Cornell University's Guide to Writing Political Theory
Guidelines for Writing a Political Theory Essay
Professor Anna Marie Smith
Department of Government, Cornell University
A. The purpose of political theory writing.
1. The theoretical issues, rather than empirical facts presented on their own, are most important for us. Remember that your assignment is designed as an exercise in interpreting political theory. Emphasize the theoretical aspects of your answer. Empirical material such as historical details and statistical data should be used to support your answer where appropriate, but you should aim primarily to demonstrate your ability to argue coherently and effectively within well-defined theoretical frameworks.
2. Make a compelling argument. Your goal is to present an accurate treatment of the basic interpretive facts, but then to conduct a dialogue with the text and to give your opinion on the theoretical problem at hand. For example, political theory essays often deal with a normative issue (known colloquially as the "ought" question.) Martin Luther King Jr. thought that the achievement of genuine racial equality would require both the elimination of discrimination against African-Americans and the redistribution of income from the wealthy to the poor. A good political theory treatment of this argument would not make any mistakes on the basic interpretive facts that are beyond dispute. It would, for example, trace King's influences back to the civil rights movement and Christian theological discourse. But it would also move into the realm of the "should" statement as well. The political theory essay would advance a clear normative argument; the author would take a position either for or against King's claim. Now an economist might respond to King argument by seeking to find an absolutely precise measurement of the distribution of wealth in the United States and the developed world during the 1960s. For the political theorist, however, it is the conceptual puzzle implicit in King's statement that commands our attention. According to King, how is the distribution of income related to racial inequality? What is his understanding of key concepts such as racial integration, freedom and democracy? Why did he believe that the passage of civil rights legislation in the mid-1960s had not brought racism to an end? In your opinion, is King's argument persuasive? Note that the reader cannot, in all fairness, expect the political theory essay to present a "correct" answer. The political theory essay attempts to persuade the reader by advancing a compelling argument that is well supported by detailed and insightful interpretive work.
3.Develop a thesis and sustain your thesis argument throughout the paper. Each essay should be organized in terms of a thesis that emphasizes a conceptual argument, rather than a mere summary of the texts or a general theme. Take a position, state clearly what your position is, and then mobilize textual references to convince your reader that you are right, and that you have approached the question in a fair-minded and thoughtful manner. Essays that are not built on a thesis tend to summarize the text and to wander aimlessly from point to point.
4. Engage with the themes of the course and the texts that we are studying. A good paper strikes the reader as a work that could not have been written unless the student author had attended the course lectures/seminars, taken part in class discussions, and engaged with the assigned reading. Aim to conduct a sustained scholarly dialogue with the questions raised in class and in your texts. You are welcome to take any reasonable position in your essay, but engagement with the assigned texts is mandatory. Think of it this way: you can choose, within reasonable limits, the position "from" which you will speak in your essay, but you must speak "to" the assigned reading.
5. Define your terms. Political theorists should aim to define terms with great precision. Political theorists contribute to the study of politics by shedding new light on the conceptual dimensions of key political problems. As soon as you introduce a term into your essay, you should define it very clearly. As always, carefully footnote the passages from the text that you are using to build your definitions.
6. Support empirical claims. Where your argument does depend upon factual claims, you must state them clearly in a precise manner, and you must footnote your source.
7. Leave yourself enough time to write a full outline and multiple drafts. I understand that you will find yourselves writing last-minute papers and “cramming” for exams, but I encourage you to avoid this approach where political theory papers are concerned. The best theoretical papers take a great deal of reflection and critical revision. Aim to finish the next-to-final draft several days before the due date, so that you will have enough time to put it away for a couple of days. Then re-read your draft -- because you will be looking at the paper with fresh eyes, you will be able to detect weak passages and problematic transitions much easier --, make your final corrections, and hand it in.
B. Interpreting the political theory text.
1. Put your analytical voice at the forefront throughout the essay. Emphasize your informed argument. The political theory essay is never just a research report that collects a number of quotations and strings them together; we want to see evidence that you have done the appropriate reading and that you are thinking independently and creatively about the text.
2. Always remember that the essay is an academic mode of discourse. Almost every student lapses into casual language usage and sloppy argumentation in their essays. Do not use the kind of words, phrases and arguments that you would use in other contexts, such as e-mail, your personal journal, conversations with friends, journalistic articles or an address to a political rally. In political theory writing, the more you strike a thoughtful and scholarly tone, the more your reader will trust your judgment.
3. On a few occasions, you will quote directly from the text. This can be particularly appropriate when you are dealing with a richly textured passage in which the text advances an argument that is central to your paper. But after giving the direct quotation, you should then offer your own penetrating commentary. Do not fill out your answers with long direct quotations from the text. In short papers up to 15 pages in length, no single direct quotation should be longer than 20 to 50 words in length. Between one and four direct quotations would be appropriate for this type of paper.
4. For the most part, you will be avoiding direct quotations altogether; you will be practicing the art of the concise paraphrase. You should choose appropriate passages from the text and put them in your own words, taking care throughout the paper to capture the nuances of the text, and to footnote the original source. (Plagiarism is strictly forbidden.) Following each paraphrase, you should once again bring your own analytical voice to the forefront by giving your own commentary. In other words, your paper should never strike the reader as a simple set of textual summaries. Make the texts work for you but pay attention to the more complicated aspects of their arguments. Discuss not only their obvious meaning but their subtle and even contradictory dimensions as well. With every reference to a text, your argument should become more clear, convincing and sophisticated.
5. When analyzing the text of a given theorist, carefully reconstruct the argument in your own words, with full notation as required. Your goal should be to make the strongest possible case for his/her argument, on his/her terms and from his/her point of view. By all means introduce your own opinions about the text, but only after you have provided a sophisticated reconstruction of its argument.
6. You should explore the meaning of each text very carefully. If you are opposed to an argument, you must nevertheless recognize its strengths. By the same token, you must indicate the weaknesses and contradictions in the texts that you happen to favor. Any essay that fails to do this will miss the opportunity to engage in advanced forms of interpretive work. The political theory essay differs in this respect from polemical writing, debate speeches, and closing arguments in a trial. If you agree with the text without carefully reconstructing its position, then your agreement will come too easily and you will fail to note the text's own contradictions and weaknesses. If, by contrast, you criticize the text without considering its strengths, you will be reducing the text to a "straw man" and engaging in a dismissive reading where subtle, detailed and sensitive commentary is required.
7. Use the non-expert scholar figure as your target audience. Write your paper as if you will be submitting it to a professor who studies politics, but who is not an expert on the material you are dealing with. This will remind you to use any complicated terminology sparingly, to define all key terms thoroughly, and to avoid taking for granted the meaning of complicated debates and issues. Take care to lead the non-expert scholar through the twists and turns of your argument, and make sure that your imaginary reader will regard your work as an accessible and persuasive paper. Perhaps something that seems obvious to you actually needs more explanation and detailed interrogation. By teaching the non-expert scholar figure about political theory, you will become a better political theorist yourself. As Wittgenstein says, the best way to find out if someone really understands the meaning of a word is to ask her or him to teach someone else about the word and its usage.
8. Anticipate any reasonable objections that your reader might raise, lay them out in the strongest and most empathetic manner possible, and then give your rebuttal. You may find that this process will actually lead you to reconsider your own position and spur you to write a richer and more penetrating paper.
C. Technical requirements.
1. Present the different parts of your argument in a logical order. Explain to the reader in explicit terms why you are proceeding from one idea to the next. In a longer piece (i.e. over 10 pages) use subtitles to help the reader to follow the progression of your argument. Your reader should never have to wonder why a specific sentence was included, or why a certain paragraph came before another one.
2. Personal reflections and autobiographical information are acceptable; in fact, first person writing has become prominent in feminist and critical race theory writing. (See, for example, the work of Patricia J. Williams.) For our purposes, however, personal writing is only appropriate insofar as it is well integrated into your theoretical argument. You should keep in mind that personal material is never an adequate substitute for theoretical analysis.
3. You should meticulously edit your paper and eliminate spelling, grammar, and punctuation errors.
4. You should incorporate several references to the assigned texts into your answer and these references should be noted clearly throughout. All noting systems are acceptable. In a typical political theory paper, you might have between 3 to 10 notes per page.
5. Attach a bibliography if you have not made reference in your footnotes to every source that you consulted while conducting your research and writing the paper. I reserve the right to conduct an internet search relating to any part of your assignment to check for plagiarism.
6. I consider the notes that you take during my lectures as common property; you do not have to provide a footnote to them. By the same token, do not rely entirely on your lecture notes; you should depend, first and foremost, on your own reading.
7. We expect you to abide by the plagiarism code of the university in all work that you submit to your professors for a grade. Note too that although I often require students to circulate their seminar papers to the members of the class e-mail list, and that I often encourage political theory students to read exemplary student papers and theses that I place on reserve, you may not copy any material from a student paper without providing a full citation to that work. Double submission is also forbidden. This rule often raises a lot of questions in students' minds. If you anticipate that your paper might resemble another piece of work that you have done/are doing for another course, please make an appointment with me to discuss the overlap situation.
8. Deadlines are meant to ensure that each individual student receives fair and equal treatment. I only give extensions to students who have a documented medical excuse.
9. Please deliver your paper, in hard copy format, to my mailbox on the second floor of White Hall, by 4:30 on the due date. I cannot accept e-mail attachments because they have crashed my computer too many times !
Some short examples of writing styles. (Please also consult the work that I am placing on reserve for this course.)
A. Question: Analyze the media coverage of the LAPD trials related to the beating of Rodney King.
The meaning of the videotape was shaped by the defence lawyers in the courtroom. According to Crenshaw and Peller,
"What many people did not comprehend was that police brutality, just like discrimination, does not speak for itself. This very struggle over meaning is precisely what the intense contestations about race in the law are really about. Rather than providing some kind of firm ground to challenge racist institutional practices, notions of formal equality, objectivity, neutrality, and the like tend to obscure the way that race is experienced by the vast majority of African Americans in this society." (Crenshaw and Peller 1993: 64)
So we can see that oppressed people cannot control the ways in which the law is used against them.
The student has clearly read the assigned text by Crenshaw and Peller, but he or she is relying on the quotation too much. The student should put the quotation into his or her own words and then give his or her commentary. The problem is that his or her voice has been lost altogether. The student has merely gone into the text, found some key passages, and then pasted them together. Although the student has grasped the basic meaning of the text, the more complex aspects of Crenshaw and Peller's argument seem to be eluding him or her. This writing is at a C to B- level.
Answer # 2
Having examined the general political context for the LAPD trials in Los Angeles, California and the United States as a whole, we will now consider the ways in which the trial was conducted and represented in the media. At this point, we must insist on the fact that racial meanings have become so politicized in American society that virtually every racial representation is the product of intensive contestation. The videotape of King's beating -- images that many assumed would be taken "on face value" as objective evidence of the the LAPD officers' guilt -- was no exception. Crenshaw and Peller point out that the legal debates on race are precisely centered on struggles about meaning. They demonstrate, for example, that the LAPD officers' defence used the same legal strategy that anti-affirmative action plaintiffs use in court: they attempted to restrict the category of "legitimate evidence" and to re-define unfavourable evidence by placing it in the most favourable context possible. (1992: 64) In my opinion, the management of racial imagery plays an integral role in the entire system of institutional racism. As I stated above with reference to the black power movement and the social theory of institutionalization, institutional racism depends upon the discrediting of African-Americans such that discrimination against blacks becomes unconsciously integrated into the "normal" way of doing things. That discrediting process depends in part upon the selective use of facts, and the re-contextualization of facts that would otherwise constitute evidence of oppression. Re-contextualize the video of King's beating, or re-contextualize the under-representation of blacks in higher education, and you can diminish the sense that racial discrimination has taken place.
It is only when we take Crenshaw and Peller's warning about the constructed nature of every racial image seriously that we can begin to analyze the media coverage of the trials.
The student's own argument is driving the essay: she is taking a position and defending it; the reference to the article is paraphrased accurately and properly noted; the student clearly has a thesis and is marshalling her references to support her argument; she is building a case, presenting the different parts of the argument in a logical order, and telling the reader very clearly why she is moving from one idea to the next. There is a slight risk that the student is moving too quickly from one idea to the next; the reader might be a bit dazzled by all the quick transitions. Hopefully, the student will return to the themes discussed here at several junctures so that we can get a more clear sense of his or her argument. This section of the paper would merit a grade of A- or better.
B. Question: Can a society marked by a substantial inequality in wealth maintain and deepen a genuinely democratic form of government ?
Its pretty obvious that the system is run by rich white men. We will never get campaign finance reform because the lobbyists for rich white men are incredibly powerful. (http://www.conspiracytheory.com) So many Americans don't even bother to vote.
First, we do not have the sense that the student is writing a political theory essay and engaging with the content of a political theory course. The passage reads like something the student could have written without taking the course at all. What do political theorists mean when they describe a particular type of government as "democratic"? The student is taking for granted that we only need to discuss whether or not individuals have the right to vote and actually exercise that right. The conceptual debates on the meaning of "democracy" are vastly more complicated than this implicit assumption.
The tone of the passage is far too casual, journalistic and cliché-ridden. Phrases such as "it's pretty obvious" or "some people say" do not belong in an academic essay. "Its" ought to be spelled "it's." Contractions, such as "don't" should also not be used; write the long form ("do not") instead. The term, "the system," is a popular cliché that is far too vague. Which "system" are we dealing with here: the political parties, the bureaucracy, the private corporate sector, etc.? "Campaign finance reform" is not defined. "Rich white men" is not an academic phrase. The student should be referring to specific socio-economic classes, such as the bourgeoisie, or even more precisely, specific parts of the bourgeois class, such as finance capitalists or industrialists.
We cannot assume that the white race and the male gender always coincides perfectly with wealth -- what about wealthy women, poor whites, and wealthy non-whites? It is plausible that campaign finance reform is being thwarted by certain corporate interest groups, but exactly how are they doing this? What does the writer exactly mean by "powerful"? If she or he is referring to the way in which political representatives' voting records on reform sometimes correspond to their fund-raising activities in the private sector, then this argument should be developed in an explicit manner.
The cited source, the web page, is not an acceptable academic text. Web page sources must be used very carefully. Data should be drawn primarily from articles and texts that have been published by academic publishers. Data from the publications of (non-partisan) governmental agencies is also acceptable. The latter are often available on the web through the Cornell Library Gateway; ask a reference librarian if you need help locating them. Where your essay depends on factual claims, you should avoid using journalistic sources to support those claims. The only type of journalistic source that is acceptable is what is called the "newspaper of record": in the United States, the New York Times and the Washington Post are good examples. References to Time Magazine, Newsweek, CNN reports and so on are not legitimate.
Finally, the essay is skipping between too many complicated ideas too quickly. Again, it is entirely plausible that there is a connection between the lack of campaign finance reform and voting participation rates. If the agendas of the Republicans and Democrats are in fact influenced by wealthy interest groups first and foremost, then the large numbers of Americans who are not represented by those interest groups will not see the issues that matter to them discussed and dealt with by the two parties. Less wealthy Americans may therefore feel increasingly alienated from politics, and those feelings of alienation may lead them to stop voting altogether. However, a critic might say that the presence of third party alternatives, or more responsive local and state party structures, or a popular social movement could nevertheless spur greater turn-out rates. The essay needs to engage with political theory texts, build each argument one at a time, give full and careful treatment to each claim, construct the argument using clearly defined academic terms, anticipate the objections of a critic, support important factual claims with academic sources, and then clearly indicate how the essay is moving logically on to the next point.
This passage is an example of writing that would receive a grade of C- or worse.
The tension between the type of inequality that is present in any capitalist social structure on the one hand, and liberal democracy on the other, is explored in a perceptive manner by Marx in his article, "On the Jewish Question." (footnote) Marx was addressing the fact that Jews had suffered enormous discrimination in Europe; they had been barred from holding office and from practicing most professions and crafts. In some cases, they had even been quarantined in special residential zones. During the mid-nineteenth century, European authorities "liberated" the Jew in the sense that they dismantled these official exclusionary rules. Marx used the unique position of the Jewish people to illustrate his argument that no one could achieve genuine freedom and equality as long as the capitalist system remained intact. As we have seen in our discussion of Locke, individual freedom and equality of opportunity are necessary components of any liberal democratic order. By all appearances, the "liberated" Jew enjoyed freedom and equality in this sense; he or she had the right to own property, to enter contracts, to serve in a public office, and -- where the franchise existed -- to vote. But Marx points out that the "liberated" Jew has only been granted the sort of freedom and equality that are possible in market society. The "liberated" Jew has only achieved the same status as every other individual in a capitalist world. That individual is, in essence, divided into two halves. There is the "citizen half"; in this mode, the individual considers the good of the whole and prioritizes the community. Then there is the "competitor half." In this second mode, the individual puts aside the generosity of spirit and fellow-feeling that he or she expresses when he or she is in the "citizen" mode and struggles against every other individual to gain as much capital as possible.(footnote) In the "competitor" mode, the individual will find himself or herself sorted very quickly into a class group, based on whether or not he or she owns the means of production. Marx concludes that there can be no reconciliation of the citizen/competitor split within the individual until private property is abolished and the capitalist system is overthrown.(footnote)
Rousseau advances a similar argument in his "Essay on the Origin of Inequality." Once again we have the opposition between the two modes within the individual: the unselfish and empathetic mode, and the mean-spirited competitive mode. ...
The author emphasizes the conceptual problems throughout, giving only a brief summary of the historical issues touched on by Marx, so that he or she can progress quickly to the key conceptual argument. The "sign-posting" to other passages in the essay ("as we have seen ..." ) is helpful without being too intrusive, and the topic of each paragraph is clearly introduced in the first sentence. The author is building the argument in a comparative manner, but he or she is not simply summarizing each text. Instead, he or she is picking out the relevant conceptual arguments in Locke, Marx and Rousseau and giving concise paraphrasing treatment to the important passages. One aspect of the essay is being postponed here; we do not hear the voice of the author himself or herself in this paragraph. Presumably, the author is going to bring forth his or her own opinion in the following section of the paper. Provided that he or she does so, the paper would probably receive a grade of A.
These guidelines apply only to the assignments in my classes. Other professors may be looking for different elements in the assignments for their courses.