Tuesday, September 9, 2008

The Introduction: APA recommendations

I was looking back over what the APA (American Psychological Association) Publication
Manual has to say about Introductions in preparation for a meeting with a writer tomorrow. As an aid to my own understanding, and because I need something to write about here, I figured I'd just make a few notes about what they say. I think these notes, while not entirely applicable to dissertations that aren't structured around an empirical study, provide some good insight into what readers are looking for--for what the APA thinks is worth asking for in introductions.

As an aside, the APA Manual also has a good section on what to put in abstracts (pp. 12-15) that is also worth reading, even if you're trying to write an introduction, because an introduction and an abstract are attempting to do very similar things: they are where the reader starts; they are what draws the reader in.

Ok, so I'm using section 1.08 of the 5th edition of The Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association, pp. 15-17.

The APA Manual breaks section 1.08 into three parts, which, if we want, we can also take as a basic outline for an Introduction--each part of the Manual's section 1.08 corresponds to a section of the Introduction. The three parts are titled: "Introduce the problem;" "Develop the Background;" and "State the Purpose and Rationale." The character of each part, I think, is basically apparent from the title of the section, but these section titles wouldn't really work as section titles in an actual introduction. Instead, one might have sections titled "Statement of Problem," "Background" (or "Literature Review"), and "Purpose and Rationale of the Study."

The first section, "Introduce the problem" says:
Before writing the introduction consider
  • Why is this problem important?
  • How do the hypothesis and the experimental design relate to the problem?
  • What are the theoretical implications of the study, and how does the study relate to previous work in the area?
  • What theoretical propositions are tested, and how were they derived?
A good introduction answers these questions...and, by summarizing the relevant arguments and the data, gives the reader a firm sense of what was done and why. (p. 16)

We can see in that terminal phrase--"what was done and why?"--a call for an explicit statement of purpose. At the least, I read it that way; regular readers of this blog have probably noted that I talk about sense of purpose a lot.

The four bulleted questions do not necessarily represent sections of the first section of the introduction (the "Statement of Problem"), but they could be, because that section is setting up all that comes after, and before getting into the details of a literature review, one wants to give the reader a complete sense of "what was done and why", so that the details of the literature review are framed in terms of the purpose of the project.

The "Develop the background" section opens with the sentences "Discuss the literature, but do not include an exhaustive historical review. Assume that the reader is knowledgeable about the field for which you are writing and does not require a complete digest" (p. 16).
What this means to me is: keep the details down, except with respect to those details that are directly related to your study. For example, if you are using a two variables, you need only discuss details of those variables that are related to how the two variables might interact, and not details about how each variable interacts with all other variables. (I think that last sentence doesn't really make sense; I apologize; I want to move on.)

Finally, the "State the purpose and rationale." Have I ever said anything about the value of an explicit statement of purpose? Ok, so here my claim is seconded.

Anyway, if you happen to be writing an APA paper, taking a look at section 1.08 of the manual can be of great help: it provides a model for what is expected.

If you don't have a manual of your own, and don't want to check the library (it's only two pages of reading), it's worth thinking about what the three tasks assigned to the introduction by the APA: "Introduce the problem;" "Develop the Background;" and "State the Purpose and Rationale." How is your paper going to accomplish these three things in the introduction? I think that every academic work wants to do something of the sort in its introduction, whether we're talking about the introduction to a chapter or to a book/dissertation. The introduction is where the foundation is laid for the rest o the argument; it is akin to the statement of axioms prior to the beginning of a logical proof. The introduction says what you're looking for, how you're going to look for it, and what kinds of evidence you're going to consider. This is a paradigm that any paper can follow.

If, for example, one is writing a paper in history the introduction might say (1) what the temporal parameters are, and what kind of development you're looking at (whether those are changes in a population (e.g. US expatriates in the 1920s), a process (e.g., agriculture) or type of object (e.g., furniture)), (2) what is your philosophical/theoretical lens (how do you define the task of the historian? Are you e.g., a Marxist theorist)?, and (3) what general primary evidence you will be using (actually, this last may be unnecessary for many fields like history or literature where what is considered acceptable evidence is so well accepted that no discussion of it is necessary).

Like yesterday, I think I could say more, and maybe will, but not right now, got other things to do...


Anonymous said...

can you elaborate on this: "State the Purpose and Rationale."? could you give examples (e. g., excerpts from published research) of well-written rationales that conform to the APA style?

Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

hm. informative text

Anonymous said...

And still variants?