A while ago I noted that I had not read many of the “famous” articles in sociology. I knew what was in them; many I had skimmed. But I hadn’t actually taken the time to seriously read them myself (you know, taking notes on them, thinking about them, etc.). So I decided to correct this. And I read the 25 most referenced articles in ASR and AJS. I found these articles here, with the help of Jim Moody. Today I completed this task. I went from bottom to top (least to most referenced). So what did I learn?
1.) There are lots of famous articles I had never heard of. And lots of debates I didn’t know existed. Some of this is because these things are older and not referenced that much today. But more of it is because I don’t read as widely as I thought I do.
2.) If you read older articles, you find that “new” ideas (things done today) are often re-articulations of “old” ones.
3.) Most importantly, many of these articles did not actually say what I thought they did. And even more importantly, they did not always seem to say what the literature attributed to them. This is most often the case in attributing “findings” to papers that have none. Take the two most referenced papers: DiMaggio and Powell’s “The Iron Cage Revisited” and Granovetter’s “Economic Action and Social Structure”. These papers don’t find anything. Though D&P may have a series of hypotheses, they don’t have any data. Neither does Granovetter. This is not a complaint or critique. It’s just an account of my own surprise. Neither paper demonstrates much; rather they seem to say, “here’s how we might think of things…” Now clearly, they were on to something. Their ideas are incredibly useful — some of the most useful in the history of American journals. But I must say I expected something different in Granovetter than a discussion of Hobbes (via Parsons) and Williamson, or in D&P than a list of 12 hypotheses that might be looked into. If you had asked me, before undertaking this task, what it took to write a blockbuster article I would have said, “A kick-ass study.” It seems the answer is something different. “A good (or useful?) idea.” Or as my colleague Josh Whitford just said to me, “Open a question, don’t close one.”
At first I was worried that some of these articles didn’t say what I thought they did (or what others told me they did). But now I don’t worry about that so much — particularly when I remind myself that “impact” isn’t as much about an article as it is a space in the field where research is thriving (so provided that that research is going somewhere, who cares about my concern?). It did make me think that a definitive finding might not be good for citation counts. And a (ambiguous?) set of ideas might, under the right conditions, might be really good.