Monthly Archives: June 2017

A Demonstration

“The lover of Virgil who wishes to bring a libel action against me would be well advised to begin his attack by separating the part of the Aeneid in which Virgil was directly interested (one might almost say, the folk-lore element) from the parts he wrote chiefly because he was trying to write an epic poem.” (Ezra Pound)

In an attempt to put my method where my mouth is, I’m going to write a paper about the Mann Gulch disaster. Actually, I will be re-writing a paper that I published back in 2010 in (wait for it) “The Leading Journal in the Field”, a collection of practical critiques of management research from a 2009 conference at the University of Leicester.  I’ve grown increasingly dissatisfied with, not the conclusions of the paper, nor even its argument, but its somewhat ponderous style. I was overthinking it. I was trying too hard to write a scholarly essay rather than simply expose a piece influential but dubious research as directly as possible.

Most glaringly, anyone who has heard me insist (over and over) that a paragraph consists of at most 200 words that say exactly ONE well-defined thing will smile (or perhaps even frown) at my somewhat intermittent discipline in this regard. So I’m going to have a go at this paper over the summer as time permits. Here are the key sentences for the three paragraphs of my introduction. I hope the message is entirely clear.

  1. On August 5, 1949, thirteen smokejumpers died in Mann Gulch.
  2. The received view in organization scholarship is that the Mann Gulch disaster was the result of a collapse of sensemaking.
  3. In this paper, I show that sensemaking played no decisive role in the deaths of the smokejumpers in Mann Gulch.

This also suggests a shift of focus. I will not be emphasizing the errors of scholarship that has led us to think of Mann Gulch as a sensemaking episode. Rather, I will simply correct our misunderstanding of the disaster as such. This will, of course, require me to document the received view on the matter, but I can present the corrective as a re-analysis of the events. Indeed, the paper will present a re-analysis of the original “data”, namely, Norman Maclean’s 1992 book Young Men and Fire.


“What thou lovest well remains, the rest is dross.” (Ezra Pound)

Brady Haran is a masterful filmmaker. He is especially good at getting knowledgeable people to explain what they know, as I’ve now had the occasion to witness countless times, both in his Numberphile series and Sixty Symbols (about physics and astronomy). This video about pappus chains made me have an epiphany about my own craft. Indeed, Simon Pampena’s numberphilia, if you will, made me realize how much I love writing. If Brady ever makes a series of videos called Letterphile, I hope he’ll cast me.

What is great about this video is that Pampena is able to present an idea about which he is clearly enthusiastic in, essentially, its entirety. He is able to get the whole thing (at least in its essentials) onto film (and, you’ll note, down on paper). That’s quite an achievement. As long as you are interested in what he’s trying to tell you, it is a very engaging film to watch. He isn’t dumbing anything down. He is smartening you up. That’s what makes Haran’s work so brilliant.

Now, I have a set of principles for writing scholarly papers that are almost as elegant as the inverted circles we’re taught to use here. My paragraphs can be chained together in similar ways, and likewise scaled indefinitely. (That was sort of the point of my last post.) I think I’m going to try my hand at presenting these principles in a similar way, using this combination of a handheld camera with an interviewer behind it, a piece of paper (or perhaps a laptop) in front of me, and inserts of screen recordings (in the place of the animated circles and diagrams).

But I also realized something else. Something more important, almost existential. For a long time now, I’ve been beating my head against the walls of the “ideological” dimension of writing. While my understanding of this concept has of course evolved since high school, I only recently discovered the sense that Brian Street gave to it in the context of literacy. Back in 1984, he distinguished between “ideological” and “autonomous” models of literacy. The latter is what we normally think of when we think of the ability to read and write; it is an identifiable competence that can be developed in its own right, it empowers individuals and enriches cultures. What Street noticed in his ethnographic work, however, was that what counts as literacy within a culture is itself dependent on social context. Being able to read and write, that is, is also an ideological competence, which is related to one’s ability to do things within one’s society.

We see this ideological approach to literacy when we worry about how to make students better able to pass their exams rather than better able to put their ideas down on the page. And we see it in scholarship whenever an academic is more worried about getting published than about writing well. Now, passing exams and getting published are certainly important goals. But we have to remember that “good writing” isn’t just whatever helps us reach those goals. Ideally, being a good writer should be useful to you, but it is also valuable in itself–i.e., autonomously. Needless to say, a lot of bad writing is “passable” prose, a lot of published prose terribly written.

Which brings me back to my epiphany–and, indeed, my epigraph. I have been fixated too long on the ideological “dross” of examination and publication. I’ve been letting the writers I work with goad me into taking these worries seriously, indeed, more seriously than the main problem, which is simply writing well. I simply don’t love passing an exam, nor do I care very much whether the students I work with do this; I don’t love getting published or helping scholars get past their peer reviewers and editors. The competence they use to this end is only incidentally related my craft.

Please don’t think I feel superior to them. I am not putting them down for wanting to succeed. After all, in order to do so they have to know something; and on that score I am completely useless to them. I can only help them to write well. I truly love doing this. Just as I, myself, love writing. Or, rather, I love writing when it’s going well. More precisely, I love the writing that remains when the dross has been removed. Even if you sometimes have to leave it in when you submit.

40, 18, 11, 5, 4, 3, 1

It should be possible to write a journal article in about forty paragraphs. What this means is that writing down forty (carefully chosen) things you know (in the right order) should suffice to present a discovery you have made to your peers. When I say it should “suffice”, I mean exactly that: forty paragraphs should be enough to get your point across. It should give your peers an adequate basis on which to decide whether you are right or wrong. It should either impart your knowledge to them, or give them an occasion to correct your errors. That is, the writing and reading of those forty paragraphs will help make someone smarter.

Now, imagine presenting the same result in exactly 18 paragraphs. Why might this not be sufficient when forty paragraphs was sufficient? What would you be forced to leave out? When you think about it, you’re actually just reducing the amount of people that might engage meaningfully with your text. They will still (if you write it well enough) be able to discern what you are trying to say, but they will not be persuaded, either because you don’t present enough evidence or don’t tell them enough about your methods. Or perhaps you just leave out the discussion section and therefore give no indication of what the consequences of your discovery might be, whether for theory or practice. But a smaller group of very like-minded readers might not need any of this information. They would perhaps just have skipped over the paragraphs you’ve left out anyway.

Next, imagine 11 paragraphs. Then 5. In each case, think about what you would be leaving out.  And, more importantly, who you are leaving out. Who are you now not trying to convince. Who is becoming more of a spectator of than a participant in your discourse. Actually, at five paragraphs you are essentially writing an abstract (albeit an extended one) or synopsis. You are presenting a distillation of your discovery and implicitly telling the reader to ask you for more information.

So think about this text now as one that raises a series of questions and make sure you know the answers. (Don’t make the text a series of questions, though. Make it a series of facts that naturally stimulate questions.)

Now reduce your text by one paragraph. Then do it again. 4, 3, 2 …

Finally, imagine your paper in a single paragraph of at least six sentences and at most 200 words.  A good idea can be presented at these different levels of abstraction. I encourage you to develop your ability to scale the paper in these ways. Impose a set of constraints that are, from the point of the view of the idea itself, arbitrary.  Then make the most of the conditions you’ve given yourself.

But don’t let your time investment be unconstrained. Always think 27 minutes per paragraph. You don’t want to get good at something that takes forever to do well. You want to become good at writing down what you know in the moment.

The Start

Sometimes the best way to get started on a paper is imagine–i.e., draft–your introduction. Don’t overthink this. And don’t spend too much time worrying and working on it. Just do it. Spend a few minutes at the end of the day deciding what you will say (construct the key sentence) and 27 minutes the next day writing what you know about it (composing the paragraph). Here are three exercises that can be done in this spirit:

  1. Write a paragraph about the WORLD that your research is about. What is going on in society that your research tries to better understand? DO NOT write about your research. Just describe the world as it exists independently of, but relevant to, your research. E.g., “The Internet has changed the way citizens engage with their governments.”
  2. Write a paragraph about the SCIENCE that informs your research. Tell your reader about the underlying consensus or constitutive controversy that supports thinking in your field. Here, again, DO NOT write about yourself or your own research. Write about what has come before you. E.g., “It is well established that the technologies people use to communicate have profound effects on their sense of self.”
  3. Write a paragraph about your PAPER. E.g., “This paper shows that social media is eliding the subject of governmentality in Western democracies.” followed by a couple of sentences about your methods, two or three that summarise your analysis, and a couple more that suggest the main implications. The basic structure should be: “This paper shows that … It is based on … The data suggests … This has important consequences for …” (Remember not to write more than 200 words altogether.)


Bonus exercise

Write a paragraph that asserts your CONCLUSION. You might simply remove the words “This paper shows that” from the key sentence of paragraph 3, which should leave you with a declarative sentence that states your result. Draw the substance of your paragraph from your analysis. That is, base your assertion on your data. Write the strongest statement of your conclusion you are capable of. Imagine the friendliest and most knowledgeable reader you can. This is how you would say it to yourself or your co-author.

Explanation and Understanding

Randy Westgren dropped me a line about my post on knowledge and imagination. He was kind enough to let me quote from his mail. He began by reminding me of the “distinction between understanding and explanation in the philosophy of science.” This always gets my attention because I wrote my master’s on the philosophy of explanation. I was therefore particularly attuned to this point that Randy made:

Understanding is meaningful only with respect to the audience. An explanation of solar movements or social movements to primary school students – to help them understand – must necessarily be less comprehensive and either more or less abstract than for an audience of doctoral students. An explanation of a phenomenon in science has a goal greater than understanding; one seeks to explain causes, regularities, or other parts of the phenomenon.

This reminded me of a distinction I struggled with in my thesis: the difference between explanation as a rhetorical event and as logical structure. It is true that we sometimes say we will try to “explain something” and mean by this that we will try “get someone to understand” it. Even philosophers, I discovered, have a hard time keeping this straight, but I will insist that this use of the word “explain” has nothing to do with the philosophy of explanation. It certainly makes it difficult to make a sharp distinction between explanation and understanding.

And I think we need this distinction.  “Turco and Zuckerman,” Randy suggested, “are content to say that understanding is good enough for sociology, in many cases.” I’m not sure that’s the right emphasis. On my reading, they were arguing that understanding is necessary, but not sufficient. They were not lamenting the demand for explanation, but the abandonment of understanding.

Randy also suggested that there is “there is a great deal of room for scientific inquiry between law-based explanation and Verstehen.” My view is that the classical “deductive-nomological” account of explanation provides a regulative ideal for explanation, which can only ever be approximated in practice. In real life, nothing is fully explained, no explanation is complete and “understanding” covers the remaining intellectual real estate. Or rather, let’s say that explanations construct a series of extensionless points around which our understanding operates.

I think understanding should be seen as a minimal condition of knowing. I agree with Randy that explanation sets a somewhat higher standard. Or, rather, perhaps it just sets a different standard. Does the relativistic explanation of the precession of the perihelion of Mercury hold to a “higher” standard than our historical understanding of the progress achieved by the civil rights movement?

Sometimes we have to make do with “merely” understanding something. Sometimes we have an actual explanation. Sometimes we have a partial explanation and an understanding of its partiality. Or an explanation along with an understanding of how it might be falsified. I guess I seek an understanding that always tends towards (or at least strives for) explanations. You don’t have to explain Hamlet’s actions in order to understand them. But you build your understanding as you pursue an explanation for his actions and inaction.