Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Academic wiriting - the theory paper

I wrote a theory paper and it got published. I thought I’d blog about the process because it’s been, well, interesting. To save you reading the navel-gazing below, I thought I’d start off with my top-tips for writing a theory paper:
  • Don’t. Well, don’t do it while you’re a busy ECR, struggling to find the time to read and write. Do write one while you’re in the midst of your doctoral literature review or when you’ve secured that research professorship;
  • Make sure the theory you’re writing about has a home in a journal.

The challenge that’s always given to academic is “can you sum up your research in a sentence". So, let’s see if I can do this with this paper. Basically it argues, you cannot hope to ever create a Habermasian public sphere in short moments of community engagement, but if you look over the longer term, especially in the built environment, you will see all the evidence of Habermasian communicative action at work.

It looks neat when written like this and other academics have expressed interest in the insights of the paper. But I’m really not happy with it. I’ll start by just telling the story of the paper. Doing my doctoral fieldwork I realised that a lot of the critical insights in my field (loosely, political science, policy analysis, urban geography, urban planning) particularly those from a Foucauldian perspective did not explain what I was observing. Whereas what I knew of Habermas’ work and his theorisation of communicative action and the public sphere did. When I read Bernstein’s Between Objectivism and Relativism I was even more sure of this view. So, Habermas became the theoretical hook for my thesis. My external examiner, Dvora Yanow, said this was the first she knew of Habermas work being applied in this way and that I should publish.

So, I finished my doctorate and like all good scholars got a publication plan sorted (three papers so far, plus one published during my phd and one on its way, possibly) and one of these was this theory paper. The trouble I had was which body of theory did it speak to? I am happily eclectic in my academic inspiration. I presented a draft of the paper at the International Interpretive Policy Analysis conference in Cardiff in 2011 and got positive feedback. I could have submitted it to that conference’s journal, Critical Policy Studies, but I already had a paper in the works for them. And it really wasn’t going to fit into any of the other political science journals I knew of.

A colleague and friend, Janice Barry, had just had a paper accepted for Planning Theory and spoke positively of the process. My paper was about planning, sort of (it was about policy and the built environment) so I thought I’d give it whirl. It needed a home. The experience with the journal was brilliant. If you’re reading this and you have a planning theory article to write, I would strongly recommend you submit here. It went through two revisions. All three reviewers asked for major changes on the first draft, but all provided 1-2 sides of A4 comments on making the paper better and references for further literature I should read (very different from this). It just needed a bit more tweaking after the second reviewers. But what with other work commitments these revisions took a long time. Eventually I had to apologetically email the editor and give myself a deadline for the first set of revisions.

Why aren’t I happy? The planning literature it fits into is the work on collaborative planning from theorists like Healey, Inness and Booher and Quick and Feldman. In fact, if you look at their work and compare it to Habermas’ theoretical work, it’s just a very small extension of this work into new empirical work. However, the work the reviewers wanted me to read was the critique of collaborative planning from an agonist perspective. This I did and reading this I felt that these theorists constructed collaborative planning as a straw man and then knocked it down with the messy realities of the real World. I now had to reconstruct the literature review section to construct a straw man of collaborative planning, to knock it down with agonist planning, to then knock this down with my empirical work. Being less than comfortable with the planning literature I was wading in, I did feel like my straw men were more stick men than anything out of the Wickerman. The paper has found a home in planning theory, but I’m pretty sure it will remain unread in the field.Or, as my colleague suggested this morning, will get cited a lot because it's so bad.

The other reason I don’t like it is I just don’t think it reads very well. It reads like it took over a year to get to the state it is now in. It reads as though I am unsure of the argument I’m making. It reads like three articles shoved together with a vague introduction and conclusion attached. In sum, it’s not a substantive contribution to theoretical work in urban planning.Frankly, it could come from the Department of Omnishambles.

But it’s out there and I’m just going to write this blog post about it and then stop beating myself up. If I ever get that research professorship I’ll have time to digest a lot more literature again and write a proper theory paper. Until then, I’m going to stick to empirical work. I don't want to dishearten other ECRs too much - if you feel you have a theory paper in you, do write. I'd give my colleague Kim McKee's paper on Post-Foucauldian Governmentality as a brilliant example of an excellent theory paper where an ECR has made their mark in the field. But, if you have a bit of an odd career trajectory like me, or you're struggling with it, I would advise you to tread carefully.

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