Mining vs. Harvesting in Academic Writing

I sometimes get annoyed at books by established scholars. Where most junior scholars cite heavily when making theoretical claims, established scholars often seem to feel little need to cite theory (although they will cite empirical claims). But even more annoying, where most junior scholars make a point and then move on, established scholars often seem to say the same thing over and over again in slightly different ways. Lately, however, I’ve decided that there might be a lesson to learn from this. It is unclear to me whether they have become established scholars because they write like this, or if it is something that happens to one as a result of becoming established. In either case, I think it is worth examining the benefits of such a writing style.

The first lesson is that it takes a certain amount of repetition for a point to sink in. This is normal in spoken discourse, but it is useful in writing as well. It isn’t just repetition: successful academic writers often seem to be able to spin endless variations on the same theme. This not only helps bolster their argument, it also makes their point clearer by presenting it in a variety of different ways.

Secondly, and I think more importantly, many junior scholars undervalue their own insights. They tentatively make a theoretical point, find lots and lots of citations to bolster that argument, and then rush on to discuss the data. They feel safe with data, and are eager to establish the validity of their theoretical insights. An established scholar, on the other hand, sees the theoretical point as a rich vein to be mined for all it’s worth. While the initial case study may need exhaustive documentation, additional iterations of the main point can be made with less evidence, and in some cases can be purely speculative. This also helps attract other scholars to cite the work, providing them as it does with potential avenues for new research.

These two styles of writing might be thought of as “mining” vs. “harvesting.” Where the established scholar doesn’t let go of an idea till every last bit of ore has been extracted from it, the junior scholar is busy harvesting citations to bolster a single insight. I think this explains why experienced scholars seem to cite much less frequently. If you are making the same point over and over again, you don’t really need to provide additional citations for each new iteration of the central theme. The junior scholar, on the other hand, lacks the confidence to push too hard on any given idea, worried perhaps that it might fail to hold up under too much scrutiny. Instead, they hide it under a pile of citations, hope to deflect, rather than draw attention to their own ideas.

When I examine my own motivations for avoiding repetition and using lots of citations, I don’t see the kinds of motivations I’ve just attributed to other junior scholars. I tell myself that I just like to “show my work” by highlighting the scholarship upon which my own ideas are built. My frustration with established scholars is that they so often feel no need to do so. Similarly, as a very careful reader, I often find myself skimming over work which is overly repetitive, and I don’t wish to bore my readers in the same way. This is how I used to think about it. Now, however, I’m less certain. I think there are some good reasons to do more mining and less harvesting. They say you should “dress like the job you want to have.” Since most established anthropologists dress so badly I’m not sure that is good advice. But maybe writing like an established scholar is not such a bad idea…

17 thoughts on “Mining vs. Harvesting in Academic Writing

  1. An old adage of historical writing is the text “persuades”, the footnotes “prove”. The nineteenth century historian Leopold von Ranke had his assistants read to him works by other historians by only reading their footnotes. We may think of the footnote as the structural girders underlying the points being made in the body of the work, but how and what we choose as footnotes/citations is often peculiar to the author.

    It might be of some value to read those scholars who we label “miners” only by their footnotes from one work to another to see how if any citations do change or not. The point you make of repetition of ideas is in large part related to the undergirding of the footnotes that have become for some scholars familiar habits called upon time and again. The motivation of repretition is to exclude the possibility the citations can be made to mean something else than what they have been made to mean in the work.

    Equally, it does pay junior scholars to return to nineteenth century and early twentieth century scholars and read them, not for their texts, but as von Ranke did for their footnotes/citations (i.e. read only the footnotes for the argument)–certainly the exercise will teach a great deal about how to write a scholarly work if nothing else. But for its own exercise, it is a kind of archaeology of the practices of scholarship.

    I also wonder if your tropes of “mining” and “harvesting” are not more an allusion to Isaiah Berlin’s “The Fox and the Hedgehog”. The miners know one big thing they repeat over and over; whereas, the fox knows many things that are told only once.

  2. Kerim, there’s an option you don’t consider. I didn’t either when I was in a rush to pigeonhole authors and have a few words to say to flesh our name dropping at quals, conferences, etc. In retrospect I realize that some of my favorites, Malinowski, V. Turner, Geertz, aren’t just prolific writers who have found a winning formula. They offer extraordinary opportunities to follow minds at work developing ideas, testing them against new data and adding new insights to what they had written before.

  3. In my recent paper at the AAAs to an audience of two people, both there to see friends, I stated that I think it is time to invoke memory of our own ancestors in what they did well that we may do less well. I didn’t mention the idea of returning to a central thematic or theoretical point in order to develop it more fully, which is important, but I did mention several other aspects of earlier work that is important to reconsider in ethnography–both as writing and as work in the “field.”
    First, I am most impressed with our ancestors in East Asian anthropology for their diligence in studying the historical in great depth: religion, philosophy, the arts as well as the political and economic aspects of their area. This brought nuanced and detailed ethnographic discussion to their work, which I see increasingly invoked as ideological stance toward an issue (the bad old days of East Asia’s past) rather than an ability to address complexity in the past as well as the present. As we move away from area study preparation, the past seems to be made increasingly simplistic and the present more complex…not true for state societies with thousands of years of history, regional differences, and complex statuses. Issues of mobility, varied family forms within cultural traditions, the problem of dispersed families, heterodoxies, orientations to political threat–and on and on–all have a long, rich history that we seem to ignore in our infatuation with globalization’s new effects. Rather like Europeans felt when the word “modern” was first invoked to create an imagined rupture with all that was past…at the beginning of Europe’s modern era.
    Second, I am impressed with the manner in which the four-field approach permits richly contextualized observation and analysis in a way that is being lost in the re-organized discipline of today. This permits us deeper engagement in the issues with which we deal, and a more fully developed analysis as a result.
    Finally, I miss the wealth of data in the ethnographies that I read from half a century ago. Leach’s work in Burma, Skinner’s in Thailand continue to be worth reading due to the wealth of material that they provide.
    All of these things are needed at times of great flux and instability–as existed then in East and Southeast Asia–because our analyses are always works in progress and our material will always outlive us–if we research and write in such a way that permits it to be so.

  4. I love it:
    “As we move away from area study preparation, the past seems to be made increasingly simplistic and the present more complex”

    Kerim I think this is an interesting post, but I think it would be even more interesting if you could provide an example of an author who does each method so we could get a better sense of what you are talking out — is this a point about ethnographic thickness, as Linda reads it, or one about hierarchy (when you are the bottom you must cite those above you) or different habits that lead to different measures of success?

  5. Linda, hear! Hear! A thoughtful review of the ancestors often reveals a lot more depth than we are able to acknowledge in fits of Oedipal rage that cram them into sound bites.

  6. @Rex I’m basically saying that what I was previously prone to dismiss and avoid as a product of hierarchy might actually be thickness and therefore worth emulating. At the same time there are still many cases of supposed “thickness” turning out to be mere padding and recycling, so one must proceed with caution. To parse all this out with examples would be rather time consuming, but maybe others might have some examples they would like to share?

  7. Kerim: I read this article over a week ago and I wanted to let you know that it has been going over and over in my mind and is really changing my strategies for writing. This is really helpful insight. I really struggle with writing longer pieces for reasons that I think you nailed straight away. I get caught up trying to hold up some massive back of dutifully researched sentence with multiple citations masterfully woven together until I am completely immobilized. So, thank you. I’ll continue to dwell on this.

    Where do people talk about this kind of stuff more frequently?

  8. I’m tempted to think of it in terms of a music analogy – the punk academic who is inspired by a certain subject matter, thinks about it incessantly and publishes a first book which is probably choppy but inspired has much in common with a band who puts out a first record. The second record (book) is much more refined, produced, but perhaps lacks that certain vital edge, perhaps sounding a bit derivative.

    Probably an oversimplification, but something to keep in mind as I try to grow my publication list.

  9. Colleen, if you’d like to pursue your analogy a big further, you might take a peak at Grant McCracken’s _Flock and Flow: Predicting and Managing Change in a Dynamic Marketplace_. McCracken observes that the process of moving from indie avant-garde to mainstream standard typically involves more than one tipping point, each of which involves adapting the music to a new and larger audience. The evolution away from the avant-garde edge may lose the fans who shared the original passion. From a marketing point of view these early adopters can be left behind if the payoff is broader appeal. This may seem a cold-blooded way to treat your original supporters, but if you have serious career ambitions….

  10. Kerim,

    I spend a lot of time trying to talk younger scholars out of citing too much. As a grad student, it’s an important part of learning the (inter)disciplinary language. But, it’s a hard habit to get rid of. In a book, people want to read what you have to say — not hear your account of James Clifford or
    Aihwa Ong. I use the examples of Orientalism and Imagined Communities, where you know what Said and Anderson are arguing by page 2 and without having to see them acknowledge what they learned from Hobsbawm or whoever. Junior scholars sometimes don’t know what they are trying to convince people of, so citing what others have said can be an easier approach a topic. That can lead to unnecessarily exaggerated claims of difference (“While Strathern claims X, I…”). On the other hand, you are right that no one needs the senior person who seems so far above other scholarship that they don’t have to note it. So, you might imagine someone (like Donna Haraway) who both knows what they are trying to say, and practices a generosity to those thinking along side her. But as a way of writing, I would advocate trying to write citing no one — forcing your self to know what it is YOU are trying to say (“As Friedman argues…”) and then only as a last enhancement adding notes that acknowledge others. I bet that makes your own writing far stronger, while still acknowledging a community of ideas. Hope this is helpful!

  11. Thanks Ken. Trying to write an initial draft without any citations whatsoever might be just the trick to push myself in this direction… although I have to admit the idea makes me nervous…

  12. Thanks for this post Kerim. It’s a good issue to bring up. I have always felt that way too many citations start to kill the entire flow of writing. But then, in grad school a lot of the profs really want people to cite cite cite in all their papers. But the problem is that this can–IMO–start to affect the style and readability of the paper. Especially when there are a lot of in-text citations. Maybe that’s why I like footnotes and endnotes a lot better. If people want to look for the details, there they are.

    Regardless, as a grad student, I often cite a lot. Probably a lot more than I should. It becomes a habit…and one that I need to break. Ken has a good point about really looking for what we have to say in writing, rather than speaking through others all the time. But it’s tough to balance things, and to know when to cite and when to stand back and say, yep, I’m just gonna say what I think here. I will admit that the latter is usually more interesting to read though…

    Anyway, as a grad student who is mired in this whole process your post definitely resonates. Thanks.

  13. What Ken said. The great thing is that you can write without citations, then add them at the end and enjoy the best of both worlds. You are persuasive and erudite, too.

  14. I must confess that unlike the other commentators, I read this post and recognized nothing about it. I do need examples. This is not a clear divide that I’ve come across before.

  15. I am not sure how we got to the point in this conversation where “citations” became the opposite of “writing with purpose and clarity”. And sense when did Orientalism not contain references to tons of books that no one has read? I think Kerim is making about point about finding one’s voice in writing, and about conceptualization the flow and pacing of one’s publications as they track how your intellectual project changes (or not). Citations are like commas — they can be used for good or for ill. But I think we’re missing something important that Kerim is getting at if we conflate the form with a particular style of writing we might have issues with.

  16. Thanks very much for this useful post, Kerim. I am neither an anthropologist nor a ‘junior scholar’, but a person doing an end-of-career PhD in Media and Communications, and still coming to terms with academic writing. I realise that I have frequently made the mistake of recording my insights as single sentences, like a few perfectly polished jewels studding the articles I write. But instead of moving on, I should reiterate these gems of wisdom in different ways, just in case the reader has missed their brilliance. In future I will think more about mining the ore, as you suggest.

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