academic hot takes

A post over at orgtheory reminded me of this nice bit by Jeff Goodwin:

Hypothesis number one: For any book to become widely cited today, let alone to influence how people think, it must be reducible to a few general and easily grasped formulations. Many texts are “formulated,” furthermore, not by their authors, but by more or less officially designated readers (call them DRs), including reviewers for academic journals. Books that cannot be formulaically summarized by DRs, accurately or otherwise, are unlikely to generate much discussion, let alone change minds.

The process of “formulation” typically results in simplifications, half-truths, and outright errors, particularly when DRs are ill-disposed toward a particular text. The more complex the text, moreover, the more simplification is essential if the “formulation” that is a prerequisite of broad influence is to occur at all. Ensuing “discussions” and “debates” about a particular text often build upon these simplifications, half-truths, and errors. Before long, scholars can be “influenced” by these “debates,” or even participate in them without having read the text supposedly at issue; one need simply familiarize oneself with the formulaic “summaries” and “discussions” of it that DRs have produced.

Hypothesis number two: No book can claim to be “influential” today until large numbers of people who have not read it (or have not read beyond its introduction) have strong opinions about it. In fact, some of the most frequently cited books are, paradoxically, not very widely (or closely) read at all.

Hypothesis number three: A text that actually had to be carefully read by large numbers of people in order to be “understood” would never become “influential.”

Goodwin, Jeff. 1996. “How to Become a Dominant American Social Scientist: The Case of Theda Skocpol.” Contemporary Sociology  293-295.

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