Since I returned to school to finish the rest of my undergraduate degree, I’ve noticed a particular pain point in the academic process. The bulk of the academic work I have to do for my major comes in the form of research papers and proposals. The biggest problem I have, when it comes to writing one of these things, is figuring out where to start.
TLDR? Skip to the bottom of the post to view a little slide deck…
To give a real-world example, I was sitting in a class called “network theory for international political economy,” a really interesting class that blends concepts from social network theory and international relations. Fortunately for me, the class’s subject matter skewed heavily toward social networking theory, a subject I find particularly interesting. For the midterm paper, we were tasked with identifying a concept, articulating its non-network theoretic explanation, attempting to pinpoint the “shift” from this conventional understanding to a network-theory based understanding, and then explaining the current state of the academic literature about that concept.
I will spare you the goriest details of my paper. But, to give you an outline, I examine the subject of “influence.” up until the 1950s and 1960s, influence was understood in terms of persuasive power. In this context, we understand persuasion to be akin to coercion. However, with the sociological work of Lazarsfeld and Katz, influence came to be understood in terms of the ability of one person to articulate information to one or more people in a way that conforms their opinion (and thus behavior) to that of the articulator. Now, with the work of academics like Ronald Burt at the University of Chicago, influence is understood in terms of idea and information brokerage, in keeping with the two-step communication flow first described by Lazarsfeld and Katz. Influential people, according to this new narrative, are the ones with access to the most diverse group of information sources, and who use their social capital to bring people or institutions together around an idea.
I personally have a hard time identifying springboards into academic literature. This is to say, finding the academic paper I can use as a jumping off point into other work is an arduous process. This is why, more often than not, I asked my professors for help to identify this first paper. In the case of my network theory professor, he suggested I look at the above-mentioned Ronald Burt. His work on structural holes, influence, idea brokerage, and network entrepreneurship were fascinating, but I highly doubt I would been able to find them on my own. It was his process of reaching out to more experienced scholars for advice which gave me the idea I would like to share here.
Let me start off by saying that I do not have much intention to develop this idea right now. So, if you want to pursue the idea, be my guest. However, if you do pursue this idea, I request nothing more than token attribution. If it were possible to license a startup idea, it would be under Creative Commons version 4.0.
Here’s a silly little slide deck.