The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

$h•! PTJ Says #1: justifying your theory and methodology

August 17, 2011

I am going to try writing down pieces of advice that I give to students all the time, in the hopes that they might be useful for people who can’t make it to my office hours.

“The fact that no one else has approached topic X with your particular perspective is not a sufficient warrant for approaching topic X with your particular combination of theory and methodology. In order to get the reader on board, you have to basically issue a promissory note with a grammar that runs something like:

‘Here’s something odd/striking/weird/counterintuitive about X. Other scholars who have talked about X either haven’t noticed this odd/striking/etc. thing at all, or they haven’t found it odd/striking/etc. Furthermore, they haven’t done so because of something really important about their theory/methodology that — even though it generates some insights — simply prevents them from appreciating how odd/striking/etc. this thing is, let alone trying to explain it. Fortunately, there’s my alternative, which I am now going to outline in a certain amount of abstract detail; but bear with me, because there’s a mess of empirical material about topic X coming after that, and I promise you that my theoretical/methodological apparatus will prove its worth in that empirical material by a) showing you just how odd/striking/etc. that thing is, and b) explaining it in a way that other scholars haven’t been able to and won’t be able to.’

Almost no one is convinced by theory and methodology, and absolutely no one is or should be convinced by a claim that existing approaches aren’t cool enough because they aren’t like yours. The burden is on you to give the reader reasons to keep reading, and at the end of the day the only reason for theory and methodology is to explain stuff that we didn’t have good explanations for before. So you have to convince the reader that other approaches *can’t* explain that odd thing about topic X. (And if you can do this without gratuitous and out-of-context references to Thomas Kuhn and being ‘puzzle-driven,’ that’s even better, because I won’t have to make you write an essay on why basically nobody in the social sciences actually uses Kuhn correctly.)”

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Patrick Thaddeus Jackson is Professor of International Studies in the School of International Service, and also Director of the AU Honors program. He was formerly Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of International Relations and Development, and is currently Series Editor of the University of Michigan Press' book series Configurations: Critical Studies of World Politics.