|Much is written about writing in a neutral academic style and avoiding use of the first person. However, this is based on a philosophy of access to rational truth beyond human emotion, beyond literature, and through a cool weighing up of the arguments. Yet one essay and one dissertaion is different from the other, and not just because each covers a different aspect of a subject area. It is because they are always human constructions, and subjective choices are made all the time. The reader may prefer to look at the diagrammatic mind map first of some of these issues.|
Parallels between academic writing, literature and narrative are perhaps realised the most in anthropology (Rapport, Overing, 2000, 236-245; 283-290; 294-303) but this discussion extends to academic writing (wherever essay forms are used) as a whole.
To what extent this extension is legitimate is left to the reader. I obviously think it is. But there are special cirmstances about anthropology which should be mentioned.
Anthropology is about fieldworkers who write notes on culture, meaning and behaviour of people, and their own interpretive stories of their lives, and then these notes are given to a writer or writers who may be one or some or none of the fieldworkers (the classic example - stereotype? - is the anthropologist who sits at the desk after the notes have been collected in! The writer then constructs these into an account which s/he intends to represent a picture of that microcosm of society and culture. This is different from the sociologist who is more concerned with:
...'social order': that is with pattern, structure, regularity in human affairs, and all kinds of devices that bring them about and protect - that make or would make various human beings behave alike and in a predictable manner. (Bauman, 2000, 71)
Furthermore anthropology is closer to the subjects of study than the classical sociologist, "looking beyond the realm of subjectively lived experience" (Bauman, 2000, 72). For the anthropologist:
Every observer should ruthlessly banish from his work conjecture, preconceived assumptions and hypothetical schemes but not theory.
Modern fieldwork thus regards a theory as purely empirical, never going beyond inductive evidence... (Malinowski, 1936, in Coser, Rosenberg, 1976, 511)
Generally description and interpretation has won the day, given that it is individuals who think, not abstractions (Rapport, Overing, 2000, 309) with essaying forms, still attempting to give an account of culture. So obviously anthropology leads itself to parallels with literary construction and narratives, and does this because it is the closest to the humanities and arts of social science and brings humanities and the arts closest to social science. It has had a "literary turn" (Rapport, Overing, 2000, 236, 300)
However, anthropology is still an academic discipline and shares what much academic work stresses (see Rapport, Overing, 2000, 283):
But equally, and opposite, all academic writing is still an attempt to make sense of narratives we live by, set into subjects, even if it turns them into forms of concepts and extractions.
The same issue has to be faced by all adademic writing: how much can it be a neutral space, in the way that anthropology has lost confidence in being a "transcontinental mediator or transcultural theoretician" (Rapport, Overing, 2000, 237) How much is academic writing a construction in itself?
So the assumption is that all academic writing is involved in dealing with the narrative of life, and all writing is itself a narrative - essays, dissertations and theses with beginnings, middles and ends according to preset rules not of the world but of the particular academic discipline. So there are two narrative layers, the world, and the construction of writing.
Narrative gives order via time, real or imaginary, representational or simply by reading from the beginning, and narrative counteracts (Rapport, Overing, 2000, 284):
Social narratives are delivered within groups which bind us and by collective language (Rapport, Overing, 2000, 285-288). We are all members of groups. Even the hermit defines his or her activity by prelaid experience of that group of people doing actions based in religious institutions! Groups can be the grouping of nations, nations, organisations, religions and denominations, the business company and the club. Group membership:
There are individuals engaged in narratives too (Rapport, Overing, 2000, 288-289). We are critical, creative and can stand at an interpretive distance from social narratives. But even then we maintain conscious lives through our own constructed narrative, creating selves out of understanding time as history and future, building identity through relations and possessions all of which mean something to us. How much distance we can create for ourselves depends, of course, on the power of social and cultural narratives.
So cultures, soceties and individuals engage in narrative. So does the academic in these two ways: by representing culture and society and in the act of writing an account of culture and society. Having a narrative (Rapport, Overing, 2000, 284):
It is the increasing self-awareness of the act of writing that has come to the fore most recently. Writing involves an attempt at consistency and is necessarily artificial regarding the account it gives. To give one account excludes another. And this further raises questions of exercising and transmitting (whose) power by the academic.
We understand our lives as economic entities, getting a job, building careers, being told what to do, describing ourselves as our job/s, being successes and failures, not scrounging, being legitimate workers and so on. TINA (there is no alternative) looms large, and gives ways of exercising power. The academic should be aware that consistent writing that gives this narrow line is a transmitter of agents of power and control.
It becomes important, then, to seek out other narratives. There are, of course, several narratives in societies and cultures at different levels, and we may make multiple personalities of these, according to whom we display ourselves at any one time. We relate our individuality to existing historical narratives, ethnic narratives, economic narratives, religions and their sacred rituals (narratives in themselves), gossip, biographies and novels. An academic almost has a duty to make space for difference. Writing has to become about anti-power, not simply continuing what is the given condition.
Academics become increasingly aware that their writing is Western in its bias, that there is no neutral disinterested standpoint, and that academic writing cannot be mediative or transcultural. A kind of Habermas argument that the academic stands above interests and the lifeworld so that pure unadulterated conversational rationality finds truth is simply impossible.
To lose its oppressive nature, writing has to consider access to interpretive pluralism, using the available sources of stories. Ricoeur (Kearney, 1996) has an ethical programme of "narrative hospitality" (also Rapport, Overing, 2000, 289-290) where different groups with different self-indentifying stories exchange them and may even take on parts of the others' for their own. This is an activity in itself for its reason of understanding and creating freedom in spaces.
To state that academic writing is simply based in argument and not narrative is to risk being lost inside Western cultural assumptions and ignoring the narrative of the status quo. This is (compare with Rapport, Overing, 2000, 238):
Argument as it is presented is then a form of Western narrative, and argument itself as a process needs to be deconstructed. Argument made down one path is a different process of becoming than argument made down another. It is construction and narrative.
Here is an example. When two historians disagree, what are they doing? Do they even recall the same historical events? What were these events and how does each become to be known as an event? Some events are ignored, others selected, and others made into significant events. Then how they are interpreted and seen to be causal, how the minds of actors may be summised, is how the historian does the writing. In the end the writing is a narrative, because it gives a most likely account of the series of events.
Sociologists have their own hypotheses, or ideal type extractions, or approaches from above (structure), or below (interaction), or a mixture. They create causal chains and see certain facts and happenings as social, into which the individual fits and operates. But an account of this, however argued, is still a form of narrative.
The economist assumes a rational person and creates models of behaviour. The model is a given, and predictions can be made. The predictions have to be related to real people. Some models because of their assumptions are useless in terms of predictors of the behaviour of real people, but others do take into account many variables. But in the end an account of the past and the present and the future is made, and it is meaningful by being time based and understanding cultural facts and extractions (eg market behaviour) that the economist makes as givens. The result is still a narrative, but one that is not admitted to be a story.
So academic writing comes close to being literary, because both literature and academia are involved in constructing narratives and stories of our lives.
The question revolves around the authenticity of academic writing. Based on argument, seeing that argument is selective, a game and its own form of literature, there seems to be a need to borrow from literary genres for added authenticity. This can come from first person experience, showing self-consciousness about the writing itself, playing with words and being rhetorical, and use of (referenced!) verbatim text. The important point is to give expression that there is no final word being expressed on the subject; that this is part of dialogue and collaboration with related texts. Academic text is an art too, and needs to relate to other genres and negotiate with other writings and writing styles for the means of expressing its message.
Of course many academics object to this both philosophically and as a kind of denial of their trade. It is an attackon their tradition, ideology, training and prestige. To focus on the act of writing is a deviation from the business at hand: it is navel gazing narcissm and time wasting decadence (239).
Furthermore there is a difference between literature which, whatever is the social research involved, is ultimately about what is not, and academic writing which, whatever literary is employed, is about what is. In literature the idea comes first and reality is subservient, whereas in academic writing reality must dominate over the subservient idea. Literature must be ultimately self-concerned whereas academic writing reaches out.
Nevertheless, writing is still an act in itself, and it is not what it represents. It is a skill and a construction to produce an essay, dissertation or thesis that is consistent in itself, and this demand naturally parts it from its subject. Academic writing is Western, is of academic traditions, does carry power consequences.
So is academic writing in the end a form of faction? Faction is the use of factual material but put into a fictional construction with embellishments - imaginative writing but real time and real events (Geertz, 1987).
Is this too extreme? Certainly postmodernism brings even further to the fore the parallels between lives lived as narratives and fictions and writing that is its own consistency. The writing process is artificial because lives and ideas are piecemeal, fragmentary and multivarious, with no common underlying thread of meaning (Lyotard, 1986), which the essay construction does have. There are knowledges (plural) without a metanarrative, and we live eclectically (Lyotard, 1986, 76).
Meaning is found in images (based in consumerism) that lacks any depth; these are rapid and shifting. Reality seems lost, and all we have are literary styles. In fact the literary styles and narratives become the reality (Foucault). We do not control them, they come before us, but we move between them. There is no outside them either, we canonly move about as they move about. It is one discourse or others, but never none or some other reality. We exist in speech-cultures (Wittgenstein).
A scientist may well react against this denial of objective knowledge, because of the potency of falisfiabilty (what works as far as we have seen it), but there are other forms of knowledge represented in writing, and in these social sciecnes, anthropology and the arts lies the relevance of the postmodern criticism. If postmodernism is no more than an extreme pluralism (the argument is that in its extremity of pluralism it becomes something else, cuts the cord with even a hope of objectivity), it still has its effect on writing. Writing is a construction, and should be self-critical, and should become more self-consciously plural, more a dialogue between communities, a user of different genres and self-critically open towards the alternatives.
|All academic writing is a narrative and should be approached as such. Below there is a mind map which lays out some of these issues diagrammatically. The mind map is given as no more than a prompter of ideas, and comes from extending Rapport and Overing, 2000, as has been done within this text.|
Bauman, Z (2000), 'Sociological Enlightenment - For Whom, About What' in Theory, Culture and Society: Explorationsin Critical Social Science, Vol. 17, No.2, April 2000.
Coser, L. A., Rosenberg, B. (1976), Sociological Theory: A Book of Readings, London: Collier Macmillan.
Kearney, R. (ed.) (1996), Paul Ricoeur: the Hermeneutics of Action, London: Sage
Kerby, A. (1991), Narrative and the Self, Indiana: Indiana University Press.
Rapport, N., Overing, J. (2000), Social and Cultural Anthropology: The Key Concepts, London: Routledge.
Malinowski, B. (1936), 'Anthropology', Encyclopedia Britannica, first supplementary volume, 132-139, in Coser, Rosenberg (1976), 511.
Mind Map is a copyright concept of Tony Buzan and the Buzan Organisation