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The Form of a Paper

March 29, 2015

“Bateson’s Conditions of Discovery:
1. Some data flowing through the system.
(A remedy for ill-drawn abstractions.)
2. Always the multiple approach.
(What is true of all of them is the formal truth.)”

Stewart Brand, For God’s Sake, Margaret: Conversation with Gregory Bateson and Margaret Mead, in: CoEvolution Quaterly 10 (Summer 1976), pp. 32–44, quote p. 38.


Caveat: Before you think about writing a paper or a thesis, make sure to indicate three or four books or articles, which deal with the issues and/or problems you have in mind. They are your reference books or papers. They help you to sharpen your argument. They lead, challenge, and support the ideas you may wish to develop, and the methods you choose to employ.[1]

This handout is about how to structure a paper written for purposes of academic knowledge production. It is about how to call, to cross, and to re-enter a scientific argument, i.e., to give form to a paper.

Argument is pivotal but contextual. There is no argument if you do not check your problem within data that depend on coding (aka method) and state of research (aka scientific community).

In your paper or thesis, make sure all of the following items are specified by your outline, their sequence being variable to some extent:

(1) Abstract:

Others may not have the time to read your paper. What do they miss?

(2) Key Words:

Without tags, nobody would know how to taxonomize (or folksonomize) your paper.

 (3) Statement of the problem and introduction:

Arguably this is the most difficult part of the exercise since what problem may you have if you already have the time, the imagination, and the education to think about a scientific paper? Give others a chance to join you in seeing your problem as a problem. Tell a “representative anecdote”[2] to give yourself and others a picture, scheme, or story of what you are up to. Note that this anecdote will be representative also for the possible scope (with respect to terminology) and necessary reduction (with respect to reality) with which you will state your problem.

(4) State of research:

Others already thought and wrote about your issue. What did they find out? Which questions remain open?

(5) Thesis:

What is it you think you have to tell others? You need arguments to highlight the risk you are going to take and to control it with respect to the work done by others. The risk consists in an attempt to determine the indeterminate.

(6) Data:

Data are everywhere, depending on coding. They come as numbers, stories, cases, semantics, and in other forms. Which data are yours?

(7) Method and Heuristics:

There is a host of quantitative and qualitative, correlative and interpretative, comparative and statistical, case-based and historical, ethnographic and cartographic, narrative and discursive, experimental and intervening methods. State yours. Method tells how to get and how to code data (see appendix 1 on an observing systems research methodology).

There are various heuristics available, which give you a terminology to develop a calculus consisting of metadata, which are able to identify, distinguish, and relate data (link).[3]

For any project, select but one of them, or compare but two or three of them. Take care not to schematically apply one or several of these heuristics uncritically. They have to be tested with and within the empirical phenomena, such as to make them as reflexive as any cultural phenomenon.

(8) Modeling:

Try to formulate a model, which makes explicit a calculus you implicitly had already in mind or began to develop when becoming familiar with the redundancy of the information you collected. The model gives you the calculus, which according to the observer’s perspective you are choosing is bringing forth the subject you are dealing with.

Make sure to distinguish at any moment heuristic and architectonic procedure to distinguish how your subject relates to other phenomena from how it articulates its unity.

Call culture theory any model, which gives you the calculus of how a culture works, if ‘culture’ according to Yuri M. Lotman means any object brought about by the complexity of the combination of at least two elements that are not reducible to each other.[4] Culture analysis identifies these elements according to one of the heuristics given above. Culture combines decoupling and re-embedding, or communication and control, or action, talk, and power.

(8) Findings:

So what did you find out?

(9) Discussion:

Look back at the problem stated, the research done, and the findings related, and put them into perspective regarding work done by others, practices and techniques used by others, and beliefs possibly held by others. Look at the data being different as soon as they are coded differently.

(10) Bibliography (Literature and Sources):

Books, papers, data.


Add consistent quoting rules and style-sheeting standards of your own or go to the style guide of the American Sociological Association.

See for further tips also The Writing Center at the Faculty of Arts and Sciences of Harvard University.


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[1]        Paul Auster once wrote that a private detective accepting a job at once has to deal with two cases, viz. with the case he has to solve and with himself as part of the solution or, possibly, of the problem. Writing a paper means to have to deal with at least four cases, viz. with the selected subject, the chosen approach, the textual arrangement and styling of the argument, and the writer’s moods, resistances, and inclinations.

[2]        See Kenneth Burke, A Grammar of Motives [1945], Reprint Berkeley, CA: California UP, 1969, p. 60.

[3]        For a start see Kenneth J. Burke, A Grammar of Motives [1945], Reprint Berkeley, CA: California UP, 1969, Introduction: The Five Key Terms of Dramatism, about act, scene, agent, agency, and purpose, adding, sixth, attitude; Robert K. Merton, The Sociology of Knowledge [1945], in: idem, Social Theory and Social Structure, rev. and enl. ed., New York: Free Press, 1968, 510-542, about the where, what, how, why, and when of suspicion; Talcott Parsons, The Social System, New York: Free Press, 1951, about adaptation, goal-attainment, integration, and latent-pattern maintenance and conflict-regulation as functional requisites for both the system’s differentiation with respect to an environment and its reproduction with respect to time; Niklas Luhmann, Soziale Systeme: Grundriß einer allgemeinen Theorie, Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1984, about the factual (boundary/horizon), temporal (before/after), and social (ego/alter ego) dimension of meaning; Michael E. Porter, Competitive Strategy: Techniques for Analyzing Industries and Competitors, New York: Free Press, 1980, about five competitive forces that shape strategy: threat of new entrants, bargaining power of buyers, threat of substitute products or services, threat of new suppliers, all four of them driving the fifth, which is rivalry among existing competitors; Michel Foucault, Qu’est-ce que la critique? In: Bulletin de la Société Française de Philosophie 84, 1990, understanding discourse as a power related to a knowledge shared by agents with respect to procedures to be applied; Harrison C. White, Identity and Control: Structural Theory of Action, Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1992, distinguishing three disciplines, as there are interface, valuating quality, arena, valuating purity, and council, valuating prestige, all three of them describing a specific calculus of how a network is done, or of how a social formation emerges; and see Howard S. Becker, Tricks of the Trade: How to Think About Your Research While You’re Doing It, Chicago, IL: Chicago UP, 1988; Andrew Abbott, Methods of Discovery: Heuristics of the Social Sciences, New York: W. W. Norton, 2004; and John Law, After Method: Mess in Social Science Research, London: Routledge, 2004.

[4]        See Yuri M. Lotman, Universe of the Mind: A Semiotic Theory of Culture, transl. Ann Shukman, New York: Tauris, 2001.

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