Notes for “Heuristics of Discovery”
Thinking about the problems the editors posed to us — how do we pick topics, what heuristics do we follow, what work processes do we use, and so on — made me realize that the hardest thing for me about any project is knowing when it is finished. That is one of the reasons why I’ve sometimes waited years between finishing papers and submitting them to journals, essentially unchanged after years spent in a box, or file cabinet. Relations into Rhetorics was written in 1985 and mailed to the press in 1992; Chains of Affection was written in 1998, but not published until 2004; Becoming a Nazi was written in 1992, and published almost a decade later, in 2000. Early on in my career I thought this was a disorder caused by a very negative review of my first attempt to publish Generalized Exchange, in 1984 (finally published in 1997) which consisted, in its entirety, of the following lines: “This must be a word processor error because the tables come from one paper and the text comes from another.”1 But this still happens to me now, and today there are papers I will come to think as really good which remain deeply in the closet. I’ve overcome whatever stress I had about reviewers and I now understand that the delays, early on in my career, and now, are just because my papers are waiting for me to understand what their contribution could be. And that sometimes take a long time to see.
Knowing when something is finished reflects what contribution we want to make in the first place. The contributions that I try to make share the ambition of creating beautiful things that have not been seen before. In this regard I think of my work as aesthetic in orientation. I think of the conventions that structure scientific work as comparable to the frames that bound canvasses in painting — constraints that one works with because they make many of the hard decisions easier; they take them off the table. Because these constraints vary with the style of work, they also bound the character of the objects one can create, and so the choice of topic and style or problem and method are inextricably woven together. Not all papers are going to succeed entirely on the beautiful object dimension, and part of trying to figure out when a paper is finished is coming to grips with the fact that for whatever reason, usually a bad starting point, it can’t achieve what I had imagined, but that still, there is some part of it; a figure, a turn of phrase, an idea, that is beautiful enough.
We always wonder, or I always wonder, why people work on the problems and projects that they work on. Maybe that same curiosity was the motivation for this issue, on the part of the editors. It seems worth saying here that our methods are sometimes designed to provide answers to causal questions (though the typical explanation in our field is a just-so story) and sometimes the work I do also explicitly addresses causality. I have the perception that getting some causal estimation right motivates much work in our discipline — but for me, that is a secondary goal. I only mention this because, for those whose ultimate goal is different than mine, it is unlikely that my thoughts on the broad topic of heuristics for creating new objects and heuristics for knowing when to mail one's work to journals and presses will be at all useful.
So, in terms of structure, for this essay, I’ll talk about two heuristics that I use, connect them to work of mine by way of example, and then finish with the three things I learned from Harrison White.
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Also Published In
- Sociologica - International Journal for Sociological Debate
More About This Work
- Academic Units
- Interdisciplinary Center for Innovative Theory and Empirics
- Published Here
- April 24, 2019