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…