotal concepts that are addressed in different ways among the theories you are contrasting.)
  • a (nonvacuous) concluding section in which you build upon the theoretical differences discussed in the previous sections to demonstrate that assumptions underlying one of your theories contradict assumptions underlying the other theory  (This section should comprise about 5-10% of your term paper.  Demonstrating contradictions calls for more than merely proclaiming that the theories "are contradictory."  Instead, you must provide arguments that have the following form:  Whereas Theorist A assumes Proposition #1 (e.g., people are fundamentally good), Theorist B assumes Proposition #2 (e.g., people are fundamentally bad).  Yet note that if Proposition #1 is true, Proposition #2 must be false.  Thus this is one way in which Theorists A and B hold contradictory assumptions.)
The key objective in this course is students’ mastery of a skill.  “The skill” (as it will frequently be referred to throughout the course) is an ability to locate and clearly state the assumptions (or axioms) on which theoretical writings are based, and to identify assumptions that are contradictory among these writings.  The term paper is the primary vehicle through which students can demonstrate their mastery of this skill.  Please make good use of classroom discussions, group notes for each class, the position paper, construction of your outline, our student/instructor meeting, and your readings both for class and for your papers in sharpening this skill as preparation for writing your term paper.

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