do artesanato intelectual

2009, setembro 14, segunda-feira

C. Wright Mills. On intellectual craftsmanship. Appendix to The Sociological Imagination. Oxford University Press, 1959.


All this involves the taking of notes. You will have to acquire the habit of taking a large volume of notes from any worth-while book you read – although, I have to say, you may get better work out of yourself when you read really bad books. The first step in translating experience, either of other people’s writing, or of your own life, into the intellectual sphere, is to give it form. Merely to name an item of experience often invites you to explain it; the mere taking of a note from a book is often a prod to reflection. At the same time, of course, the taking of a note is a great aid in comprehending what you are reading.

Your notes may turn out, as mine do, to be of two sorts: in reading certain very important books you try to grasp the structure of the writer’s argument, and take notes accordingly; but more frequently, and after a few years of independent work, rather than read entire books, you will very often read parts of many books from the point of view of some particular theme or topic in which you are interested and concerning which you have plans in your file. Therefore, you will take notes which do not fairly represent the books you read. You are using this particular idea, this particular fact, for the realisation of your own projects.

But how is this file – which so far must seem to you more like a curious sort of “literary” journal – used in intellectual production? The maintenance of such a file is intellectual production. It is a continually growing store of facts and ideas, from the most vague to the most finished. For example, the first thing I did upon deciding on a study of the elite was to make a crude outline based on a listing of the types of people that I wished to understand.

Just how and why I decided to do such a study may suggest one way in which one’s life experiences feed one’s intellectual work. I forget just when I became technically concerned with “stratification,” but I think it must have been on first reading Veblen. He had always seemed to me very loose, even vague, about his “business” and “industrial” employments, which are a kind of translation of Marx for the academic American public. At any rate, I wrote a book on labor organisations and labor leaders – a politically motivated task; then a book on the middle classes – a task primarily motivated by the desire to articulate my own experience in New York City since 1945. It was thereupon suggested by friends that I ought to round out a trilogy by writing a book on the upper classes. I think the possibility had been in my mind; I had read Balzac off and on especially during the ‘forties, and had been much taken with his selfappointed task of “covering” all the major classes and types in the society of the era he wished to make his own. I had also written a paper on “The Business Elite,” and had collected and arranged statistics about the careers of the top-most men in American politics since the Constitution. These two tasks were primarily inspired by seminar work in American history.

In doing these several articles and books and in preparing courses in stratification, there was of course a residue of ideas and facts about the upper classes. Especially in the study of social stratification is it difficult to avoid going beyond one’s immediate subject, because “the reality” of any one stratum is in large part its relations to the rest. Accordingly, I began to think of a book on the elite.

And yet that is not “really” how “the project” arose; what really happened is (1) that the idea and the plan came out of my files, for all projects with me begin and end with them, and books are simply organised releases from the continuous work that goes into them; (2) that after a while, the whole set of problems involved came to dominate me.

After making my crude outline I examined my entire file, not only those parts of it that obviously bore on my topic, but also those which seemed to have no relevance whatsoever. Imagination is often successfully invited by putting together hitherto isolated items, by finding unsuspected connections. I made new units in the file for this particular range of problems, which of course, led to new arrangements of other parts of the file.

As you re-arrange a filing system, you often find that you are, as it were, loosening your imagination. Apparently this occurs by means of your attempt to combine various ideas and notes on different topics. It is a sort of logic of combination, and “chance” sometimes plays a curiously large part in it. In a relaxed way, you try to engage your intellectual resources, as exemplified in the file, with the new themes.

In the present case, I also began to use my observations and daily experiences. I thought first of experiences I had had which bore upon elite problems, and then I went and talked with those who, I thought, might have experienced or considered the issues. As a matter of fact, I now began to alter the character of my routine so as to include in it (1) people who were among those whom I wanted to study, (2) people in close contact with them, and (3) people interested in them usually in some professional way.

I do not know the full social conditions of the best intellectual workmanship, but certainly surrounding oneself by a circle of people who will listen and talk – and at times they have to be imaginary characters – is one of them. At any rate I try to surround myself with all the relevant environment – social and intellectual – that I think might lead me into thinking well along the lines of my work. That is one meaning of my remarks above about the fusion of personal and intellectual life.

Good work in social science today is not, and usually cannot be, made up of one clearcut empirical “research.” It is, rather, composed of a good many studies which at key points anchor general statements about the shape and the trend of the subject. So the decision what are these anchor points? – cannot be made until existing materials are reworked and general hypothetical statements constructed.

Now, among “existing materials,” I found in the files three types relevant to my study of the elite: several theories having to do with the topic; materials already worked up by others as evidence for those theories; and materials already gathered and in various stages of accessible centralisation, but not yet made theoretically relevant. Only after completing a first draft of a theory with the aid of such existing materials as these can I efficiently locate my own pivotal assertions and hunches and design researches to test them – and maybe I will not have to, although of course I know I will later have to shuttle back and forth between existing materials and my own research. Any final statement must not only “cover the data” so far as the data are available and known to me, but must also in some way, positively or negatively, take into account the available theories. Sometimes this “taking into account” of an idea is easily done by a simple confrontation of the idea with overturning or supporting fact; sometimes a detailed analysis or qualification is needed. Sometimes I can arrange the available theories systematically as a range of choices, and so allow their range to organise the problem itself.1 But sometimes I allow such theories to come up only in my own arrangement, in quite various contexts. At any rate, in the book on the elite I had to take into account the work of such men as Mosca, Schumpeter, Veblen, Marx, Lasswell, Michel, Weber, and Pareto. (…)

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