Meta Points

11 October 2016

I submitted a paper to a conference a few weeks ago (you can figure out the details if you want to dig through my github repo, but I’m reluctant to point a flashlight at it until the review process has run its course). Since the submission, I’ve mostly been thinking about what larger arc of research I want to try to explore from here. It’d be nice to keep my head above water just by getting any papers published, but I get the feeling that if my next move can be informed by some intuition about the big picture, then the narrative thread of my story will be that much stronger at the end, when I tell it retrospectively (read: when I’m working on my dissertation).

One idea that’s come out of this has been that papers sometimes seem to speak on several wavelengths. You might appreciate a paper as a quick read because of the thing it did (maybe the author(s) built a thing or explained a thing (those are the only types of contributions, right?)), and that’s great. But a more careful reading would show that the paper is actually advocating (or at least demonstrating) a new way to think about and make sense of the world, often by advancing the field in some way. These seem to be the most consequential works (although maybe it just seems that way because it’s resonating with lots of different people for very different reasons).

One example of influential work that had a meta contribution in addition to the tangible one is in Argonauts of the Western Pacific, by Bronisław Malinowski; his work wasn’t just an ethnography of Trobrianders (it was that too, but it’s not required reading for Anthro students purely because of how interesting the Kula exchange is (although that really is interesting, you should go check it out)). Its lasting contribution was guidance on and demonstration of ethnographic fieldwork of unprecedented rigor. Malinowski was obviously aware of this contribution, but to an extent he seemed to need to introduce it by showing it in practice — in this case, in Papua New Guinea.

So if the paper that I just wrote has a meta point, it’s that a historical lens can helpfully explain some of the stuff that we’re seeing today. Maybe it’s not a hugely earth-rocking realization, but in my community it’s at least a point worth making more forcefully (if it’s even been made in the past).

So lately I’ve been thinking about other ways that I can apply this meta point, and hopefully I’ll post more soon fleshing out some of the possible next research areas to help make that argument.

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