Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Means and Ends

It's a question that is sometimes put to novelists: Do you eat in order to write or write in order to eat? In academic settings, we can ask a similar question: Do you know in order to write or write in order to know? Both questions are supposed to indicate a paradox, or at least a dilemma. In this post I'm not going to pursue any profound solution, but use them as a jumping off point for some ideas about separating your research process from your writing process.

Do you engage in research in order to publish articles or publish articles in order to engage in research? Neither seems quite right. That's because, in addition to its role in making the other possible, each activity has an intrinsic value. You have to do some research in order to have something to say in your papers, and if you don't publish, you perish, i.e., you lose the academic position that gives you the time you need to conduct research, but neither explains why you do the other.

You conduct your research to satisfy your curiosity about a topic that interests you. And you publish the results of your research out of a genuine interest in discussing what you've discovered with your peers. But these intrinsic values have been challenged in recent times by the extrinsic values of research assessment. As a result, it sometimes seems to me, scholars too often envision their research projects with a far too narrow focus on generating publishable results. They are too worried about the "deliverable", namely, the papers that they hope to write on the basis of the research they're doing.

They are not writing down what they know but coming to know things they can write down. There are a great many political issues here that I will leave on the side for now. I want to point out that this approach is trying to solve the problem of writing by a very poorly suited means.

It assumes that there's a well-defined goal, namely, writing a research paper, and that a research project must be undertaken to provide materials for that paper. The transformation of your opinions on the subject of your inquiry falls entirely into the background. We have to find a way of recovering a place for this important experience. We have to have a place to change our minds. Since it is still April, let us call this place "the imagination".

My practical solution is to set up your writing process to be writing down things you know well, and have known for some time, rather than things you're just beginning to understand. I can't tell you how long it will take you to discover whether or how a particular management practice works or how it is transforming the nature of work itself. But once you have made your discovery, I have a pretty good way of writing it down so that after twenty hours of work you've got a first draft. And while you're doing this, I want to emphasize, you're discovering new things that you will be writing down in the same calm and orderly way weeks or months down the road. The problem of writing arises after you know something. But don't let that subordinate the problem of writing to the problem of knowing. They are two separate but equally important tasks.

I'll talk some more about all this in the weeks to come.


Andrew Gelman said...


You write, "And you publish the results of your research out of a genuine interest in discussing what you've discovered with your peers."

Yes, but in addition you write (and publish) in order to express your ideas more clearly. The first step of publishing is to "publish" to yourself.

Thomas said...

I'm sure that's true now, but my hunch is that our desire to be clear ultimately comes from our desire to communicate with others. That is, if we were only talking to ourselves (or, actually, if we were only talking, and not writing) we'd settle for much less as far as clarity is concerned. Society in general, and writing in particular, has done much to clarify our thinking.