(Updated, 16 March 2017)
The structure of an abstract is in essence the structure of a paper, and shares with the paper a need for specificity. The difference is that whereas in the paper you have paragraphs to explain your point, in the abstract, you have one or two sentences! Below are the elements necessary for a good abstract:
- Title: Something that summarizes the point of your paper; try to make it stimulating!
- Introduction: Statement of the problem, research question
- Methodology: How you are going to answer the question, including a brief summary of the location/topic.
- Delineation of the specific problem areas, lines of analysis. Here you can make allusions to the theoretical or ethnographic contextualization, and some of the specific areas that you will deal with to answer the research question.
- Conclusion: This would include a further elaboration of the problem, or wider implications of the research.
(Note: Catherine Baker has five parts (and a title) that she defines (in order) as: 1) Current state of knowledge in your field; 2) what is wrong in the state of knowledge further; 3) your solution; 4) methodology; 5) resolution.)
Like an executive summary in business, the abstract is designed to essentially summarize the whole presentation. Because of the way academia is structured, the abstracts are often times the first thing that is written, followed by the writing of the paper itself. As a result, there is many times a disjuncture between the abstract and the actual presentation. Don’t get hung-up on this disjuncture – the abstract is in essence an outline, and writing the abstract should help you write the paper. Of course, the actual direction of your paper may force a change in the abstract.
First, make sure you have a good title – like an executive summary, you need to catch your reader/audience with title that both informs and attracts. There are two basic types – the colon type and the single line type. The colon type is the contemporary rage, where the first part is catchy, and can be a translation of an enigmatic local term, or something that obliquely points to the issue, and the second part is the actual explanation of what is being discussed. The single line type is informative, and by itself tries to be flashy in terms of the subject matter being discussed.
Second, in your four parts, be as specific as you can. The paper may not be written yet, but take a chance on writing about what you think you will find, or what your intuition says will be the result. Again, your abstract may change after the paper is written, but asking or stating specific questions and problems will also make you focus in the research process and writing of the paper.
Third, the abstract should be written in the third person – like papers, first-person could be added to make a point (in a paper, when the dominant style is third person, using first person is a good way to highlight or accent your point; the reverse does not hold true). This does not mean writing in the passive voice, nor does it mean not including “colloquialisms” when appropriate.
Here is a sample abstract for you to review, to help you write your own.