Keeping the conversation going in an age of scholarly abundance

In the last few years, I’ve become increasingly preoccupied with the notion of ‘the literature’ and how it is invoked by scholars. I’m now rather sceptical of the way in which many people talk about ‘the literature’ and the role it plays in scholarship. It’s not that I don’t think it’s important to identify, engage with and record the existing work that has been done on a topic you’re working on. Rather I’m concerned that the invocation of its necessity serves a disciplinary function when scholarly literature proliferates at the speed which it now does, with an estimated 28,100 journals publishing 2.5 million articles a year. The problems which those who enthusiastically invoke the importance of ‘the literature’ are concerned with, such as perpetual reinvention of the wheel and a failure to recognise relevant work taking place in adjacent fields, have such obviously structural roots that to frame the solution in terms of personal practice seems to accord almost magical powers to the intellectual discipline of individual scholars.

My concern is that invoking ‘the literature’ increasingly functions as a conversation-stopper: it’s a disciplinary action which serves to curtail, though rarely halt, a line of inquiry. If we are inclined, as Richard Rorty once put, “to keep the conversation going” then we need to “protest against attempts to close off conversation by proposals for universal commensuration through the hypostatisation of some privileged set of descriptions” (377). Or in other words, we need to reject the idea that there’s only one way to talk about the topic in question. This is what the invocation of ‘the literature’ does, usually implicitly though sometimes explicitly. It implies a unified body of work which must be the reference point for scholarship on a given topic, even if the intention is to break away from it. In many cases, there’s perhaps no such unity in the first place, with its apparent coherence being underwritten by the most influential figures within the field have talked about ‘the literature’ in a way which performatively brings it into being by justifying the implication that much (potentially relevant) material exists ‘outside’. Judgements of salience aren’t written into the fabric of the knowledge system, they’re suffused with epistemic relativism: made from a particular standpoint, by a person with their own interests, reliant upon their own conceptual apparatus. Instead, behind apparent coherence, we have a complex network of citation cartels, ‘unread and unloved’ publications and influential beneficiaries of Matthew effects.

My point is not to dispute the value of reading and engaging with literature. I only want to situate invocations of ‘the literature’: made by people struggling with the problems of scholarly abundance, in relation to others similarly struggling with these problems. The idea of one definitive point of orientation becomes fetishistic when we all suffer from the vertigo of the accelerated academy. From Sustainable Knowledge by Robert Frodeman, loc 1257:

I feel like I am drowning in knowledge, and the idea of further production is daunting. Libraries and bookstores produce a sense of anxiety: the number of books and journals to read is overwhelming, with tens of thousands more issuing from the presses each day. Moreover, there is no real criterion other than whim for selecting one book or article over another. To dive into one area rather than another becomes a willful act of blindness, when other areas are just as worthwhile and when every topic connects to others in any number of ways. The continual press of new knowledge becomes an invitation to forgetfulness, to lose the forest for the trees.

Under these circumstances, our concern shouldn’t be to ensure everyone pays allegiance to ‘the literature’. We can assume this will continue to grow continuously while everyone feels compelled to write hyperactively, continually churning out publications with more hope that they are counted rather than that they are read. Instead, we should be asking how do we sustain the conversation under these circumstancesWhat kinds of conversations should we be havingWhat purposes do they serve? The well known problems of scholarly publishing mean traditional exchange in journals is becoming progressively less amenable to productive conversations, particularly across boundaries of field and discipline. How do we have conversations which serve, as Nicos Mouzelis puts it, to build bridges?

To be specific, there is little satisfaction with the present status quo where the boundaries between economics, political science, sociology and anthropology have become solid blinkers preventing interdisciplinary studies of social phenomena. But such compartmentalization will not be transcended by the facile and mindless abolition of the existing division of labour between disciplines.

[Instead we need] a painstaking process of theoretical labour that aims at building bridges between the various specializations. Such a strategy does not abolish social science boundaries: it simply aims at transforming them from impregnable bulwarks to transmission belts facilitating interdisciplinary research … what is badly needed today are more systematic efforts towards the creation of a theoretical discourse that would be able to translate the language of one discipline into that of another. Such an interdisciplinary language would not only facilitate communication among the social science disciplines, it would also make it possible to incorporate effectively into the social sciences insights achieved in philosophy, psychoanalysis or semiotics.

Sociological Theory: What went Wrong?: Diagnosis and Remedies, By Nicos Mouzelis

A large part of my enthusiasm for social media comes from the possibilities it offers for having these kinds of conversations. But trying to resolve the problems of the accelerated academy through an invocation of the need for disciplined practice is taking us in the wrong direction.

There’s a powerful counter-argument that can be found here by Patrick Dunleavy, concerning the importance of citation. I want to think carefully about this but my instinct would be to add two additional columns: “how scholarly abundance complicates this role” and “how might this lead us to change practice“.

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