On being a concept wrangler

I can’t remember when the notion of concept wrangler first occurred to me. I meant it semi-jokingly but the idea of a role in which one would round up, herd or take charge of concepts had a distinctive appeal. It helped articulate a transition in my own intellectual career, as I ceased to see myself as a social theorist despite this being what I was trained to do. Objectively I wasn’t a social theorist, subjectively I didn’t want to be one and yet it was difficult to articulate exactly what it was I was and wanted to be.

The notion of working with concepts in an almost curatorial way worked as a description and inspired me as a motivation. To be a concept wrangler involves organising concepts, bringing them into dialogue with each other, translating across difference. It has a particular value in an accelerating academy, as competitive escalation leads people to publish more and read less. Furthermore, the massification of the academy has led to more people publishing. As Andrew Abbott describes it on pg 34 of his Digital Paper, this alone creates a problem even if we discount the escalatory dynamic which I’m postulating:

As of 2009, half of the dissertations ever written in the history of American academia had been written after 1982, and a third of them since 1995. It is not clear whether output per scholar has increased much, but when the typical discipline numbers ten thousand or more persons, even the old output rates mean that sheer quantity overwhelms us.

He makes the fascinating observation that the “number of references in a typical sociology article has gone up by a factor of two in the last forty years” yet less than 10% of those are for a single page or a specified range in a cited source, as opposed to a figure of two thirds sixty years ago. Formal interconnectedness might have increased but the substance of those connections is evaporating. This produces a terrain in which concept wrangling ought to be a specialised activity, as opposed to being something which everyone does in the normal course of their activity.

To be a concept wrangler is to be drawn towards the space of review essays, panel discussions and think pieces. It involves finding new ways to engage in meta-reflection. It sometimes involves locating old things and at other times involves being sceptical about new things. It can involve loud interventions, sometimes quiet reflection. It involves reading widely while also recognising the limits of one’s own reading. It necessitates drawing on short-form sources in order to make it possible to engage with ideas vastly far from one’s own starting point, while remaining clear about the limits of one’s own expertise. It involves curiosity and creativity. Most of all it involves charity, reading things in the spirit of understanding what someone is trying to say and relate it to what others have already said, rather than to prove a point.

To be a concept wrangler is a gentle yet energetic pursuit and I’d much rather be one than a social theorist.

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