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The Politics Of Citation

I've recently run across two wildly different posts that I think make the same implicit assumption about citing sources. The first was by Henry Farrell, asking what the proper protocol should be for citing an idea from a blog in an academic paper -- does it get a full proper citation like an idea from another academic paper, or just a footnote like a hallway conversation? The second was a blowup in the feminist blogosphere about the protocol for white feminists (the particular case at issue being Amanda Marcotte) citing the work of women of color (in this case specifically brownfemipower) when they finally do start talking about issues those women have raised (such as why immigration is a feminist issue) -- see Sylvia/M for a graphic presentation of the charge, and Hugo Schwyzer for a rebuttal and additional links to the discussion*.

Discussions on both topics frame citation as a duty owed to the idea-originator. Inserting links or references may be burdensome, the thinking goes, but you have an obligation to direct attention and credit toward those whose ideas you've used. This is a good way of thinking, and it helps us set a baseline minimum level of citation. And it explains the anger of those making the failure-to-cite charge.

But I think it's incomplete if we don't also recognize that citation makes what you write better. Your work becomes not just a thing on its own, but a portal to a larger discussion. Right now I have a 19-page, single-spaced 10-point document listing articles and books I want to read. The vast majority of this document was compiled from reading other articles and books, and making a note of the source whenever the author referenced an interesting point. I get annoyed sometimes reading things written for less formal publications that are looser about citation -- "you just said something interesting, I want to know where to read more about it!"

So when I read Farrell's question, I approached it not from the perspective of a writer wondering if he had to go look up the links and format the citation right, but of a reader who might find a full citation useful in tracking down the source of the idea and reading it in full and in context. And when I thought about the Marcotte controversy, among my thoughts was how a layout a bit more like Sylvia/M's version would have been a better article -- Marcotte obviously couldn't cram every idea brownfemipower and other bloggers of color have had on the topic into a single article, so citations would allow readers to see the fuller discussion (about the substantive issue and about the pedigree of the particular way of understanding it). I suppose it's symptomatic of a larger attitudinal issue -- is coalition-building something you do because it's necessary to allow you to get on with pursuing your own goals, or is it something you're excited to do because it enhances what you're doing? (To allow my tired brain to roam perhaps too far afield, I'm now reminded of the distinction made by some Christians -- exactly who I can't remember because it's been so long since I thought in these terms -- between framing the message as "Jesus died for you, so you owe him big" and "Jesus loves you, how does that inspire you to live?")

*As an aside, why is it that Hugo seems to be unable to link to women of color except to defend white feminists against funhouse mirror versions of their criticisms?


Blogger Alon Levy said...

They might be link-banning them, internally. For example, after the first Pandagon/BFP flamewar, the one involving the burqa photoshop, Lindsay Beyerstein made a decision never to link to BFP ever again, after she got banned from Women of Color Blog. I did, too; to the best of my recollection, it was because I'm categorically against banning people. I also consciously didn't link to Abiola Lapite, who banned me for disagreeing with his anti-EU views.

The thinking, if you're a political blogger, is that the blogosphere is an effective tool of change. So it makes sense to ensure that the left doesn't get hijacked by radicals, i.e. to clamp down on radicalism before it can tar the left by association.

The problem is that it's not. Look at the biggest political blog, Daily Kos. It managed to put together a big conference and get all the Democratic primary contenders to speak, but a few weeks later, Edwards, supposedly the most net-oriented candidate, didn't even remember it, and an aide had to remind him. So there's no external feedback mechanism that tells you, "Change your tactics, because you're losing political capital." In particular, feel-goodism in both forms - "We're not compromising our principles," and "We're not letting radicals take over our movement" - is not tempered by realism.

11:47 PM  
Blogger Stentor said...

I know link-banning occurs, but I don't see it being at all plausible as an explanation for what happened here.

9:06 AM  

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