Finding debates and discussions in the literature


Working with literatures? One of the things you’re advised to do by people like me is to identify debates and discussions. That’s because you are very likely to want to contribute to a discussion. And to do this you will probably need to position yourself in relation to different lines of thinking. So you may now wonder – what’s the difference between a debate and a discussion? And how do you get to know where there is a debate and what it’s about? I’ve been asked both of these questions recently and this post offers some leads to the answers.

Debate and discussion. Well. Lets take them one at a time. Dictionary definitions of discussion suggest that it is an exchange of ideas, a conversation about a topic, or a process of talking in order to reach a decision. These apply to academic discussions – sort of.

Academic discussions can be thought of as exchanges of ideas, conversations and processes of talking. But the point of academic discussion is not necessarily to reach a decision. The point is to build, and to make contributions to, scholarly community understandings about a particular topic. And maybe wider public understandings too. Scholars involved in a discussion might offer, for example, new empirical work, different applications, a novel theoretical application or a different interpretation of an existing line of thinking. An academic discussion doesn’t mean there is agreement, because academic discussions build knowledges through talking about points of similarity and difference. Over time ,the various contributions to an academic discussion become a discernible line well actually, a braid of thinking.

When you survey the literatures on a particular topic, you usually look for discussion braids because these are the things that people in your field are focusing on and think are important.  You can locate braids by either asking someone more knowledgeable about the field and/or

  • Reading the Idiots or Introductory Guide to your topic, if there is one
  • Consulting an international handbook, if there is one
  • Consulting an edited collection, if there is one
  • Locating “state of the nation” talks or papers that are given by senior leaders in the field, if they exist.

And you can look for intertextual references – the texts which appear in more than one paper. As you read the texts you have collected together, you ask, which works in your readings are referred to and which appear frequently and might be seen as more foundational than others?  These days, you can get help in locating intertextual references – finding the braids, by using citation tracing software* – for instance –

You’ll want to look beyond what each paper says about your topic to get a view of the history and development of the braid. You’ll read to see what’s been talked about and what hasn’t, what methodologies and methods are popular and which aren’t, which theories are used and which aren’t. All of these details give you a sense of the braid, and what you might draw on and where you might make your particular contribution.

An academic debate is still a discussion. Dictionaries usually suggest that a debate is an argument or discussion around a contention.and that a debate can be quite formal.

In academic circles, a debate may be a discussion where very polarised positions are taken. These days many academics tend to conduct such polarised debates relatively politely, taking a more appreciative stance towards the work of colleagues. However, the “this work is crap because it doesn’t do this” position still exists. There are two main reasons for dismissive dealings with the work of peers:

  • The first is to do with the long and persistent hangover from the highly competitive masculinist academic environments of the last century. Academics found/find it necessary to viciously attack others in order to establish their own work – and their own importance. (This aggressive mode of scholarly combat is why I fled from academia the first time around.) I count snark and passive aggressive behaviour in this category too.
  • The second reason is the existence of an intellectual polarisation. Profound and likely irreconcilable differences of interpretation (and perhaps values and epistemological politics) which are of the yes-it-is and no-it-isn’t variety. My field of education for instance does have a few such very stark debates. The one which most often appears in public is around how to teach children to read. But there are other issues where researchers in my field are very deeply divided. The divisions are so defined that each “camp” has its own journals and conferences and people are known by their membership of a particular view. If and when conversations are orchestrated between the various parties – and this does happen – it often takes the form of a formal debate, and often requires an adjudicator.

But there are of course loads of academic debates where positions are very differentiated but where a conversation can be in the same metaphorical room. When this coming together happens, the debate focuses in part on the relative merits of each position. Sometimes there is adjudication of the discussion, but very often this is not needed. There might also be scholars present who attempt to bring what appear to be deep differences together or move beyond them, often in interesting ways. You often see this kind of debate in special issues, edited collections and in bibliographies made for teaching purposes. You also see it in deliberately constructed forums, where there is one paper or book and a variety of responses to it.

And quite often scholars with quite different positions in an established debate can just rub along – even though they know there are significant differences there are still enough areas of overlap for them to be able to work together on specific tasks. And talk about particular topics without getting unduly rude and point score-ish when they do open up the conversations.

There is of course much more nuance about academic debates and discussions, but I hope this is enough of answer for now, enough to get you started on finding them in the literatures  ????

*Thanks to Nottingham colleagues for putting this list together