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Friday, November 19 2021
DM Smith Room 303
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Grace Wyner

Communications Officer

School of Public Policy | Sam Nunn School of International Affairs

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Lost & Forgotten: Explaining the inattention to once highly-cited books and articles

Abstract, courtesy of Alec McGail:

Much has been penned considering why some works and not others have been enshrined in a discipline's memory, forever added to bibliographies. Past research has focused almost exclusively on gaining and retaining attention, ignoring the processes which remove works from the collective memory of a discipline. My dissertation focuses on the most famous works which have been since forgotten, across the social sciences, trying to understand the reasons behind the demise. For each work I wish to autopsy, I examine how it is cited near or after its academic death. I also am interviewing those who had a vested interest in these lost works, inquiring into their explanations. I am then able to take these back to the data, and confirm, refute, or elaborate. The explanations of these famous works’ unlikely demise reflect the mechanisms and history of the maintenance and change of the disciplines, such as obliteration by incorporation, topical and epistemological shifts in the field, often fueled by shifting funding, but also by intellectual dead-ends, founder-selection processes, reputation entrepreneurship, and the shifting of what is intellectually unspeakable.


Alec McGail is a fifth-year Ph.D. student at Cornell University studying the sociology of sociology and the science of science. He has been completing his dissertation from a van-office which he has been carting around the country, interviewing key informants in the history of the social sciences, in an homage to Erdős. His focus on the theoretical foundations of his own discipline, and the processes of their calcification, was originally intended to give a robust backdrop for his own scattered theoretical and empirical studies. These include the use of simulation to study emergence in network formation and diffusion processes, using physiological sensors to tap the emotional energy flowing in conversation, and the creation of a chatbot which comes to understand you through conversation, and can then act as a universal intermediary. His studies tend to emphasize the variety of mechanisms operative in social life, and as such often rely on an inductive and descriptive paradigm.