What Are ‘Big Idea’ Books?
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Categories: Modern, Not an expert

What Are ‘Big Idea’ Books?

Over on the group blog Crooked Timber there is a retrospective post on David Graeber’s Debt ten years after they hosted a discussion of the book on the blog. The post and comments say something very important about ‘big ideas’ books which scientists mostly take for granted, but might not be obvious to curious, clever people who are not active in research:

I think the best way to understand Graeber is as a writer of speculative nonfiction. He is often wrong on the facts, and more often willing to push them farther than they really ought to be pushed, requiring shallow foundations of evidence to bear a heavy load of very strongly asserted theoretical claims. But there is value to the speculation – social scientists don’t do nearly enough of it. Sometimes it is less valuable to be right than to expand the space of perceived social and political possibilities. And that is something that Graeber was very good at doing.

Henry Farrell

I actually think all big-scale synthesizing social science is speculative nonfiction: it almost always involves selecting for a major theme or idea or theory and exploring it monomaniacally in order to draw attention to the causal and descriptive power of that theme and to challenge all the other speculative nonfictions. I can’t think of any book operating at the scope and scale of Debt that isn’t greviously wrong in a major way at some point–either in omitting a whole range of cases that the author isn’t familiar with (usually non-Western, but not always), or in relying on some really antiquated generalizing source where the author isn’t aware that the source has been discarded or superceded, etc., and usually thus also wrong on many minor points too. I think the problem is that the people who have the ambition to write such an account are very rarely inclined to gracious acknowledgement of the exaggerations and errors in their work, or to treat their writing as a thought experiment of sorts. (That’s not a universal pattern: there are important exceptions.)

Timothy Burke

Books with a ‘big idea’ and one or two authors are entertaining. They can get us excited about a topic and limber up our minds to considering a topic in new ways. They can get us to pay attention to a way that experts think about a topic which is different than the one we learned in school 30 years ago. But they almost always fall apart at just the wrong time if you put too much weight on them, partially because details which do not fit have been hidden or removed to make the idea sound compelling, and partially because its impossible to verify all the things that the argument relies upon. Trying to do this would require a team of reviewers and might delay publication until the idea is no longer exciting.

Judging when a book like this crosses from ‘entertaining as long as you don’t take it too literally’ to ‘nonsense’ is hard. The idea which was totally new to one reader may be old hat to another. Maybe that is one reason why academics often ignore them

Anyone involved in research and development knows that everything is more complicated and takes longer than pop culture makes it sound. The work to turn a shining idea into a practical tool can be tedious and is not interesting to outsiders, so its understandable that people have to change things when they explain why its compelling to insiders.

Books like this are not necessarily bad. They can motivate people who don’t yet know that a topic is cool. They certainly pay the author much better than careful, factual books, and we all have to eat and pay the rent or the mortgage. But if you want to learn true things, its important to read things which are more careful about details and more willing to point out things which do not support their way of seeing things. Just reading pop books with a ‘big idea’ will teach you a lot of exciting nonsense, but reading a few of them and many humble books will teach things of more lasting value.

Further Reading: after I scheduled this, Anton Howes noticed the similar problems with journalistic and popular histories (these genres also tend to have a lot of blatant factual errors because they do not verify their trust as carefully as academic history) https://www.ageofinvention.xyz/p/age-of-invention-does-history-have

After I scheduled this, I learned that there is an academic book coming to grips with the same material David Graeber skated over in Debt https://bmcr.brynmawr.edu/2023/2023.09.30/ (but published 11 years later when 3 would have been more appropriate)

The contributions collected in this outstanding volume demonstrate a deep knowledge of Graeber’s theory of debt and playfully engage with its proposals and provocations, acknowledging its value for scholars of social and economic history while at the same time aiming to polish some of its inaccuracies concerning ancient and early medieval history; after all, Graeber was not a historian but an anthropologist. … Despite these inaccuracies, the authors recognise the validity and acumen of Graeber’s core ideas, such as the “currency-slavery-warfare complex”, the intimate link between the processes of marketization, state-formation, and monetization, and the complex interplay between indebtedness, expectations of equality, social values, and hierarchy structures. These are some of the lines along which the arguments of the book are built.

(scheduled 11 July 2023)

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5 thoughts on “What Are ‘Big Idea’ Books?

  1. dearieme says:

    On a blog comments thread I pointed out to Graeber a howler he’d made. His reply was intemperate to the point of lunacy or – which I thought more likely – drunkenness.

    1. Sean says:

      I don’t think I ever saw him in informal online spaces and I was not going to put in the time to understand some of the twitter ? drama which mostly seemed to be economics and finance types angry about the mistakes in the chapter on the 20th century.

      My memory from ten years ago was that the ancient parts of Debt were pretty reasonable for a big ideas book by someone outside of ancient world studies. And most people get unreliable when talking about recent events which are the subject of partisan speeches.

  2. Sedo says:

    On the subject of Big Idea Books, I’d be fascinated to read your review of Christopher Beckwith’s ‘The Scythian Empire’. Amidst a lot of other material, theres are some provocative revisionist views on the ethography and religious history of the early Teispid-Achaemenid period.

    1. Sean says:

      Humh, I had not heard of that book! Sometime I would like to read “The Last Empire of Iran” by Michael Bonner (DuckDucKGo suggests that he got on Razib Khan’s podcast, maybe through his academic or partisan connections? The only academic review I can find is https://www.academia.edu/43281391/The_Empire_of_Seven_Climes)

  3. When Trust is Not Verified at All – Book and Sword says:

    […] impression of Sapiens was not nearly so negative as Narayanan’s, I classified it as a ‘big ideas book which overstates its claims to get the conversation started’ like Gwynne Dyer’s War. […]

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