Debating the Norms of Scientific Writing

International Workshop for Young Researchers

Dates and place: 23rd-24th of May 2018, Prague
Deadline for proposals: 2 April 2018
Organizer: Julien Wacquez (EHESS, CESPRA, CEFRES)
Orgnized in collaboration with: CEFRES, Institute of Philosophy of the Czech Academy of Sciences, EHESS (Paris) and Charles University
Language: English

This workshop is open to young researchers (PhD students and Post-Doc) from diverse disciplines from France and from Visegrád countries as well as the CEFRES team. Please send a short CV, title and 300 word-long abstract to Julien Wacquez: julien.wacquez@cefres.cz

Day 1 (Wednesday, May 23) will bring together researchers from France and from Visegrád countries to tackle these questions and identify by which ways the norms of writing are negotiated. Do those debates about the forms of scientific writing impact our way of writing or of doing science?

Day 2 (Thursday morning, May 24) will be devoted to the question of how we encounter and solve writing problems in the course of our investigations. Professors and young researchers will be invited to share their own writing experiences.

Confirmed lecturer: Jean-Louis Fabiani (EHESS, CESPRA & CEU)

Scientific committee: Jan Balon (Institut de philosophie, Académie tchèque des sciences), Jean-Louis Fabiani (EHESS, CESPRA – CEU, Budapest), Jan Maršálek (Institut de philosophie, Académie tchèque des sciences), Clara Royer (CEFRES) and Julien Wacquez (EHESS, CESPRA – CEFRES)

Argument

Scholars coming from various disciplines in the social sciences have questioned the limits of scientific writing. Some of them, readers of both scientific and literary works, felt somewhat uneasy as to the capacity of scientific writing to give an accurate account of reality, especially when compared with literature. This anxiety drove them to reflect upon the heuristic value of scientific writing, and to assess its functions, impacts, advantages and downsides compared to literary writing. In doing so, social scientists were led to interrogate their own practices of writing, to find new stylistic approaches that break away from the norms of their discipline, and to justify their choices. These questions have been at the centre of many discussions and debates.

For instance, some researchers emphasize the narrative dimension of all scientific texts, thus interrogating scientific discourse’s claim to offer an exhaustive description of reality (Greimas 1976; Latour & Woolgar 1979; White 1973 and 1980). Others consider the ethnographic text as a work of literary fiction, while challenging the illusion that language is a sheer neutral, technical instrument able to convey factual statements (Geertz 1973; Clifford and Marcus 1986; Adam et al. 1990). Some social scientists recognize the capacity of literary works to deliver a scientific type of knowledge (in sociology, see Dubois 1997 and 2007; Bidou-Zachariasen 1997). In parallel, several studies show the heuristic value of the use of fictional writing in the context of scientific enquiry (Debaene 2010; Aït-Touati 2011). Other scholars highlight the surprising fact that certain literary works seem more “convincing and relevant” on a scientific level than some scientific texts which they consider to be “average” and “out of sync” with reality (Bensa and Pouillon 2012).

One of the recurring questions raised by this corpus of studies concerns the referential value of the scientific text, which leads us to reconsider its status and credibility. All these debates focus on problems of categorization (what the “scientific” is and what the “literary” is, what the “real” is and what the “fictional” is) and representation (revealing the scientists’ desire to speak “the truth,” and to reject a mere “semblance of truth.”)

Some researchers experiment with “narrative” or “literary” forms in their scientific writing, be it in the context of history (White 1992; Jablonka 2014), sociology (Laé 2016), anthropology (Tsao 2011), or philosophy (Cassou-Noguès 2010). Others argue for a blurring of the lines between science and literature (Descombes 1987; Macé 2016). Conversely, these experiments have been criticized, either by those who wish to preserve the specificity of the “scientific style,” or by those who wish to emphasize crucial differences in methodology and scriptural practices between literary investigation and scientific enquiry (Ginzburg 1992; Céfaï 2014; Schaeffer 2016).

Such debates on the forms of scientific writing will be at the core of our workshop. Our aim is to probe these writing experiments, and to study how they express, justify, problematize, and renegotiate the normative rhetoric of disciplines.

The question is not to assess which form of writing is most suitable to scientific discourse and to the pursuit of truth. We encourage the contributors to adopt an interdisciplinary stance in order to study the discourses of social scientists who endeavour to redefine and/or to blur the limits between literature and scientific writing. What is their writing strategy in view of producing knowledge? How do they intend to convince their readers? How do they define “scientific realism” and “literary realism” (to quote Boltanski 2012)? How do these notions circulate within the social sciences?

These questions may be approached from various angles and disciplines — including, but not limited to:

  • from a socio-historical point of view, focusing on the identity of the researchers taking part in these debates, their position and trajectory within the academic field, that of their publishers; on the way such debates arise and inform each other; on the lineages to which they are connected, those that they cross or intersect;
  • from a sociological perspective relying on textual semantics, studying the composition of these scientists’ texts; the type of knowledge which they intend to produce; the narratives that infuse them; their intertextuality (quotations, references, shared themes); the ways in which texts incorporate non-textual elements and drive the reader’s attention;
  • through an analysis of writing as a practice, including components such as proofreading, peer reviewing, reevaluation, rewriting, negotiations with peers, publishers or journal’s editorial boards — all that which reveals how the norms of writing emerge and are negotiated in situ.

Illustration: Edgar Degas, Portrait d’Edmond Duranty (1879)

Selective Bibliography
  • 2017, Teorie Vedy: Literary Technologies of Science, vol. 39, No. 1.
  • 2012, Teorie Vedy: Literary Technologies of Science, vol. 34, No. 3.
  • ADAM Jean-Michel, BOREL Marie-Jeanne, CALAME Claude, KILANI Mondher 1990: Le Discours anthropologique, Paris, Méridien, Klincksieck.
  • AÏT-TOUATI Frédérique 2011: Contes de la Lune, Paris, Gallimard, nrf essais.
  • BALON Jan (dir.) 2017: Literary Technologies of Science, an issue of Teorie Vĕdy, vol. 39, no 1.
  • BAZERMAN Charles 1988: Shaping Written Knowledge, Madison, The University of Wisconsin Press.
  • BENSA Alban & POUILLON François (eds.) 2012: Terrains d’écrivains, Toulouse, Anarchasis, coll. Essais.
  • BIDOU-ZACHARIASEN Catherine 1997: Proust sociologue, Paris, Descartes et Cie, coll. Essais.
  • BOLTANSKI Luc 2012: Énigmes et Complots, Paris, Gallimard, collection nrf.
  • CASSOU-NOGUÈS Pierre 2010: Mon Zombie et moi. La philosophie comme fiction, Paris, Seuil, coll. L’Ordre Philosophique.
  • CHARTIER Roger 1996: On the Edge of the Cliff: History, Language and Practices, The John Hopkins University Press.
  • CÉFAÏ Daniel 2014: « L’Enquête ethnographique comme écriture, l’écriture ethnographique comme enquête », in Melliti Imed (dir.), Écrire en sciences sociales.
  • CLIFFORD James & MARCUS E. George (eds.) 1986: Writing Culture, Berkeley, University of Berkeley Press.
  • DEBAENE Vincent 2010: L’Adieu au voyage, Paris, Gallimard, coll. Bibliothèque des sciences humaines.
  • DECOMBES Vincent 1987: Proust : Philosophie du roman, Paris, Minuits, coll. Critique.
  • DUBOIS Jacques 1997: Pour Albertine : Proust et le sens du social, Paris, Seuil, coll. « Liber ».
  • DUBOIS, Jacques 2007: Stendhal: Une Sociologie romanesque, Paris, La Découverte, coll. Texte à l’appui.
  • FABIANI Jean-Louis 2015: La Sociologie comme elle s’écrit, Paris, EHESS, coll. Cas de Figure.
  • FRIEDLÄNDER Saul (ed.) 1992: Probing the Limits of Representation: Nazism and the “Final Solution”, Cambridge, Harvard University Press.
  • GREIMAS Algirdas J. 1976: Sémiotique et science sociale, Seuil.
  • JABLONKA Ivan 2014: L’Histoire est une littérature contemporaine, Paris, Seuil.
  • LAÉ Jean-François 2016: « Ferme ta caisse », Récit publié dans Sociologie et Sociétés, numéro : Sociologie narrative: le pouvoir du récit, Montréal, Volume 48, numéro 2, automne.
  • LATOUR Bruno & WOOLGAR Steve 1979: Laboratory Life, Sage Publication.
  • LORIGA Sabina 2010: Le Petit X. De la biographie à l’histoire, Paris, Le Seuil.
  • SCHAEFFER Jean-Marie 2016: “Langue, récit, vérité et fiction. Quelques réflexions sur le tournant linguistique en sciences sociales”, in Antoine Lilti, Sabina Loriga, Jean-Frédéric Schaub et Silvia Sebastiani (eds.), L’Expérience historiographique. Autour de Jacques Revel, Paris, Éditions de l’EHESS, pp. 221-236.
  • TSAO Eugenia 2011: “Walking the Walk: On the epistemological merits of literary ethnography”, Anthropology and Humanism, 36, (2), pp. 178-192.
  • WHITE Hayden 1973: Metahistory, The John Hopkins University Press.
  • WHITE Hayden 1980: “The Value of Narrativity in the Representation of Reality”, in Critical Inquiry, Vol. 7, No. 1, On Narrative, pp. 5-27.
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