Kuhn’s Two Dozen

A revolution is for me a special sort of change involving a certain sort of reconstruction of group commitments. But it need not be a large change, nor need it seem revolutionary to those outside a single community, consisting of perhaps fewer than twenty-five people. (Thomas Kuhn, 1970, Postscript to The Structure of Scientific Revolutions)

Here’s something I’ve been thinking about recently. Whatever paper you’re working on at the moment, can you name a dozen or two people who will find what you’re saying easy to understand? That is, are you aware of a concrete community around your research, consisting of people who are engaged in “normal” science and whose names you know. Do you feel a structure of group commitments that connects you to them. At the extremes, can you imagine a “reconstruction” of those commitments that might be considered “revolutionary”.  Within the two dozen members of this peer group, can you imagine people who might vehemently oppose your contribution? Or can you just imagine a handful of people who might easily understand what you’re trying to say but be mildly skeptical about whether it is correct? It is my advice to make a list of these names for each paper you are writing. Think of them as representatives of your readers. In your writing, address yourself to them.

I stress that the list will be particular to each paper you are writing. You might write all your papers with more or less the same readers in mind, in which case there will be little difference between the lists. But it is perfectly reasonable to have several peer groups, some of which have few members in common. I am not trying to help you manage your research relationships; I am only trying to help you imagine your reader.

I think too many academics these days are writing for a far too vaguely defined reader. They have let their editors and peer reviewers get too squarely between them and their final reader. They think writing well is mainly a matter of getting “past” the gatekeepers, not “through” to their community. This exercise of imagining the actual, living people whose feedback you are interested in, or whose minds you want to change, is intended to make the problem more present, more concrete. You can write a “normal” puzzle-solving paper that makes a limited but useful contribution to the development of your peers’ research. Or you can try to publish an “anomalous” result, another nail in the coffin of an always-already dying paradigm, due for a revolutionary change at some time or other. In both cases, you are addressing yourself to the same reader, who, no matter how shocking your results, will find your models and concepts familiar. At least familiar enough to recognize the commitments that identify you, the author, as a member of the group, the same scientific community.

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