or, what have you been doing on your study leave?
I often ask research students about the structure of their paper, thesis, or argument. I ask this and sometimes people are ready to answer, but it also sometimes happens that people look at me blankly as if they aren’t entirely sure what the question means. That’s a shame, because I find it a really useful way to think about my own writing – and so, in order to show that I am willing to do the things I ask other people to do, I thought I’d take some time today to describe the structure of the book I’m writing.
The project is an overview of liberal Quaker theology (for, eventually, Brill’s Research Perspectives in Quaker Studies series). The aim of the book is to show that liberal Quaker theology exists, that it’s coherent, that it might sometimes seem vague or diffuse but is actually a single tradition – admittedly with multiple sub-traditions and complexities – which can usefully be analysed and discussed together. In order to show this, I look for places where liberal Quaker theology can be found and try to gauge their unity and diversity in different areas.
I start off in my introduction with an assessment of what has been said so far about liberal Quaker theology, and by clarifying how I’m using those terms. I make sure everyone knows what will count as Quaker or not, what it means to say that something in the Quaker tradition is part of the liberal sub-tradition, and what I think I’m looking for when I say that I’m looking for theology. I don’t, for example, think that theology can only be done if you have a university degree in theology – so it’s important to make sure readers know what I’m on about. Having set the scene in this way, and thereby laid the foundations on which I’m going to build a tower, I start looking at my three bodies of evidence.
In this first chapter, I look at one place where I expect to find liberal Quaker theology represented in a formal way, in statements which have the approval of the whole community. Quakers don’t write creeds but do have books, books of discipline or books of faith and practice, which try to bring together the important things they think they need to record and teach people within the community. They typically revise these books from time to time, when they seem outdated or something has changed in their community. Each Yearly Meeting might have its own, and can split up the material in various ways – but they all include the sorts of theological thinking I’m looking for. In order to get a really broad picture, I picked eight different examples of these books. I describe each one and analyse some key passages from it to look for the theological material. This is the evidence: if I find theology in liberal Quaker books of discipline, it’s evidence that there is liberal Quaker theology; if it’s coherent, or I can at least trace a continuity within the change through time and around the world, it’s evidence that there is a single liberal Quaker theological tradition. I was able to find both of those, so that’s brick 1 laid on my foundation.
In the second chapter, I look at some works by individual Quakers or small groups which might be expected to be more diverse. They might be working outside an institutional context, or in a situation where a group has been specifically gathered to try and represent the theological diversity present within a Quaker community. I do find more diversity of theology, but I’m also able to show that everyone involved in engaged with some core liberal Quaker theological themes (as identified in the previous chapter). The tower is now taller and more likely to wobble, but I’ve got brick 2 balanced.
In the third and final major chapter, I extent the argument in one way – aiming to show that as well as ordinary theology, there is also academic liberal Quaker theology – and in order to do so within the space available, I compromise a bit. I let go of trying to show the full diversity and range of this area of work, and instead pick four examples which showcase some of the relevant ways of doing theology – not all, and without much spread in time or geography – and look at how each of these four examples relates to the picture of a coherent single tradition of liberal Quaker theology which I’ve been trying to build through the previous chapters. With brick 3 on, I’ve narrowed the tower a little bit, and that helps it to stay upright.
In the conclusion, I say… well, among other things, I make the structure of the book clear. I comment on how my new tower relates to other people’s towers and also talk about how it could be improved: what future work could build it taller or make it stronger? Among other things, I point out a brick I missed out on using. It’s only in the final chapter, when I look at a committee-produced document, that I bring in all the things which sit between the levels of chapter 1 and chapter 2 – things like minutes and epistles, things which might be written by individuals or small groups but are approved by large Quaker bodies without making it into a book of discipline. That could have been another brick. I left it out because I suspect it’s a difficult brick to get together – the documents aren’t necessarily easily available, they’d be in lots of places and understanding the context of each one would be time consuming – and even if I did, I wouldn’t expect it to show much that was different to both the books of discipline (which include that kind of material if it stands the test of time), and the books and other works by individuals and small groups (who are, at least at some level, the same individuals and small groups who participate in the meetings for worship for business which also produce the minutes and epistles. Differences between the highly tested books of discipline and the highly personal individual statements seemed much more likely (and indeed, I found some but none which were too damaging to my argument…!)
If I’d done the reading and found something different, I would have built a different structure. I had a fair idea going into this project that I was going to find something like this, but I was also already broadly familiar with all three areas of investigation. What did change was the order and the emphasis; looking back through my research journal, I can see that I considered and rejected structures based on history (so probably these kinds of materials, but in chronological order rather than themed by type) or topic (again, these materials but themed around issues which frequently arise in liberal Quaker theology) before working out this approach. The big emphasis it places on the books of discipline came from a comment made when I gave a conference paper on the project, and although I might have got there by another route I think it proves the effort of writing a paper was worth it!
Another way to think about the structure would be as a story – this kind of investigation is like a missing-person story, or maybe actually like three lost cats. The detective first establishes what cats she needs to look for (in the introduction), then hunts down cat one (surprise! it was at home by the fire, but it’s a striped cat and is almost completed hidden on the stripy rug), then looks for cat two (which has been all over but comes home for a favourite food), doesn’t spend that long looking for cat three (but shows that it has been seen chasing a laser pointer in next-door’s living room), and concludes that the cats, although thought to be lost, weren’t actually very lost at all.
So, there’s mine. What’s the structure of your project?