On Intellectual Craftsmanship (Mills 1959)

On Intellectual Craftsmanship  (Mills 1959)

In the appendix to ‘The Sociological Imagination’ Mills outlines his view on ‘doing’ social science in which he suggests that ‘Scholarship’ (scholarship is writing) is more important for the social scientist than empirical research (the ‘mere sorting out of facts and disagreements about facts’). Mills’ critique of abstract empricism contained in ‘The Sociological Imagination’ is that argument made manifest. Rules of method and arguments on methodological procedures and validity are just so much navel gazing which Mills wished to avoid if he could possibly do so, (“Now I do not like to do empirical work if I can possibly avoid it” p205). The task of social science is thus to critically engage in the real world, joining personal experience and intellectual life through critical reflective reason as the ‘advance guard in any field of learning’ (p205).

Justification for the ‘discovery of facts’ may be founded on its usefulness for policy. However, empirical research does not take place within a political vacuum and it would be a mistake to see the relationship of research to policy as a simple linear relationship. The purist model of ‘research-policy relationships’ (Booth 1988) which takes for granted that research informs policy action by generating knowledge or the problem solving model whereby research is driven by the need for a policy answer do not adequately describe the process and in Mills’ understanding would be  far too narrow a focus for scholarship. An enlightenment model emphasises the role research plays in framing ideas while acknowledging that the relationship between research and policy is nuanced, and that research creeps into action through ‘osmosis’ over time. Research merges with other forms of knowledge as policy action accretes. This however under acknowledges the political dimensions of research-policy whereby ideology shapes research questions, methods and interpretations, application and what types of evidence is accepted (Carlisle 2001). Research and policy then is a political activity. Mills in arguing for craftsmanship in intellectual life implicitly acknowledges (in the Sociological Imagination) the need to go beyond simple empirical knowledge in forming policy action when he enjoins social scientists in a political and intellectual task to clarify the contemporary causes of uneasiness and indifference (p13) to personal troubles and public issues. The social scientist is not to merely describe the contemporary elements of social life but to engage. 

The use of the word ‘craft’ (undefined by Mills) appears here to differentiate the activity from that of (mere?) mastery of elaborate discussions of research method and ‘theory-in-general’, which would quickly make one “impatient and weary” (p195). A craft suggests development of skill by diligent constant practice, honing one’s technique by reference to finished products and products in the process of being to evaluate their flaws and strengths and then adjust accordingly. This is reflexive practice in that the work as it continues is being constantly worked and reworked as required. It suggests leaps of imagination and intuitive thinking and practice in the creation of a project. It calls for a departure from strict adherence to a rigid structure of routines, methods and frameworks. It also suggests a measure of artistry in thinking.

The (scholarly) craftsman is his work as his craft develops alongside who he is. Scholarly craftsmanship then is a state of being not only doing,  “Scholarship is a choice of how to live as well as a choice of career” (p196). When Mills states that “admirable thinkers…do not split their work from their lives” (p195), he preconceives notions of lifelong learning that are to follow. Nursing practice (if it were to take this concept on board) may then have to consider a break away from a  wage based employee model (where a nurse works for 37.5 hours per week) to a salaried professional/intellectual model whereupon the nurse would continue to critically reflect on issues pertinent to speciality and patient group outside of NHS contracted hours. Given the current context of the NHS and clinical practice this seems highly unlikely for clinically based nurses.

To undertake this craft he asks students and social scientists to keep a journal to enable the development of the intellectual life, of the craftsmanship of social science. This should consist of ideas, personal notes, excerpts from books, bibliographical items and outlines of projects. He suggests that journals should record ‘fringe thoughts’, snatches of conversation and even dreams. This will also include the taking of copious notes from books and this needs developing into a habit. However the reading of whole books is not necessary but the reading of parts of many books is.

Since Mills outlined notes on journal keeping there has been the explosion onto the scene of information technologies, elearning and web 2.0. These are now new tools that were unavailable to Mills. However the essential nature of scholarly activity should not be lost in any infatuation with new technologies, rather these gateway technologies (for example the ipad) could facilitate critical enquiry and journal keeping.

Mills’ work thus calls for the development of scholarship as a core intellectual activity. Scholarship within nursing is under threat both in practice and in Universities (Morrall 2010, Goodman 2011, Shields et al 2011). There is a need to rediscover it.


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