Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Against Exploration?

I have some very specific advice about how to write an introduction to a standard social science paper. People often tell me that it's not how things are done in their field, and this doesn't bother me too much, except in the sense that we all have our own pet gripes about academic writing, even very successful academic writing. I like to think that writing an introduction my way at least has the effect of clarifying your ideas and bringing your paper, and therefore your writing problem, into sharper focus. How you choose to realize that vision in the final draft is a matter I leave to you and your reviewers and editors.

One of my most useful pieces of advice is to propose a paragraph with a key sentence that begins "This paper shows that..." (Indeed, I usually propose you make this the first sentence of the third paragraph.) It is a very good sentence to be able to write, making it as clear and declarative as you can. Find a way of saying it without too many qualifying clauses and without long lists. Remember that it should be supported by your data—i.e., that the paper will show your reader what your data showed you was the case—but that it will be about the real world—i.e., you've collected your data to be representative of the facts as they are. "This paper," in other words, "shows that" something is true. You've discovered this thing to be true and you're going to tell your reader about it.

Like I said yesterday, and as Hemingway said a long time ago, this is a very difficult thing to do. After all, you are going to take something that has very little in common with life as we live it, namely, some black marks on a white page, and use it to represent actual people accomplishing actual things in their actual lives. The problem can be compared to depicting a three-dimensional object, like an apple, with a two-dimensional drawing. Except that it's worse: writing is one-dimensional—one word follows the other in a sentence—while life is four-dimensional—it occupies space and endures in time. You are going to take some relatively meager means, then, and accomplish some rather exalted ends. If you succeed, you'll make your truth part of the reader's experience.

In one of my favorite books, How to Draw Hands, Oliver Senior makes an important observation that goes for writing as much as for drawing:

If ... the artist finds himself constrained, by any consideration of expression, treatment or style, or by his deference to the peculiar nature and limitations of his tools and materials, to adopt or invent a convention or a symbol and to substitute the semblance of a bunch of bananas or a bent fork for a representation of the human hand, then the particular problem dealt with in this book does not arise.

In social science, the problem of representing the facts as they actually are often leaves writers feeling themselves similarly "constrained". And this may well explain why so much academic writing stands in the same relation to social reality as a bunch of bananas or a bent fork stands to the human hand. They "adopt or invent a convention or a symbol" to stand for things that they are unable to describe.

I want to go into this general problem a bit more in subsequent posts. But today I just want to point out the one general "workaround" that people use to avoid the problem of representation in their writing. They simply don't claim to show anything. Instead, they announce that they will "explore" or "discuss" or "shed light" on something. Against this, I urge writers not to substitute "This paper shows that" with the unfortunately conventional "This paper explores how..." because it says more about "the peculiar nature and limitations of [their] tools and materials" than (what I'm sure they think) it says about the openness of their minds and the humility of their disposition.

Yes, as a scientist you should explore reality. But as a scientist who addresses him or herself to other scientists in writing you should have something to show them. Your explorations should have, let's say, discovered something. My advice, therefore, is to practice telling your peers "This is what I've found!" not just "This is where I looked."


Julia Molinari said...

I'm not against exploration in #acwri and am more than happy for academic writing to be unashamedly explorative.

This is because if academic writing is our representational shorthand for communicating the complexity and the explorative nature of research - mess, warts, and dead-ends - then it has to be as true to its signified as is possible.

An alternative approach to your linear and prescriptive approach can be found in sociologist John Law who has openly debated the inherent incommensurability of academic writing, as you see it, and the reality of his liver disease patients:

His introduction bears little resemblance to the introduction you prescribe. He talks of reality being a "moving target", and his writing trying to capture that by messing with form.

This is not to say that there is no room in #acwri for the sort you describe, but it is to say that the sort you describe is not necessarily true to the nature that it is trying to communicate.

This, then, begs the further question of "what is the point of academic writing"? Is it to present reality as a fait accompli, or is it to lay bare the thinking needed to understand that reality .... said...

@Julia Molinari: I believe that there is a role for writing-as-exploration in the social sciences. This would be a different method of inquiry than collecting and analyzing data, critical analysis of alternative conceptual and empirical models, and some of the other common methods of inquiry. Your own work, as I interpret it, and the work of Professor Law that you cite shares much with the methods of inquiry one finds in philosophy. This is a good thing, a worthy approach to scholarship. Some people are interested in reading "how I did it" and "what I am thinking about now". Others are interested in written pieces that report on the outcomes and implications of the inquiry and how these relate to the common knowledge of the field.

I see this latter type of writing as the subject that Thomas addresses in this and the other recent posts. You have characterized his approach to reporting on the outcomes of inquiry as linear and prescriptive, and therefore not compatible with writing-as-inquiry. True enough. But he explicitly separates the process of inquiry (however instantiated) from the process of writing about the outcomes of inquiry.

From my perspective, I have an appreciation for the processes and the outcomes that Thomas describes (and promotes) when I seek to understand the knowledge that another social scientist is presenting in the written form of an academic publication. From time to time, I seek out reflective pieces -- writing as inquiry, but not for the same reason.

Julia Molinari said...

Fair response, and duly respectful to the range and depth of Thomas' writings on writing.

I too appreciate them! They tend to provoke provocations in me whereby I feel compelled to provide counter-evidence, namely evidence for the range of academic writings that exist not merely from discipline to discipline, but by showing intra-disciplinary variations, too.

The 'disciplines' - and the broad theoretical families they are grouped under (social sciences, science, humanities, art, etc.) - are not as homogenous, bounded and stable as they tend to be presented. Their methods and their methodologies vary in function of what it is they are trying to establish. Academic writings - understood as the predominant way in which academics communicate all this - vary (or should vary, to betray my normative stance) accordingly. And I suppose that as a teacher of academic writing(s), I have become very mindful to present both range and choice, and to suggest why writers may want to or need to vary the way that they present the knowledge they claim to have 'found'.

You might be further interested in this article by Shanahan (2015), who claims that a "paper's fraud lies mainly in its form" by which he means that the pressure to publish results in science is de facto doing a disservice to the process of science itself:

Shanahan, D. R. (2015) ‘A Living Document: reincarnating the research article, Trials 2015, 16:151 doi:10.1186/s13063-015-0666-5;;

Many thanks for taking the time to respond - this is what blogs should be like! Thanks Thomas for giving me airtime 🎙


Thomas said...

Thanks for your comments, Julia and Randy. I think it is important for me to emphasize that I'm not really against the existence of exploratory writing. I'm just giving what I think is some good advice for people who want to become good academic writers: don't forget to learn how to represent facts. Don't forget that at least part of your competence is to know facts, and even to discover some.

"Is it to present reality as a fait accompli, or is it to lay bare the thinking needed to understand that reality?" asks Julia. It's both, of course. But even the latter can be done in "Kantian" way, if you will, i.e., not as a performance of thought (a stream of consciousness) but as a representation of the conditions of the possibility of the representation of objects. (I would argue that this is also what Foucault was doing in his Archaeology.)

"Some people," Randy reminds us, "are interested in reading 'how I did it' and 'what I am thinking about now'." And John Law is a good example of someone we might be interested to hear such things from. It is always tempting to jump right in and imitate the most successful scholars in your field, what Bill Evans called the "top flight" people. This, he rightly points out, leads to vagueness and confusion. It's like venturing into abstract expressionism before learning how to draw real objects. It's better to begin with something simple and real and build on that, Evans explains.

That's where my focus is: on the simple and real things that can be taught and trained. Once you are well-established in a field of research and have described some of the things that can be described, perhaps you can begin to explore the limits of your understanding and, by that means, begin to "lay bare the thinking needed to understand the reality".

But first you must learn to represent the representable part of reality, not as a "fait accompli" but, more literally, as an accomplished fact, i.e., a reality that you have made present to yourself and will now make present to your peers in writing. Always partially, to be sure, as Law notes, just as even the most realistically drawn hand isn't the whole fleshy reality of an actual hand.

As I say in the post, I'm not saying we should not explore. I am saying that the privilege of free exploration in prose meant to be read by peers (who spend their time reading it) properly belongs to those who have already demonstrated an ability to discover things and represent facts. And that means that they have mastered the art of writing prose that shows us something in the world, not merely what was on their mind while they were writing. Scholars must be able to write knowingly about the knowable. Only then can we follow them in their explorations of their doubts and their ignorance.

(I'm going to read Law's paper more closely soon, by the way, and blog about it. I'm not immediately impressed with it and I'm not sure it should be taken as exemplary academic writing. I'm actually not sure that Law would say we should either.)