The Short, Secret Life of Academic Articles



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Laura Arnold Leibman

In How We Think: Digital Media and Contemporary Technogenesis, Katherine Hayles notes the "shockingly small rate at which [academic] articles are cited (and presumably read)."  The news is bleak enough for the sciences, in which 22.4% of all articles aren't cited even once within the first five years, but that unfortunate statistic pales compared to humanities articles, 93.1% of which fail to be cited even once five years after they appear in print.  Regardless of the greater prestige given to books in our field, this is dismal news (Hayles 3-4).  The story gets incrementally worse for those us not in the social sciences.  As David Hamilton points out, "Within the arts and humanities (where admittedly citation is not so firmly entrenched), uncitedness figures hit the ceiling. Consider, for example, theater (99.9%), American literature (99.8%), architecture (99.6%), and religion (98.2%)" (Hamilton 1991, 25).  Certainly things may have improved for the better since Hamilton's article appeared due to the rise of electronic databases like JSTOR and Project MUSE and the willingness of people to place offprints online on Academia.edu and Research Gate. Even so, given the amount of time and affection many of us put into writing academic articles, these statistics are more than a little depressing. 

In some ways these paltry statistics belie my own experience: articles often influence my own thinking the most.  Are there things we could (or should) be doing to make academic articles more visible in the circuit of ideas?  Like most scholars, I focus my published reviews of other scholars' work on their books; hence I'd like to dedicate this post to a few articles that either I return to again and again, or (if the articles are recent) I expect to return to repeatedly in the future.  I hope this list will not only lead others to these gems, but also encourage readers to present their own lists of favorite article in the comments or to review articles in future posts on RiAH.

Here is my current Top Five:

1. Joel Robbins, "Secrecy and the Sense of an Ending: Narrative, Time, and Everyday Millenarianism in Papua New Guinea and in Christian Fundamentalism," Comparative Studies in Society and History 43 (2001): 525-51. URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2696680
Joel Robbins, Cambridge
Abstract: This piece challenges contemporary work by anthropologists and social scientists who tend to define millenarianism as "temporary social aberrations"--the thing of enthusiasms, cults, and movements. "True millenarians," this line of reasoning argues, "are people who liquidate their assets, turn the proceeds over to a prophet, and prepare for the end of the world while living with like-minded others outside the mainstream of social life" (527).  Yet, as Robbins notes, in many parts of the world, there are "enduring traditions of deeply held millenarian belief."  In this article, Robbins provides an example of how everyday millenarians live their lives.  In order to explain why Westerners have tended to overlook everyday millenarianism, Robbins turns to an astute analysis of time and narrative. Although this piece begins with the example of the James Mooney's classic account of the Ghost Dance, the vast majority of the article focuses on Robbin's field work in New Guinea. Nonetheless, Robbin's theories should have great utility for anyone seeking to analyze how U.S. religious communities in the past or present maintain and sustain quotidian millenarian beliefs.  Equally useful and crucial from Robbins is his 2011 article: “Crypto-Religion and the Study of Cultural Mixtures: Anthropology, Value, and the Nature of Syncretism.”  Journal of the American Academy of Religion 79(2): 408-424.  The latter is a must read for anyone working on conversion or cultural exchange in American religion.

2. Aviva Ben-Ur, "Purim in the Public Eye: Leisure, Violence, and Cultural Convergence in the Dutch Atlantic." Jewish Social Studies, 20.1 (2013): 32-76. URL: https://muse.jhu.edu/journals/jewish_social_studies/v020/20.1.ben-ur.pdf. Don't have access to Project MUSE?  Here is a public domain copy of the article.

Aviva Ben-Ur, U Mass Amherst
Abstract: Aviva Ben-Ur is the author of numerous fantastic articles on Sephardic life in early Suriname. Suriname was the home of the earliest Black Jewish synagogue in the Americas, and Ben-Ur's fascinating work often provides insights into the early lives of Euroafrican Jews.  She combines meticulous archival research with a multidisciplinary lens to evaluate early ritual practice in the Americas.  This piece reflects the research she is doing for her forthcoming book.  Here is the abstract that comes with the article: "In its public and ecumenical nature, the celebration of Purim in Suriname and Curaçao in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries was unparalleled in the Atlantic world. White Christians and slaves actively participated in the revelry and by the early 1800s, Purim showed signs of having become the colony’s carnival, a non-sectarian festivity with strong Afro-Creole attributes. This small corner of the social fabric, manifested in shared cultural performance, more approximates latticework than the separate spheres, ordered upon hierarchy and violence, that most obviously undergirded daily life in Caribbean slave societies. This public prominence of Purim reflects the three major conditions that characterized Jewish communities in the Dutch Caribbean: Jews formed one third to one half of the white population, lived in a society where most residents were both enslaved and of African origin, and enjoyed an autonomy rooted in legal privileges unparalleled among Jews elsewhere in the Atlantic world."

3. François Furstenberg, "Beyond Freedom and Slavery: Autonomy, Virtue, and Resistance in Early American Political Discourse," Journal of American History, 89.4 (2002): 1295–1331. Don't have access to OAH or Jstor?  URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3092544 Here is a renegade copy of the article.

François Furstenberg, Johns Hopkins
Abstract: Although more about politics and ethics than American religion per se, this article is crucial to anyone interested in the freedom of the will in eighteenth-century and early nineteenth-century American religion and for the connection between religion and slavery during this era. Official abstract: "Did the liberal and republican traditions of the United States subvert slavery? No, argues François Furstenberg; in the early republic they could justify slavery. Furstenberg shows that the narrative of the American Revolution presented in early national print culture grounded freedom and virtue in resistance. If those who resisted oppression earned their freedom, it followed that those who remained enslaved must be tacitly consenting to their own subjugation. The liberal-republican principle of consent thus legitimated slavery. Furstenberg suggests that the professional division between intellectual history and the historiography of slavery has led scholars to overemphasize the contributions of American liberal and republican traditions to the history of liberation and to neglect their equally significant contributions to the history of oppression." 

4. Jessica Vance Roitman and Aviva Ben-Ur, "Adultery Here and There: Crossing Sexual Boundaries in the Dutch Jewish Atlantic," Dutch Atlantic Connections, 1680-1800. Ed. Gert Oostindie and Jessica Vance Roitman. Leiden: Brill, 2014. 185-223.  URL: http://booksandjournals.brillonline.com/content/books/9789004271319 (this book is open access)

Jessica Roitman, KITLV
Abstract: This piece is an exciting example of the new work being done in the early Atlantic World in the intersection of sex, gender, race, and religion.  The piece combines rich archival sources with an analysis of religious adultery laws and civil codes. Official abstract: "This article uses real and imagined cases of adultery to explore the social status and experiences of individuals and groups often overlooked in the historiography of the Dutch Atlantic world: women, Jews, and enslaved and free peoples of African ancestry. The adulterous act, the trials that ensued, and the offspring sometimes produced from these liaisons, touch on some key discussions about the Atlantic world now current in scholarly circles: the transmission of rumors, the roles enslaved and manumitted peoples played in shaping white-dominated societies, the development and inter-communal use of Caribbean Creole languages, racialized sexual double standards, notions of public honor, the asymmetrical status change experienced by adulterous women (in comparison to men), and the the roles of communal leaders and laymen in creating what one scholar calls 'the language of silence.'"

5. James B. Gardner; Sarah M. Henry, “September 11 and the Mourning after: Reflections on Collecting and Interpreting the History of Tragedy,” The Public Historian, Vol. 24, No. 3. (Summer, 2002), pp. 37-52. URL: www.jstor.org/stable/3379085

Abstract: I willingly admit that I am obsessed with the intersection of religion and death, but Gardner and Henry's work on 9-11 is by far one of the articles (along with Marita Sturken's “The Wall, the Screen, and the Image: The Vietnam Veterans Memorial”) that I teach most often in my classes, whether it is a class on the Dead and Undead, Evil in American Culture, or Graphic Novels. Gardner and Henry's article is a great example not only of public history, but also of the way American responses to death are changing in the twenty first century. Official abstract: "In the aftermath of September 11, public historians working in museums have faced new challenges to our sense of our work and ourselves as professionals. In addressing our collecting and interpretive responsibilities, we have had to grapple with the tension between our sense of obligation to the historic nature of the events and their aftermath and our concern that we are still too close to them to be able to judge clearly what is truly historically important. Our goal has been to respond to those challenges thoughtfully and positively, embracing the opportunity to help our visitors understand these tragic events and to contribute to the nation's healing, while remaining true to our obligation to enrich the historical record."

Works Cited

Hamilton, David P. "Publishing by -- and for? -- the Numbers," Science, 250.4986 (1990): 1331-32.

Hamilton David P. "Research Papers: Who's Uncited Now?"Science, 251.4989 (1991): 25.

Hayles, Katherine. How We Think: Digital Media and Contemporary Technogenesis. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2012.

Sturken, Maria. “The Wall, the Screen, and the Image: The Vietnam Veterans Memorial,” 35 (1991): 118-142.  Web. http://www.jstor.org/stable/2928719


What articles have influenced you or do you return to the most?  Are there things we could (or should) be doing to make articles count more in the circuit of ideas?

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