The Conversation Behind and Within the Literature


If only there were a vast literature on how to familiarize yourself with vast literatures.

What is a literature? Well, it’s a conversation among scholars, in the form of papers and books. Sometimes essays and articles are also admitted into this pantheon, though usually only grudgingly. As for blog posts—forget it!

I’m joking around a little here, but what I’m trying to draw your attention to is the fact that the conversation is always larger than the literature. The literature is the subset. The bigger conversation includes not only essays and articles and blog posts, but phone calls, chat sessions, emails, letters—for these conversations have been going on for a while, after all! You could probably throw telegrams in there, on that note. And of course, literal face to face conversations are also included here.

These are always the larger background context of the subset we call “the literature.” The literature itself is, as I said, for the most part made up of papers and books. Rituals to imbue papers with a certain authority include the peer-review process and publication in certain high-status journals. But while these factor into how influential a given paper becomes, they are not the whole of it, and influential papers can occur outside of the bounds of these rituals. Working papers and white papers are examples of things that are capable of gaining influence despite being “unpublished” (though sometimes actually made public through services such as the Social Science Research Network) or not having been peer-reviewed.

Peer review is a funny phrase, because if an author gains any attention at all, they will naturally be reviewed by their peers after the fact rather than before publication. And that conversation—between various authors responding to the papers of other authors—is much more valuable than the up-front “peer-review process”. In point of fact, the ex post interplay is exactly what we mean when we speak of “the literature”.

When this subset of the textual component of these conversations reach a certain size and have been going on for long enough, curating collections and conducting meta-analyses can become valuable contributions in themselves. The goal is to clarify the state of scholarship in a subject by identifying areas of consensus as well as key points still in contention, or simply by providing an accessible history of the conversation.

Such curation, meta-analysis, and history is itself a part of the conversation, not above it. It is making the argument “this is what the character of our conversation is. This is where it came from.” Sometimes it is even “this is where it should go from here.” In short, it is not just clerical work, simply gathering facts about the conversation, any more than a paper within that conversation is simply explaining a manifest truth. Both are engaging in persuasion, using evidence, arguments, and all the tools of rhetoric to make the case that one way of looking at things is superior to the alternatives. In the case of putting together something like a collection of introductory political theory texts, you are making the argument that the specifics texts you have chosen are in some way representative. Someone else might disagree—they usually do. That is why you will find more than one reader for a given subject; that is itself a part of the conversation.

Some people see the peer-review process as some kind of guarantor of quality. I have always seen it as primarily a way to enforce the norms of a specific community of scholars. Some people see science as an accumulative process where we get more and more knowledge, and that is how we make progress. I see it as a conversation that is just as capable of facing setbacks as it is of making progress, though I’m in general quite optimistic about how we’ve been doing for the past 200 years, on the whole. But specific fields have fallen into huge errors and pulled themselves out (or not) in that time—witness the ascension of Freudianism in the 20th century.

This characterization of science is, of course, an argument that I am advancing. And completely contestable.

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