Let us see what you can learn from the way an expert management researcher used the abstract of an academic journal article to catch the target readers’ attention, give an initial idea of the argument to be developed, and assert its significance. Professor Robert Chia published a paper a few years ago in the British Journal of Management (BJM), one of the official journals of the British Academy of Management.
Chia, R (1999) A ‘rhizomic’ model of organizational change and transformation: perspective from a metaphysics of change British Journal of Management 10, 209-227
If you have access to the BJM through your university library, you could read through the whole article to familiarise yourself with Robert Chia’s argument as a whole.
Robert had to communicate with and convince two groups of projected critical readers:
1. The expert researchers in his field who had accepted the journal editor’s invitation to act as independent reviewers for the journal. They would assess how far his paper met the journal’s criteria for acceptance and would also offer anonymous written feedback on how it might be improved.
2. Assuming the article was published, anyone who had an academic interest in the topic, had come across the article and was considering whether it was worth reading.
That the reviewers would read the whole article was virtually guaranteed. But it would be advantageous for Robert to clarify at the outset what the overall argument was and why it mattered. He would provide the reviewers with an ‘advance organizer’ to help them understand the detail of the argument in the later sections of the paper and its academic and practical significance. He was able to include a few keywords like ‘rhizomic’ in the title, but the first place he could give some idea of his argument was the abstract. Every sentence mattered, since only about 100 words were allowed. There was just enough room to alert his target audience to the problem he would be addressing and to indicate that he was going to attempt to solve it. Robert could not guarantee that anyone else who came across the article would read it from beginning to end. He needed not only to clarify his overall argument and its significance, but also to ‘hook’ the interest of the wider range of potential readers from the outset. If he didn’t, they might never read on!
How did he do this? Robert’s abstract is as follows
We are not good at thinking movement. Our instinctive skills favour the fixed and the static, the separate and the self-contained. Taxonomies, hierarchies, systems and structures represent the instinctive vocabulary of institutionalized thought in its determined subordinating of flux, movement, change and transformation. Our dominant models of change in general and organizational change in particular are, therefore, paradoxically couched in the language of stasis and equilibrium. This paper seeks to offer an alternative model of change which, it is claimed, affords a better understanding of the inherent dynamic complexities and intrinsic indeterminacy of organization transformational processes.
Notice how he started the abstract with an eye-catching claim, using italics for emphasis, that suggests there is a problem. He then indicated what the problem is: that concepts commonly used to theorise organizational change tend to be ones that connote static phenomena, rather than the fluid and unfolding character of change. Finally, he stated what he was trying to do about the problem: put forward a new model of change which he asserted will be better than existing organizational change theories for understanding the dynamic and ambiguous nature of such change.
So the abstract functions to clue the target audience in to what the article is about in the briefest of terms. If you have written one or more abstracts for your own academic texts, have a look at them now.
1. How clearly do you think you indicated what your overall argument would be, and why it was significant?
2. How could you improve on your approach to abstract-writing in future?