Saturday, 7 November 2009

On intellectual craftsmanship

Some months ago, I read of this classic by C. Wright Mills, called "The Sociological Imagination". Though it didn't seem relevant to my research, but whatever I was reading recommended its appendix "On Intellectual Craftmanship".

It's terrific! Why didn't I read it earlier! These few pages seemed to be aimed at the apprentice researcher, which is what a post-grad is. Wright Mills starts by commented that:
"Only by conversations in which experienced thinkers exchange information about their actual ways of working can a useful sense of method and theory be imparted to the beginning student."
Yes - I need those conversations. He reports on how he does what he does. Guess what? Despite being written as long ago as 1959, he recommends keeping a daily journal about
"personal experiences and professional activities, studies under way and studies planned."
Advantages of such a journal include:
  • relating experience to work in progress
  • serving as a check on repetitious work
  • capturing 'fringe-thoughts'
  • "keeping your inner world away" to draw out implications from events or ideas
  • building the habit of writing
  • developing powers of expression
Well, isn't this what a research journal is, or what I'm trying to do with this blog?

This appendix comes in six sections.

Part 2 explains how to use the file of writing for intellectual production through maintaining and rearranging it. He gives examples from his own work.

Part 3 is about empirical projects.

Part 4 suggests seven techniques for getting ideas, for "stimulating the sociological imagination".
  1. re-arrange the files
  2. play with the phrases and words
  3. classify your notions
  4. consider extremes - think of the opposite
  5. invert your sense of proportion
  6. "get a comparative grip on the materials" - that's what my supervisor recommended last month - compare public sector case studies with case studies in other sectors.
  7. arrange materials for presentation, identifying and sorting the main themes. Cross-classify them.
Part 5 explains how you might write in clear and simple languages, even on complex subjects. He advises clarifying your answers to three questions:
"(1) how difficult and complex after all is my subject?
(2) when I write, what status am I claiming for myself?
(3) for whom am I trying to write?"
Part 6 advises that you order what you've found out, that "thinking is a struggle for order"

Part 7 advises trying to understand "men and women as historical and social actors".

Part 8 is on keeping "your moral and political autonomy". Thus:
"the sociological imagination has its chance to make a difference in the quality of human life in our time"
This is an inspiring appendix to read and reread.


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