In defense of description

John Gerring has a new article in the British Journal of Political Science [ungated here]which attempts to restore description to its rightful place as a respectful occupation for political scientists. Description has indeed been relegated to the sidelines at the expense of causal inference during the last 50 years, and Gerring does a great job in explaining why this is wrong. But he also points out why description is inherently more difficult than causal analysis: 

‘Descriptive inference, by contrast, is centred on a judgment about what is important, substantively speaking, and how to describe it. To describe something is to assert its ultimate value. Not surprisingly, judgments about matters of substantive rationality are usually more contested than judgments about matters of instrumental rationality, and this offers an important clue to the predicament of descriptive inference.’ (p.740)

Required reading.

Organizing your library

I finally managed to organize all my printed articles into folders. Quite a tedious task, but maybe worth sharing my experience in more detail.

First the background and the objective: I had probably around 400 printed journal articles, kind of sorted into piles and lying around my office threatening slowly to engulf me. The articles had accumulated over the last few years and featured both rather extensive collections on well-defined topics (like policy responsiveness) and scattered individual pieces that I liked for some reason on topics I mostly  don’t keep track on (like regime collapse).  Obviously, I would want the articles organized  into folders so that 1) they look neat, 2) I have quick access when I need them, and 3) I am able to do quick surveys of particular topics.

The solution I opted  for is organizing the articles into approximately 30 topics and, within each topic, alphabetically.  The more common way of using only alphabetical  ordering doesn’t work well for libraries without a catalog because you need to remember the author of an article in order to find it.  And making and keeping a catalog would be too tedious.

Unfortunately, one cannot rely on tags to organize  physical objects like printed  texts. Discovering tags (as used in blogs for example) has been a real revelation for me and  my efforts to put order to the world around me. Tags out-compete hierarchical classification any time. But for my folders,  I had to settle for non-overlapping classification into a small number of categories (topics). This mostly works fine except for the rare cases  where an article can go into more than one category. Usually this happens with articles that are interesting both for their substance and their exemplary  application of a  method. My solution for these cases is to put the articles where I will most likely benefit from finding it in the future.

What I discovered during the process is that the system of academic topics is fractal. Each topic can be decomposed into subtopics and each subtopic can be decomposed  into others, ad infinitum. A few years ago, all I had to have is  one topic/folder  for organizational design and change;  later, I had to take the literature on co-ordination out of it; later, the articles on EU co-ordination were taken out of their parent topic; finally, after writing a paper on EU co-ordination in Central and Eastern Europe, even this sub-sub-topic had enough entries to make a separate folder necessary. So there isn’t much point into imposing hierarchy on your topics, and probably nobody else’s classification can work for you. In all likelihood,  you don’t need an  ‘EU co-ordination in Central and Eastern Europe‘ entry in your classification scheme. The fractal nature also means that you have to accept that the scheme will change over time as you go deeper into sub-topics  and sub-sub-topics. You need  to be pragmatic rather than dogmatic about your classification: no need for hierarchy, and no worries  that your topics might cover issues differing greatly in their generality. My topics  include side by side International Relations (which I mostly don’t care about) and Case studies of EU compliance in the new member states. You know when an  issue is mature enough to get a separate topic  when it makes finding anything else in the parent topic cumbersome.

In general – print as little as you can since reading articles in on a screen not only saves trees  but makes for an easier organization of your library as well.

I will be  extremely curious to read about your ideas about organizing your personal library in the comments.