Monday, October 04, 2010

From Call to Abstract

I had the pleasure of teaching a group of very intelligent second-year economic sociology students how to write an abstract the other day. Their questions and suggestions forced me to say something, if I may say so, very intelligent about this important art and I think I'll spend this week's posts trying to get some of it down. (I have written about the abstract before. See this post.)

We began with a real call for papers (CFP) that their teacher had identified as relevant to their discipline. CFP's are good occasions for writing because they mark tangible conversations among researchers. They announce real places where real scholars can meet at real times to exchange what they really know.

But CFP's should not be the sole occasion for writing and should not drive the writing process. Rather, your writing process should be a continual "prosing" of your world, a developing articulateness about what you know. Every now and then, a CFP will refocus your work on a particular theme with a particular audience in mind. The analogy for undergraduates is straightforward: don't let assignments and exams be your sole occasion for writing. Write every day as part of your learning process, and use assignments only to refocus your writing on a particular conversation at a particular time.

In this class, I proposed a (half) fictional case in which I was doing ongoing research in the economic history and sociology of the European Union, Scandinavia in particular. This work, we imagined, was done in the tradition of inquiry into the social embeddedness of economic action, i.e., the tradition in which Mark Granovetter's "Economic Action and Social Structure" (1985) holds a central place. We imagined that I knew a great deal about the evolution of the European common market and that I understood the issues surrounding the notion of embeddedness.

Here's the CFP:

Spaces and Places

This strand explores the shape of the past, the specificity of place, the influence of environment, the nature of boundaries, and the impact of travel. It maps divisions - whether they be urban-rural, region-nation, centre-periphery, north-south, metropole-diaspora - and the communications that flow between them. It is concerned with the exchange of people, materials and ideas across spaces, whether through migration, trade, or conflict. It explores how landscape shapes historical relations, and how place and experience intertwine. It examines the historical role of imaginary places, and the contribution of wanderers and explorers. Contributors are also invited to consider how the shape of the past can best be visualised, particularly in the light of new technology, and how a sense of place informs collective memory.

Proposals may deal with any period and may treat any portion of the globe. Individual papers or panels of up to three papers exploring these themes are all encouraged, as are interdisciplinary papers uniting history with geography and other social sciences. (Social History Society)

One of the students astutely noticed that the language of a CFP is very open, even vague. This is because conference conveners would like many submissions to choose from (this is to ensure quality) and do not want to narrow the field to submissions to the usual suspects (they want to ensure diversity). They really do want to be surprised; they want to find out what's going on out there in the heads of their thousands of unknown peers.

The abstract must be much more specific, much more focused than the CFP. An abstract must, perhaps ironically, be more concrete than the call. Here is the first draft of an abstract I presented them with. It is an attempt to reframe my (imagined) ongoing work in terms of "the shape of the past" and "the specificity of place".

The Past of Least Resistance: constructing yesterday’s market today

The past is shaped by the present. More specifically, our image of the past is shaped by the way contemporary events are embedded in social relations, which constrain their development and condition their interpretation. Building on Granovetter’s (1985) classic argument for the social embeddedness of economic action, this paper examines the ways in which an economic region—the so-called “Øresunds region”—constructs an image of its own past, as well as the history of the European common market, in its attempt to establish opportunities for future growth. This process is always dependent on a complex arrangement of contemporary social relations.

From here, we went on to locate literature to help us connect this idea to the call that inspired it. With the help of one our resource librarians, we looked for literature in the Granovetter tradition that also had an interest in the EU. We looked at what the conveners themselves had written about space and place. And one of the students pointed out that the strand welcomed interdisciplinary work, so we kept an eye out for work that had been published outside the field of economic sociology, e.g., organization theory. On Wednesday, I'll have a look at some of the things we found, and show how to work them into the abstract.

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