Considering my disciplinary uncertainties, I've been thinking quite a bit about how to write my dissertation. The literal how to - what's it actually going to look like. The first thing to ask was: Should it be published as a series of articles or written as a monograph? For most of my (psychologist) friends, this is a non-question. Of course you publish it as a series of articles. Articles in good journals give you a track record, and something to build a career on. It's a bit different in the humanities, where a good monograph still has a lot of traction - a good monograph opens doors that the bits and pieces spread out in articles might not. And it can potentially be published as a book, if it's good enough and you invest a lot of work in it.
That's the practical side of it.
There is also a substantive argument to be made here. I think you fundamentally tell different stories depending how you structure them. For the positivists among you, when I say stories, I do mean objective and factual kind of writing, the academic kind. Whatever is that you're writing, you craft a story out of something - and we can debate does that story constitute what the thing is, and if you crafted a different story would it be a different thing-in-itself. Whatever your position on that is, the fact remains that the same thing can be told in a number of different ways. There are varied ways of worldmaking.
When you write a series of articles, your thinking is fractured in bits and pieces. Every article, roughly, has the introduction in the beginning, the meaty part of the argumentation in the middle, and a conclusion at the end. Your argumentation is condensed, and you don't have much room to provide a lot of context or to branch into great many digressions. The structure serves the argument. It is concise, and it makes you present your thesis clearly and shortly. The how is often codified by a manual for scientific writing and it serves the purposes of brevity, clarity, and conciseness.
In a monograph, you are also trying to argue a point. Just, your interpretation can be much more long-winded. You can generate a lot of background information and the contingent network of things pertinent to what you're talking about - there is a narrative that is richer than just the argument. True, out of any good monograph or academic book, you can extract a relatively straightforward argument structure - it reminds me of those short summary essays that my students have to write as abstracts of philosophical papers - but that argument structure is built through the narrative.
This is the interesting part.
I argue that the argument structure arises out of the narrative, and not the other way around. The texts have to be written. You're never sure, in the case of a work like that, what exactly is going to happen when you actually write it. True, if you're good enough (or very experienced) you have an inkling of the point you're trying to make - you have a vague (or quite specific, in some cases I've been told) idea of the argument you're making. But as you fashion it out of the central ideas and the paraphernalia spread around them - you tie your sources, secondary literature, and your own thinking and interpretation into a story - you get something distinct from a dry structure.
You get a story.
It reminds me of the evolving, circular, convoluted sculptures twisting and turning into themselves, and expanding from simpler to more complex structures in the Guggenheim in Bilbao. When you enter it, you soon lose sense of direction and space, and just walk through the winding passageways, not knowing where you're going to end up. But when you do emerge and take a look at the winding panes that form the maze, it all makes perfect sense.
Photo taken by Mariano ZF. Found at https://www.flickr.com/photos/marianozacariasfluck/8227279017/
When your story is written as a gestalt - as a whole made in one long go, it is different than when it is patched together from a number of shorter articulations of a number of points i.e. articles. This is not to say publishing it in a series of articles is worse and publishing it in a monograph is better; just that it is fundamentally different.
Now, I think this substantive interpretation of narrative structures - of the kind of stories you tell depending on the medium, I think this has a role to play in how scientific disciplines function. Take psychology, my favorite culprit. Its publication practices - publication culture, followers of De Solla Price would say - are through and through of the mature social science kind. Modeled after the publication practices of the natural sciences with the central role of journal-specific peer-review as evaluation of research (something like this: This is good research so it gets published, this is bad research so it doesn't get published; and this, this is awesome research so it gets published in a very prestigious journal, full of editors and reviewers from universities even your Average Joe has heard of) but also as a dissemination practice; psychology publishes, and it publishes with an unbelievable growth curve. Just an example - I try to do an all-encompassing analysis of the content of psychological journals. In the 1950s, I have located 77 journals of interest with about 25.000 articles. It the 1960s, the number of journals hiked to about 200, and the number of articles of interest to 50.000. The 1970s, the same trend - about 400 journals and more than a 100.000 articles. You extrapolate the trend yourself.
People publish to advance their careers. People publish to advance their science. People publish for their work to be read. People publish to participate in the intellectual marketplace - for connections and everything else it brings. People publish because it brings reputation. People publish, and they publish more and more, and there is more and more people trying to publish.
They write small, short stories, based on small (or large) data-sets, and they write them according to these strict rules of reporting, and they enmesh them in complex literatures, arguing for some authors, refuting others, ignoring most. We publish so much now that it's hard for most to even read a fraction of that. So we meta-analyze, write review papers - and still we can't get an overview of our subfield. So we found new journals, specialized on that small federation of topics we are interested in, and we found associations, and graduate programs if the research is good and the gods of funding kind. Rinse and repeat.
We expand. It's not only that our economy is built on the notion of perpetual expansion, our science is too.
For a discipline like psychology, with no Big Theoretical Commonality or very very big name binding it together (we have buried our idols, Freud and Skinner, James and Wundt, to name a few), this disintegration runs without checks and balances. We expect for the invisible hand of the discipline to sort it out - but what if there was no 'discipline' to begin with? Every now and then, this or that old professor decides to write an article or a book or organize a symposium about the direction the discipline is taking, and proclaims apocalyptic visions of its future. This resonates a bit, or it doesn't, but usually everybody just goes about their business. To publish, mostly. There are some lofty goals there to enumerate, in going about our business. To expand knowledge, to expand the collective's discipline, and to expand your career. The order of motives is idiosyncratic, but all of them are usually there.
The substantive argument of the choice between journals or monographs has turned into a story about psychology's narratives of disunity. I am cursed, and my worlds condense in similar endpoints, whatever I might be talking about.
Well, the above is also a glimmer of my uncertainties on what to do and how. Writing a monograph about this disintegration - or should I say lack of integration (I somehow doubt there was a whole to begin with) - seems like the only honest thing to do. Ask me in three years what I actually did.
The how still remains untouched, but let's leave that for some other text.