explaining and justifying the use of theory via a sentence skeleton

I started this blog in early July 2011. To begin with I put up a load of small writing/researching ‘tools’ that I often used in teaching doctoral research methods and academic writing. After three years of blogging I thought I might revisit some of these writing/researching tools during patter’s birthday month, and offer some variations on the original themes. The first of these is the sentence skeleton.

When you want to find out how experienced academics writers do their work, particularly if you are just learning the ropes of academic writing – it is often helpful to literally follow in their trail. Sentences skeletons are one way to do this.

Sentence skeletons can be used to see how academic rhetoric actually works. You literally strip away the flesh – the content of a piece of prose – to show the bones – the non-content related language which carries and supports the flesh. By filling in the blanks with your own content, you get to see how the text is structured. You can try out different academic ‘voices’ using different skeletons to see which feels comfortable. You then get to understand the various syntactical moves that are at work. You can see in the skeleton how academic writers actually establish their authority by making evaluative, comparative and synthesising statements.

The point of the sentence skeleton is not for you to cut and paste filled-in versions into your own work. Rather, it is for you to try out other people’s writing approach to see how it feels and goes. It is a way to understand the rhetorical conventions that are used in academic writing.

You can make your own sentence skeletons from the texts of academic writers that you admire, so that you can see what it is that they do. This way, you can work out how the text leads you to think it is ‘good’ academic writing. You can also use skeletons to look at writing that you think is poor; this helps you to see what some of the pitfalls in academic writing might be. It’s also often useful for supervisors to offer skeletons to doctoral writers who need a little help in getting their rhetorical stance sorted out – and who of us doesn’t need some help at some point or other?

My first sentence skeleton post offered four ways to present a short abstract of the thesis. It is here.

In this post I have produced a skeleton to show how a writer can justify and explain the use of a particular social theory. Even if you never have to write something as succinct as this skeleton about your theoretical choice, this is a helpful exercise to do, as it forces you to think about exactly why you have chosen this particular approach, and how you are actually using the theory in order to make a particular argument. The focus on the use – or the affordances – of a particular theory to a particular problem – is something that people sometimes struggle with.

Here I show the skeleton and then the original with the skeleton in bold. It’s often helpful to see the original so that you know the kind of flesh that is used in between the bones.

Skeleton: Explaining theoretical choice

In this (paper/book/chapter) I draw on the work of (name theorist) to make my argument that ……………………………………. (this your major argument in one or two points).

(Name of theorist)‘s emphasis on ….. is especially useful to my analysis as it allows me to think through ……. (name the major purpose to which the theory is put).

To this end, (name of theorist)’s conceptualisation of (name major aspect of theory) is generative for grasping how (name major application of the theory to the argument you are making).

It is here also that (name of theorist)’s attention to …… (another aspect of the theory) ….…. Is of value for informing (another piece of the argument for which the theory is essential).

Now here’s the original.

Theoretical perspective

In this book we draw on the work of Foucault to make our argument that psychopathology has become instrumental in schools and that schools play an instrumental role in expanding the new psychopathologies of children and young people. Foucault’s emphasis on truth, power and the constitution of the subject (Foucault 1983, 1997a, 2000) is especially useful to our analysis as it allows us to think through the ways in which psychopathology at school is produced and has productive effects. To this end Foucault’s (1982) conceptualisation of power as productive is generative for grasping how schools can indeed be instrumental in a field that, on first glance, appears to be the province of medical and health sciences (especially psychiatry, clinical psychology and psychopharmacology). It is here also that Foucault’s attention to dominant and subjugated knowledges is of value for informing how to understand how dominant knowledges of school disorders such as ADHD, direct attention from those practices that enable psychopathology to sit comfortably in contemporary schooling and educational environments.

(from Harwood, Valerie and Allan, Julie ( 2014) Psychopathology at school. Theorizing mental disorders in education. London: Routledge pp 10-11 )

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in sentence skeleton, theory and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

17 Responses to explaining and justifying the use of theory via a sentence skeleton

  1. ucfhistory says:

    Genius! Thanks for sharing!


  2. As usual, very helpful post indeed.

    These skeletons, for me, not just make one going, also they help in reflecting back on the writing/thinking. Am I conveying the message(s) I intend to, is there a some unneeded repetitions, etc…
    Many thanks.


  3. Jane S says:

    Dear Pat ~ your usefulness, re. the basic nuts and bolts of theory and practice, is becoming 100% necessary for keeping my head above the rising waters of research, writing and cobbling a thesis together. (How’s that for mixing metaphors!)
    So much of this PhD process is not so much the ‘what’ but the ‘how’ …
    Dare one suggest, during these months of absent aestivating academics, a short summer school for beleaguered doctoral researchers in search of enlightenment could go down rather well?!


  4. This is very nice. Thank you. I think that the skeleton sentence idea is also useful in other areas that even relatively senior academics do poorly, such as writing the key sentences in a grant application.

    Thanks again


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  7. Lucy says:

    Since hearing you speak at a conference a few months ago, I have been following your blog and reading your books. As I’m sitting in my study writing my thesis, it is so useful to dip into your book or check out your blog and there is always something valuable to think about or use in my writing. So thank you, you are really making a difference to the way I’m thinking and writing!


  8. Olubunmi Onafuwa says:

    Ive been looking for some direction on how to skillfully infuse a theoretical framework into ones thesis. This was very helpful.


  9. Pat, I have learned vastly through reading your blogs and I am continuing to learn. There is always something to absorb from them. I have committed myself to learning something new about research everyday, and guess what, I am fulfilling my goal through your selfless tutoring. There is something new every time I visit your space. Thanks millions !!!!


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