I’d like to share a banal but important insight about writing books. However you structure your academic book, someone isn’t going to like it (the structure, and probably the contents too). This has struck me quite a bit recently as I plan my third book, and as I regularly read and review others’ manuscripts.
I don’t think we are honest enough about this. And the more I read and think about this, the more I think we need to challenge existing assumptions, models and ‘logics’ of what a scholarly monograph looks like.
All finished books contain the ghosts – often suppressed – of other pathways towards presentation of the same, ‘raw’ data or ideas. This post will be a little thinking aloud particularly about ‘philosophical’ decisions I’m having to make now right now. These are less about structure – although that can’t be separated out, and more about ethos, voice, fine-grain v. broad-brush, and the positioning of the author.
Fundamentally, based on my previous publishing experience – which is quite varied, the questions come down to the following:
- How to move past the ‘easy’ option that makes books resemble traditional PhD dissertations?
- How to provide enough ‘context’ (history/politics, whatever) without sacrificing ‘working’ – i.e. empirically fine-grained data that really show you know your material?
- What to do with the imperative to ‘speak’ to a group of peers – whether that’s a discipline or something else, without falling into the trap of a rather dense, sometimes isolated piece of ‘theory diving’ that few will want to read?
From these three we could break it down further into any number of subsections. Here are a few that are bugging me right now.
On structure (points 1 and 2). A major problem is how to introduce a place and a group of key informants. It is possible to do this in a stand-alone chapter. It’s also possible to have a stand-alone theory chapter, or even a ‘here’s all the politics and history of the fieldsite’ chapter. I know some people can pull this off and this is often what happens as a PhD is turned into a book. However, ‘the theory dump’ is often a tell-tale sign of a weak, uncoordinated monograph – i.e. a sign that not enough time and effort has been taken in moving from PhD to book. I think in field-work based social science monographs writers should really be looking to ways to avoid all of the above ‘easy’ options.
On the other hand, the lack of an upfront theory presentation raises the problem I encountered in my last book – readers criticising it for being undertheorised. One usual solution is to have a kind of 3-step presentation – and that ‘three-step’ is itself embedded within a number of empirical chapters. It goes: Empirics, plus Theory, plus ‘Here’s how my empirics move theory on’. Or a variation on that ordering. Other approaches can be novel. I’m struck in re-reading Alice Mah’s book Industrial Ruination, how she presents three case studies and then three thematic chapters. Mah is also striking for her relatively light theorising approach – some will like it, others not. I cite Mah here as an example of a field-work generating, post-PhD career monograph.
Anyway, this post was part inspired by my planning a new monograph with the structure of the previous one in mind. At the same time, each time I read a monograph I can’t help but see it as a potential template. A case in point was recently re-reading Simon Charlesworth’s A phenomenology of working class experience, which was published 20 years ago and appears to be based on a PhD. There’s clearly a lot to learn from Charlesworth given his book has nearly 800 citations (5 times more than Mah for what is a much more difficult and narrower book in a less cited discipline, albeit published more than ten years earlier). I’m very sympathetic to various choices he makes about voice, structure, and the weaving of theory and empirics. At the same time, you can see traces of the imposition of a PhD-like structure that are less successful. In fact, I suspect that Charlesworth would agree that he is most successful where he resists the ‘right way’ of doing a PhD thesis-book project.
Let me leave you with a few examples from Charlesworth on the hard choices of monograph-crafting.
Charlesworth rejects a true sociological scene-setting chapter. He does this with a justification: ‘the demographic and statistical account separates the phenomena recorded from people’s experience of them. In itself it tells us nothing of the impact of these phenomena upon what people think or feel.’ (he’s talking about the decline of the North of England and austerity politics). He goes on to argue that a ‘landscape’ framing is inappropriate because the academic spectator is divorced from a position within the world. ‘This stance is characteristic of anthropologists who […] seek to relate to the particularities of place through the medium of representation’. Another way of putting this is that it’s like thinking about a place you know intimately but confining yourself to explaining it only by recourse to symbols on a map. – ‘a familiarity born of preconstructured social knowledge’, as Charlesworth concludes.
While his first chapter is largely devoted to laying out theory, Charlesworth subverts a number of expectations – all of them on purpose: he provides very very long quotes from theorists including within empirical chapters. He partially inserts himself in the text and also in footnotes as a kind of commentator on method and style. He tries, not totally successfully, to mimic his research people’s way of talking in textual form in his quotes (which are also very long in places). He wilfully ignores various relevant currents in contemporary sociology (he even has a footnote that engages in metacommentary of the criticism his MS got because of this). Some reviews of his book were very hostile. Others understood that the form, content and style of the book were themselves political interventions in academic writing.
This narrowing of dialogue is quite interesting in the context of the perennial problem I started this post with: ‘Who do you want to talk to through this book?’ Charlesworth seems to answer this by wilfully framing to exclude debates he clearly sees as not useful. Similarly, the book is theoretically and empirically repetitive in a way that’s intentional – provocative. I’m not saying I’ll do any of these things in my new book. But certainly subversions of convention are something I’m thinking more and more about.