Encyclopedic Knowledge

Colloquium: Thursday, February 19, 14:00 to 16:00  in room A 2.35 (inside the CBS Library at Solbjerg Plads)

Research contributes to the growth of knowledge. So it is reasonable to ask how much knowledge we have before our research is completed. What is it that supposedly “grows” by the addition of my research results? One answer is found by doing a literature review. Here you try to characterize the current “state of the field”, i.e., what is known within your specialty, by people who use your theories and your methods, and often also people who have investigated the same or similar phenomena. This kind of knowledge is part of a conversation; it is highly active and dynamic.

But there is also a much more stable store of existing knowledge. It’s what you find in dictionaries, encyclopedias, and handbooks. While these resources are becoming increasingly specialized, they are not, normally, sites of conversation. Rather, they are repositories of common, uncontroversial knowledge. They constitute the background against which the conversation proceeds. Ideally, then, a specialist reader will have no cause to dispute what an encyclopedia or dictionary says, even when its subject matter is embroiled in controversy.

To take a simple example: the Oxford English Dictionary defines “capital” both as “real or financial assets possessing monetary value” and as “the holders of wealth as a class” (and as many other things besides). That is, it provides both the economic and sociological meanings of the words. Neither an economist nor a sociologist will take issue with the presence of the other sense of the word in the dictionary. They will even be tolerant of imprecisions in the definition of “their” sense of the word. They understand that a dictionary is only able to provide a very broad, somewhat vague, definition. A place for the layperson to begin.

The same goes for more substantive issues. While an article in the journal of Organization Studies, may be committed to a postmodern perspective, the entry in The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Management about “postmodernism” will describe it in neutral terms, as a “cultural movement”, as one way among others to view the world. While what the journal article says may not be able to hold up if postmodernism is finally wrong, the handbook entry will not be affected. A good encyclopedia will have articles on defunct sciences and cultural movements too. And if it has an article on postmodernism it will also have one on modernism.

Note, however, that The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Management doesn’t have an article on modernism. This is because there was never a distinctly “modernist” movement in management science. Indeed, management science is better thought of as an aspect of modernity in general. This is not true in the arts, where both modernism and postmodernism deserve their own entries. This is an important insight to be gathered from reading an encyclopedia.

Next Thursday, we will look at the CBS Library’s dictionaries, handbooks and encyclopedias. Many of them (and pretty much all of the ones you’ll want to use) have online access. For this reason, we’ll also look at how best to cite these resources in our writing. (But with the caution that scholarship normally does not rely on handbook knowledge; rather, handbooks rely on scholarship.) And we’ll consider the most famous alternative to the library: Wikipedia. This resource is becoming an increasingly important tool in the craft of research. It’s well worth talking seriously about.

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