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What is Originality in the Humanities

and the Sodal Sciences?


Joshua Guetzkow Michele Lamont
Princeton University Harvard University

Gregoire Mallard
Princeton University and Ecole Normale Superieure de Cachan

Drawing on interviews with peer-review panelists from ftve multidisciplinary fellowship


competitions, this paper analyzes one of the main criteria used to evaluate scholarship in
the humanities and the social sciences: originality. Whereas the literature in the
sociology of science focuses on the natural sciences and defines originality as the
production of new findings and new theories, we show that in the context of fellowship
competitions, peer reviewers in the social sciences and humanities define originality
much more broadly: as using a new approach, theory, method, or data; studying a new
topic: doing research in an understudied area: or producing new findings. Whereas the
literature has not considered disciplinary variation in the definition of originality, we
identified significant differences. Humanists and historians clearly privilege originality
in approach, and humanists also emphasize originality in the data used. Social scientists
most often mention originality in method, but they also appreciate a more diverse range
of types of originality. Whereas the literature tends to equate originality with substantive
innovation and to consider the personal attributes of the researcher as irrelevant to the
evaluation process, we show that panelists often view the originality of a proposal as an
indication of the researcher's moral character, especially of his/her authenticity and
integrity. These contributions constitute a new approach to the study of peer review and
originality that focuses on the meaning of criteria of evaluation and their distribution
across clusters of disciplines.

Please direct correspondence to Michele Lamont, a graduate research fellowship from the Lurcy
Department of Sociology, Harvard University, William Foundation, We thank the following organizations for
James Hall, 33 Kirkland St., Cambridge, MA 02138 authorizing access to their funding panels: the
(mlamont@wjh,harvard.edu), A version of this paper American Council of Leamed Societies, the Social
was presented at the 2003 annual meeting of the Science Research Council, the Woodrow Wilson
American Sociological Association and the 2002 National Fellowship Foundation, and two anonymous
International Sociological Association meetings. fellowship competitions. We are particularly indebted
Joshua Guetzkow acknowledges the support of the to Craig Calhoun. the late John D'Arms, Judith Pinch,
Princeton Society of Woodrow Wilson Fellows for a Stanley Katz, Robert Weisbuch, and all the participants
graduate research fellowship from the . Michele of this study for making it possible. We thank Don
Lamont acknowledges a generous grant from the Brenneis, John Bowen, William Butz, Frank Dobbin,
National Science Foundation, that made this research Marcel Fournier, David Frank, Howard Gardner,
possible, as well as a fellowship from the Canadian Patricia Gumport, Stanley Hegginbotham, Warren
Institute for Advanced Research and from the Center Ilchman, Alexandra Kalev, Karen Knorr-Cetina, John
for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, with Meyer, Woody Powell, Claude Rosenthal, Yehouda
the support of the Andrew W, Mellon Foundation Shenhav, Mitchell Stevens, Bruce Westem, and three
(grant no. 29800639). Gregoire Mallard acknowledges anonymous ASR reviewers for their helpful comments.

AMERICAN SoaouxiCAL REVIHW, 2004. VOL.


ORIGINALITY IN HUMANITIES AND SOCIAL SCIENCES 191

esearch on peer review largely concerns researcher (especially his/her authenticity and
R how journal rejection rates, inter-review-
er reliability, review procedures, and turnaround
integrity), and that this judgment plays a role in
their evaluation. These contributions are theo-
times are affected by disciplinary differences in retically significant. They constitute a new
levels of consensus or paradigm development approach to the study of peer review and orig-
(see Braxton and Hargens 1996 for a review). inality that focuses on the meaning of criteria
Accordingly, we know a great deal about how of evaluation and their distribution across clus-
much reviewers in a given discipline disagree, ters of disciplines. Furthermore, whereas most
hut we are no closer to understanding what it is research on peer review focuses on the evalua-
that they disagree about. More generally, soci- tion of completed research, our main focus here
ologists have yet to explore disciplinary varia- is on a different phase in the process of knowl-
tion in the criteria that peer reviewers use to edge production: the evaluation of research pro-
distinguish between worthy and less worthy posals. We proceed by first describing the
academic work. This is an important topic given literatures that ground the theoretical signifi-
the unparalleled centrality of peer review in the cance of our contributions. We then provide
academic stratification system (Cole and Cole evidence for each of them after describing the
1973) and the impact of conceptions of worthy data on which the study draws.
knowledge on academic restructuring (Gumport
2000). Drawing on interviews conducted with
THEORY
panelists serving on five multidisciplinary fel-
lowship competitions, this paper focuses on The canonical sociological literature on the
one ofthe criteria used most of^en to evaluate place of originality in scientific evaluation has
scholarship in the humanities and social sci- defined originality as the making of a new dis-
ences, namely, originality. covery that adds to scientific knowledge. Most
Existing research in the sociology of science notahiy, Merton (1973 [ 1942]) and Storer (1966)
on originality, which generally concerns the argue that rewards and recognition accrue to
natural sciences, defines it as the production of scientists who make original discoveries because
new findings and new theories. We expand this such discoveries are functional for scientific
literature by exploring the definitions of origi- progress (see also Gaston 1973; Hagstrom
nality used by panelists in the humanities, his- 1974). This literature links the importance of
tory, and social sciences. We show that the peer originality to its presumed role in knowledge
reviewers whom we interviewed from these building. After all, "it is through originality, in
fields defined originality much more broadly: greater or smaller increments, that knowledge
as using a new approach, method or data, study- advances" (Merton 1973 [I957]:293).
ing a new topic and doing research in an under- Accordingly, research on the topic has focused
studied area, as well as producing new theories on the "priority disputes" that arise when sci-
and findings. Whereas the literature has not entists attempt to secure credit for being the
considered the relative salience ofthe various first to make a discovery.
dimensions of originality between disciplines, Kuhn (1970) expanded on the canonical def-
we identified important variations: humanists inition of originality by arguing that, on rare
and historians clearly privileged originality in occasions, anomalous new discoverie.s can lead
approach, and humanists also emphasized orig- to the invention of novel theories that challenge
inality in the data used. For their part, social sci- the reigning paradigm. Although such theories
entists most often mentioned originality in do not necessarily generate innovative scientif-
method but they also had more of an appreci- ic knowledge, they contribute to scientific
ation for diverse types of originality, stressing progress to the extent that they help solve exist-
the use of an original approach, an original the- ing empirical puzzles. New discoveries that
ory, or the study of an original topic. Whereas confirm the theories of "normal science" are the
the literature tends to equate originality with mainstay of scientific endeavor, while anom-
substantive innovation and to consider the per- alous discoveries and consensus-challenging
sonal attributes ofthe researcher as irrelevant to theories are usually ignored and seldom wel-
evaluation, we show that panelists often equat- comed by a scientific community, which is con-
ed originality with the moral character ofthe ceived as resistant to paradigmatic shifts.
192 AMERICAN SOCIOLOGICAL REVIEW

While numerous scholars have built on this cific subtypes they used to characterize more
literature or examined various aspects of the precisely the way in which that aspect is inno-
peer-review process (Armstrong 1997; Bakanic, vative. We present evidence on how often pan-
McPbail, and Simon 1987; Bakanic, McPhail, elists used these various generic categories and
and Simon 1989; Campanario 1998a, 1998b; specific types. Second, we investigate discipli-
Champion and Morris 1973; Gaston 1973; nary variations in the way panelists described
Hagstrom 1974; Hartmann and Neidhardt 1990; originality. We analyze thefrequencywith which
Kantorovich 1993; Mitroff 1974; Mulkay 1972; humanists, historians, and social scientists
Wessely 1996), they have not questioned the referred to the various generic types of origi-
specific assumption that originality consists of nality. We find that humanists and historians
making new discoveries or producing new the- tended to define originality differently than
ories (though see Dirk 1999 for a somewhat social scientists: humanists and historians clear-
different approach to the definition of origi- ly privileged originality in approach, with
nality). For instance, although Latour (1987) humanists also emphasizing originality in the
has criticized the literature's emphasis on pri- data used. For tbeir part, social scientists men-
ority disputes, be and others have not examined tioned originality of method most often, but
how academies define and go about assessing they also had an appreciation for a more diverse
originality. And although the canonical defini- range of types of originality, stressing also the
tion arose from studies ofthe natural sciences use of an original approach or theory, or the
and was not—at least implicitly—intended to study of an original topic. This diversity strong-
apply more broadly, it has often been applied to ly confirms the need for a more multidimen-
the social sciences (for one of many examples sional conception of originality, at least as far
in sociology, see Wagner and Berger 1985). as the humanities and social sciences are
Researchers have yet to study the extent to concemed.
which this definition characterizes the under-
standing of originality in the social sciences or A third contribution concems the place of
humanities. substantive and nonsubstantive considerations
in peer evaluation. Several recent studies in the
Our analysis draws on interviews with indi-
sociology of knowledge have looked at the place
viduals who serve on funding panels, people
of nonsubstantive factoid, such as character and
who have an institutional responsibility to make
identity, in scientific and academic decision-
judgments about the quality, including the orig-
making (Gross 2002; Lamont, Kaufhian, and
inality, of research. We analyze tbe way that
Moody 2000; Lewis 1998; Shapin 1994; Tsay
these panelists described originality in the
et al. 2003). For example, Shapin's (1994) study
humanities and the social sciences. In inter-
of science in seventeenth century England
views, we found that panelists described origi-
demonstrates that the moral virtues of scientists
nality, for example, in terms ofthe novelty of
(defined in terms of honor, modesty, civility
the overall approach used by the researcher
and courtesy) were taken as a sign that the
(who is "bringing afreshperspective"), in terms
results of their scientific experiments could be
ofthe data being used (she is "drawing on new
trusted. And Lewis (1998) shows how person-
sources of information"), and in terms of the
ality can be a decisive factor in academic hir-
topic chosen (he is "going outside canonized
ing decisions. Scientists, as we noted above,
authors"). These statements point toward a much
are said to value and reward originality because
broader definition of originality than that posit-
of its role in substantive innovation—that is,
ed by the available literature on originality.
its role in the accumulation of knowledge. Our
For systematic inquiry, we first construct a
analysis reveals tbat peer reviewers in the social
typology to classify the various definitions of
sciences and humanities also value original
originality used by panelists to describe and
work because they regard it as a sign of the
evaluate winning and losing proposals, as well
moral character of the researcher. More specif-
as their own work, the work of colleagues and
ically, scholars who were thought to produce
students, and their definitions of originality in
original work were frequently viewed as having
general. This typology includes all the generic
intellectual authenticity, integrity, and associated
categories that panelists used to describe which
moral qualities tbat panelists valued and sought
aspect ofthe work is original, as well as the spe-
ORIGmAUTY IN HUMANITIES AND SOCIAL SCIENCES 193

to reward.' Thus, original work is valued for Research Council, the American Council of
nonsubstantive as well as substantive reasons. Learned Societies, the Woodrow Wilson
This last contribution prompts a reconsider- National Fellowship Foundation; a Society of
ation of key assumptions that guide much ofthe Fellows at a top research university; and an
research on peer review more generally, which anonymous foundation in the social sciences.^
sharply divides "legitimate" evaluations about These competitions were chosen because they
the substance ofthe work from "illegitimate" cover a wide range of disciplines, and because
considerations about nonsubstantive factors. they are all highly prestigious.^ We focus on the
Indeed, according to Merton (1973 [ 1942]: 270), social sciences and humanities because they
evaluation of scientific claims "is not to depend have been neglected by research on peer review
on the personal or social attributes of tbeir pro- and in the sociology of science and knowledge
tagonists: their race, nationality, religion, class, more generally. While the SSRC and tbe
and personal qualities are as such irrelevant." WWNFF competitions are open to the social
Accordingly, studies on peer review typically sciences and tbe humanities, the ACLS sup-
examine the extent to which judgments about ports research in the humanities, and humani-
nonsubstantive factors, like the authors* repu- ties-related social sciences. The Society of
tation (Zuckerman and Merton 1971), institu- Fellows supports work across a range of fields,
tional affiliation (Blank 1991) or gender (GAO whereas the anonymous foundation supports
1994) affect the evaluation of academic work. work in the social sciences only. Moreover, the
In contrast, we show that some nonsubstantive SSRC and the WWNFF programs provide sup-
factors are intrinsic to the evaluation process, at port for graduate students, whereas the ACLS
least in the case ofthe evaluation offellowship holds distinct competitions for assistant, asso-
proposals in tbe social sciences and tbe human- ciate, and full professors. Tbe Society of Fellows
ities: certain judgments about the person are provides fellowships to recent Ph.D.'s only, and
intertwined with substantive evaluations, and are the anonymous social science foundation sup-
conceived as such by evaluators. as opposed to ports research at all ranks. We did not identify
being viewed as necessarily "corrupting" and any anomalies in the evaluation ofthe work of
illegitimate. Below, after analyzing the typolo- graduate students. Finally, although ali the com-
gy of substantive definitions of originality, we petitions bave multidisciplinary panels, only
show how frequently humanists, historians and some of them aim to promote interdisciplinary
social scientists discussed the moral meaning of scholarship.
original work. We then explore the vocabulary
that panelists used to evaluate original propos-
als, and we demonstrate that they associated
substantive originality with admirable moral - The specific competitions studied were the fol-
qualities and viewed applicants whose work lowing: the Intemational Dissertation Field Research
Fellowship (IDRF) program ofthe Social Science
lacked originality as morally deficient.
Research Council and the American Council of
Learned Societies; the Women's Studies Dissertation
DATA AND METHODS Grant Program at the Woodrow Wilson National
Fellowship Foundation; and the Fellowship Program
The paper draws on interviews conducted with in the Humanities of the American Council of
panelists serving on one of twelve funding pan- Learned Societies.
els at five fellowship competitions in the social ^ Panel members serving on these competitions
sciences and the humanities over a period of two often see themselves and are seen by others as set-
years. The funding competitions were held by ting disciplinary standards and embodying institu-
the following institutions: the Social Science tionalized definitions of excellence. Hence, their
discourses on quality are both significant and inform-
ative of what is valued in their fields at large, even
though they were not randomly selected and may
' In line with Weber, we treat moral qualities as present features thai distinguish them from "average"
those qualities that are defined as important by the academics. By studying the criteria of evaluation
ethical standards of a particular religion, institution they use as gatekeepers, we are studying criteria of
or any other "legitimate order" (Weber 1978 evaluation that de facto play a significant role in
[1956]:36). shaping academic fields.
194 AMERICAN SOCIOLOGICAL REVIEW

Panel members originated from a wide range ing. As the process adopted by the American
of disciplines including anthropology, art his- Council of Learned Societies (ACLS) resembles
tory, classics, economics, English, geography, that of most ofthe other funding organizations
history, literature, musicology, philosophy, polit- we studied we can quote an internal document
ical science, sociology and Women's Studies. A to describe this process:
total of 81 interviews were conducted for this
ACLS has developed an intensive peer-review
project. This includes 66 interviews with 49 process to select its Fellows. The process combines
different panel members (17 panelists were screening by readers from the applicants' aca-
interviewed twice, as they served on panels for demic field with review by multidisciplinary pan-
the two years that the study lasted). Fifteen els. At the first stage of the outside peer-review
additional interviews were conducted with rel- process, each ofthe applicants is prescreened by
evant program officers and panel chairpersons two scholars in the general field (seventeen pre-
for each panel, who provided details about what screening fields include anthropology, art history,
had happened during the panel deliberation in archaeology, classics, English, modern foreign
languages, etc.) The screeners' scores and com-
the absence of direct observation. They were
ments are used to eliminate about 50 percent of all
also questioned about general background the proposals overall. The remaining applications
issues, such as how panelists are selected and are divided into groups of approximately 60 and
what qualities make for good panelists. Program are sent to four panels of five or six distinguished
officers are not included in our analysis, but the scholars, all of whom read the applications. These
five interviews we conducted with three dif- panels then convene at ACLS to discuss each appli-
ferent panel chairs are included since they also cation and to select awardees. (ACLS n.d.)
served as peer reviewers and were asked about
Each program has its own objectives and pro-
their criteria of evaluation. We thus analyze
vides reviewers with a set of guidelines for
here a total of 71 interviews, which lasted
judging proposals, which may affect the evalu-
approximately 90 minutes and were generally
ation process. Program goals are particularly
conducted over the phone within a few days or
likely to influence the disciplinary background
a few weeks after the conclusion of the panel and substantive foci ofthe applicant pool: econ-
deliberations.'* In three cases, we were able to omists are unlikely to apply for an ACLS fel-
observe the panel deliberations and use field lowship and students whose research focuses
notes to probe panelists about specific argu- solely on the US. will seldom apply to the IDRF
ments they had made in the context ofthe delib- program at the SSRC. Although reviewers are
erations.^ made aware ofthe suggested criteria for judg-
Many of our questions concerned the final ing the proposals, they are not required to apply
deliberation, where evaluators convene to decide them. Indeed reviewers are given almost com-
which fellowship applications will receive fimd- plete autonomy—they are only accountable to
the other panel members to whom they must
explain their judgments. Moreover, the guide-
lines are very general, and panelists are given
'' The fact that the interviewer is a senior scholar no indication of the specific meaning of the
who has served on several evaluation panels was suggested criteria (such as feasibility or signif-
essential in facilitating openness among intervie- icance) or the weight to be given to each one.
wees. All respondents were guaranteed anonymity,
For example, the ACLS suggests the following
and we made a commitment to the participating
organizations to disguise all information potentially
criteria: "I) The intrinsic quality ofthe pro-
leading to the identification of panelists or appli- posal and the clarity with which it is conveyed;
cants. 2) The significance ofthe project for research
^ This experience suggests a remarkable continu- in the humanities (both the general and specif-
ity in the criteria that panelists mobilized in the con- ic fields in which it figures); 3) The plan of work
text ofthe deliberation, their account ofthe positions for this particular project; and 4) The likeli-
they took during the deliberation, and the epistemo- hood of successftil completion of the project
logical positions they used while discussing various based on the training and professional experi-
types of work in the context ofthe phone interview ence ofthe researchers (considering the state in
(see Mallard, Lamont and Guetzkow 2002). A his/her career)" (ACLS N.d). Basically, these
detailed assessment ofthe degree of overlap is beyond criteria concern clarity, significance, feasibili-
the purpose of this paper.
ORIGINALITY IN HUMANITIES AND SOCIAL SCIENCES 195

ty, and, in some broad sense, quality. Almost all originality of other work (i.e., of their own work
the other fellowship programs also suggested and the work of their colleagues and students)
that reviewers take into account clarity, signif- and bow they define originality in general terms.
icance and feasibility. Some of the programs While only some panelists provided such explic-
added to this basic list (e.g.. with concems that it definitions of originality in general (in
the research design be "responsive to method- response to the question. "How do you define
ological and theoretical concerns" (SSRC) or originality?"), all panelists provided implicit
that the candidate demonstrates a "grasp of rel- definitions of originality in the form of descrip-
evant literature" (anonymous foundation)). Only tions of what they considered to be original
one of our fellowship programs (WWNFF) about a proposal or other academic work. We
specifically mentioned the "originality" ofthe analyze how reviewers define originality by
proposal in their guidelines; yet it was of major examining both kinds of statements, especial-
concem to almost all the reviewers interviewed. ly since academics typically think about origi-
In fact, the guidelines provided a baseline set of nality in the context of performing evaluations,
criteria for judging proposals that most review- that is, in reference to specific work. Here, then,
ers had already internalized, and few ofthe our units of analysis are the implicit and explic-
reviewers expressed concern for or even ready it statements about originality made by the 49
knowledge ofthe institutional guidelines. In panelists and 3 program cbair-evaluators whom
separate analyses not shown here, we did not we interviewed. Of all the statements we ana-
detect significant differences in the criteria used lyze, 29 percent did not pertain to proposals.
by panelists in different funding programs. Because the way the panelists think about tbe
The interviews concemed what happened quality of proposals is closely related to how
during the panel deliberation, the criteria of they think about excellence more generally, and
evaluation panelists used to assess proposals, because we found very similar pattems between
and how tbe funded and rejected proposals dif- the way they talk about originality in proposals,
fered. Evaluators were asked to describe what originality in others and in general terms (in sep-
they appreciated in the best proposals they arate analyses not shown here), we include all
reviewed; the arguments they mobilized against descriptions of originality in tbe presentation of
the top contenders that were not funded; and the our results.
process by which proposals that hud a high We compare the distribution of statements
ranking prior to the deliberation ended up not between the humanities, history and the social
being funded. Tbey were also asked to describe sciences. The humanities clusters include art
how they perceived themselves to be similar to history, classics, English, literary criticism,
and/or different from other panelists, both in niusicology and philosophy. The social science
terms of general orientation and in terms ofthe cluster includes anthropology, economics, geog-
arguments they formulated in relation to specific raphy, political science and sociology. We con-
proposals: we wanted them to specify their own sider the discipline of history separately because
criteria of evaluation by performing "bound- historians altematively describe themselves and
ary work." that is, by contrasting their evalua- are described by others as belonging to one of
tive standards to those of others (Lamont 2000; the clusters or the other, and also because they
also Lamont, Kaufman, and Moody 2000). were included in large numbers in both tbc pan-
Finally, they were asked to describe their crite- els oriented towards the social sciences and the
ria of evaluation beyond the context ofthe panel: humanities (see also Katz 1995 for a discussion
for instance, how they recognize excellence in of tbe ambiguous position of this discipline
their own work, in their graduate students, located between the social sciences and human-
among their colleagues, and whether they ities).
believed in academic excellence and why. Interviews were content-analyzed by two
To capture the full range of meanings that are coders with the assistance of Atlas.ti (Kelle,
attributed to originality by our panelists, our Prein, and Beird 1995). This software package
analysis of their evaluation of originality con- enabled us to increase inter-coder reliability by
siders both the statements that panelists made standardizing the set of codes to be used, track-
conceming the originality of proposals under ing the codes assigned by each coder and allow-
review, as well as their statements describing tbe ing each transcript to be coded by one coder and
196 AMERICAN SOCIOLOGICAL REVIEW

then checked by the other. The codes were is anchored in five broad categories that the lit-
derived inductively, with each coder initially erature has shovm to be salient in reviewers'
coding the same two transcripts and developing comments and that emerged from our own clas-
their own coding scheme. For the coding of sification of reviewers' responses. These cate-
originality, the coding was partially guided by gories concern which aspect of the work
codes derived from previous studies of peer respondents described as being original.^ They
review, which we describe below. The coding include the research topic, the theory used, the
scheme was then standardized and the tran- method used, the data on which it is based, and
scripts split randomly between coders. After the results ofthe research (i.e., what was "dis-
this initial round of coding, the coders covered"). The typology also includes two pre-
exchanged transcripts and verified and improved viously unidentified categories. One, which we
each other's coding. This content analysis shows have labeled "new approach," refers to instances
that panelists use numerous standards to iden- where panelists commented on the novelty ofthe
tify top proposals. These include originality, "approach" or the "perspective," or on the inno-
significance, feasibility and other more evanes- vative character ofthe questions or arguments
cent criteria. For this paper, we focus uniquely formulated. The second previously unidenti-
on the references that panelists made to origi- fied category is labeled "imderstudied area,"
nality. Most often, these references came in which includes instances where panelists dis-
response to the questions such as "Why did you cussed work set in a neglected time period or
rank this proposal highly?" and "What do you geographical region (generally n on-western).^
view as the strengths of your own work?" Thus, as shown in Table I, there are seven mutu-
Statements about originality that we coded did ally exclusive categories of originality that con-
not always involve the word, "originality." In cern approach, understudied area, topic, theory,
most cases where they did not, synonyms like method, data^ and results.
"new," "innovative," "novel," "creative" or
"doing something others have not" were used. Each of these generic categories consists of
On the few occasions when interviewers did more specific subtypes of originality, which are
not use the word originality or a synonym in included in Table 2 and described and illustrat-
their description (for example, saying that "this ed in greater detail in Appendix A. Whereas
proposal makes a conceptual hreakthrough"), it generic types refer to which aspects ofthe work
was clear that originality was implied because
reviewers referred to something the applicant
did that had not been done before. Ambiguous followed by social relevance (122), interdisciplinar-
statements were coded only when consensus ity (110), feasibility (103), importance (68), breadth
existed among all three authors as to their nature. (62), carefulness (46), usefulness (35), and "exciting"
The coding of originality led to the construction (32).
of the typology of the meanings attributed to ^ Most of these categories correspond to those
originality, analyzed in the next section. identified by researchers who have examined which
aspects of papers receive reviewers' attention
(Bakanic, McPhail and Simon 1989; Champion and
Morris 1973; Dirk 1999; Hartmann and Neidhardt
DEFINITIONS OF ORIGINALITY
1990). Note, however, that these researchers are con-
ACROSS THE DISCIPUNES cerned neither with the deeper meaning of these cat-
Our typology was developed semi-inductively egories, nor with their role in evaluations of
originality.
to classify all statements regarding the origi-
nality of academic scholarship.^ The typology ^ Comments on "understudied" areas are consid-
ered separately from the topic, because they con-
cern the geographic or temporal setting of the
research, as opposed to the topic ofthe research per
* Although the panelists we interviewed mentioned se,
originality most frequently of all criteria (240 times), ' "Data" refers here to the whole range of materi-
it was not the only consideration, nor always the al that scholars take as an object of analysis in the
most important one. A preliminary count ofthe ref- social sciences and the humanities, including numer-
erences panelists made to other criteria reveals that ical datasets, written texts, archival documents, pho-
clarity was mentioned almost as often (212 times), tographs, films, musical scores, and so forth.
ORIGINALITY IN HUMANITIES AND SOCIAL SCIENCES 197

Table i. Generic Types of Originality in the natural sciences privileges new theory and
the production of new findings, less than one in
N % of Total
five descriptions of originality by our panelists
Original Approach 67 31 pertain to "original theory." Also, only four per-
Understudied Area 13 6 cent refer to "original results"—the least pop-
Original Topic 32 15
ular generic type. This suggests that these two
Original Theory 40 19
generic types are far from being the predomi-
Original Method 27 12
Original Data 29 13 nant dimensions of originality, at least as far as
Original Results 9 4 the social sciences and the humanities are con-
Total 217 100 cerned. In part, the scarcity of references to
"original results" can no doubt be explained by
the fact that panelists were mainly evaluating fel-
are original (e.g., the topic or the methods), lowship proposals, rather than completed
specific types distinguish between dimensions research projects. However, the relative lack of
of these aspects. Where applicable, the first explicit concern even for the novelty of the
specific type listed next to each generic category potential results ofthe proposed projects sug-
refers to the most literal or nonspecific mean- gests that "making a new discovery" is not the
ing that panelists attributed to this generic cat- predominant form that originality takes in the
egory, followed by other specific types in order social sciences and humanities. What is more,
of frequency. For instance, the first specific the specific types of "original results" and "orig-
type for the generic category "original inal theory" that emerge from our analysis do
approach" is "new approach" and the other spe- not conform to the canonical understanding of
cific types are more particular, such as asking these terms as found in the sociology of science
a "new question." offering a "new perspective," literature. Indeed, when discussing original
taking "a new approach to tired or trendy top- results, panelists called attention to "new inter-
ics," using "an approach that makes new con- pretations" resulting from research more often
nections," making a "new argument" or using than they highlighted "making a new discovery"
an "innovative approach for the discipline." or producing "new findings" (see Appendix A
Table 2 includes the frequency distribution of for a description). As we saw, Kuhn (1970)
the 217 mentions of originality we identified defined theoretical novelty almost exclusively
across the seven generic categories and their in terms ofthe production of "new theories." In
specific types.'^ contrast, we find that original theoretical con-
Table 1 shows that panelists most frequent- tributions were most often defined as "con-
ly described originality using a category that is necting or mapping ideas" and as producing a
not discussed in previous research: that of "orig- "synthesis of the literature;" each of which
inal approach." This generic category covers received 30 percent ofthe mentions of original
nearly one third of all the mentions of originality theory, while the production of "new theory"
made by the panelists commenting on propos- received just over 10 percent of all mentions of
als or on academic excellence more generally. theory. Other less common meanings of origi-
Other generic categories panelists often used nal theory involve the "new application."
were "original topic" (15 percent), "original "reconceptualization" or "unconventional use"
method" (12 percent) and "original data" (13 of existing theory.
percent). Originality that involves an "under- The finding that taking an "original
studied area" was mentioned only 6 percent of approach" is the predominant form of origi-
the time. nality among our interviewees could he inter-
While the literature in the sociology of sci- preted as an artifact of our coding frame: after
ence that deals with originality in peer review all. what is an approach if not a theory or a
method? To clarify this point, it is useful to
specify how we distinguish between original
'" Note that this frequency does not include approach, original theory, and original method.
descriptions of unoriginal work. Including such At one level, there are differences among sig-
descriptions brings the total to 240, as reflected in nifiers: reviewers tended to use a distinct lexi-
Table 4. con for each category, with the vocabulary used
198 AMERICAN SOCIOLOGICAL REVIEW

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ORIGINALmr IN HUMANITIES AND SOCIAL SQENCES 199

for a given category having a "family resem- es pertained to the construction of problems
blance." At a deeper level, these categories also conceming established topics, rather than to
have distinct meanings if we examine more the theories and methodologies used to study
closely what it is they signify. them. When describing a new approach, pan-
In speaking of "original theories," panelists elists referred to the work's "perspective."
typically mentioned the use of particular theo- "angle," "framing," "points of emphasis," "ques-
ries, or else referred to specific "issues." "ideas" tions," or to its "take" or "view" on things, as
or "concepts." Thus for example, panelists talked well as its "approach." Thus a scholar in
of making theoretical connections via "the jux- Women's Studies talked of the "importance of
taposition of ideas that normally one might not looking at [Camus] from a feminist perspec-
associate;" showed excitement about a candidate tive;" a political scientist remarked on a proposal
who had applied a theory in an original way by that had "an outsider's perspective and is there-
"bringing performance theory to bear on this fore able to sort of have a unique take on the sub-
larchaic] material;"' detailed the way in which a ject;" a philosopher described his work as
proposal "suggested new ways of thinking about "developing familiar positions in new ways and
[agency];" or "brought together different con- with new points of emphasis and detail;" and an
cerns in different kinds of historical and other lit- historian expressed admiration for an applicant
eratures regarding [collective memory]."''
because "she was asking really interesting and
When panelists referred to "original meth- sort of new questions, and she was asking them
ods," they referred to the tools associated with precisely because she was framing [them]
a discipline, to the research design of a project, around this problem of the ethics of [empa-
or to the specific methodologies and research thy]." That "original approach" was used much
techniques used by a researcher. Hence they more of^en than "original theory" to discuss
spoke of "inserting a comparative dimension... originality strongly suggests a need to expand
in a way that was pretty ingenious;" praised our understanding of how originality is def^ined
someone who combines "ethnographic work (for a comparable finding conceming the diver-
with historical work;" described a proposal as sity of "theory" in sociology, see Camic and
"bringing comprehensive datasets to bear on Gross 1998).
questions that are in current debate;" or lauded
Our analysis is also informative about other
a social psychologist for "pushing the bound-
specific meanings attributed to originality. The
aries" of that discipline by "going out and check-
ing in a few different locales." other specific types of originality most of\en
used by panelists to describe original work were
In contrast, a "new approach" refers to orig- asking a new question (21 mentions), finding a
inality at a greater level of generality: the com- "noncanonical or understudied topic" (20 men-
ments of panelists concerned the project's tions) and using "new data" (15 mentions). We
meta-theoretical positioning, or else the broad- also observe that panelists often praised pro-
er direction of the analysis rather than the posals that offered creative combinations of
specifics ofmethod or research design. Thus in ideas, sources, or methods. Hence they valued
speaking of a project that she felt took a new
work that offers an "approach that makes new
approach in her discipline, an art historian
connections" (8 mentions), or that "connects
applauded the originality of a study that was
ideas" (12 mentions), synthesizes theoretical
going to "deal with [ancient Arabic] writing as
literatures (12 mentions), or creatively com-
a too! of social historical cultural analysis." She
was concerned with the innovativeness of the bines multiple sources (10 mentions) and mul-
overall project, rather than with specific theo- tiple methods (10 mentions). New ways of
ries or methodological details. Whereas dis- combining is also a popular form of originali-
cussions of theories and methods started from ty that has not been identified by the literature
a problem or issue or concept that has already on innovation and originality in peer review.
been constructed, discussions of new approach- Of^en, these combinations were lauded because
they were essential to innovative interdiscipli-
nary work. It is possible that these specific
forms of originality were especially appreciat-
'' Throughout the paper, we use brackets to denote ed by our sample of scholars because, accord-
details that were altered to ensure anonymity. ing to the program directors we interviewed.
2OO AMERICAN SOCIOLOGICAL REVIEW

several of them were asked to serve as panel include too few cases to be useful in examining
members because of their openness towards disciplinary variation. We also aggregate across
interdisciplinary work (in line with the objec- disciplinary clusters due to the small cell sizes
tives of some ofthe fellowship programs, which that would result from the many disciplines rel-
is to encourage interdisciplinary scholarship). ative to our sample size. Thus, we compare the
It remains to be determined whether our find- generic categories of originality referred to by
ings apply beyond the evaluation of fellowship humanists, historians and social scientists. A
proposals. Bakanic, McPhai! and Simon's key inference we make in this analysis is that
(1989) analysis of reviewer comments on sub- panelists value the types of originality they used
missions to the American Sociological Review in their evaluations more than other types; and
found that all comments (not only those per- that reviewers tend to value forms of original-
taining to originality) concerned theory and ity that are prized in their disciplinary cluster.
results in roughly 10 percent of the cases, Thus, to find disciplinary differences in the
respectively. This suggests that reviewers of types of originality that panelists used most fre-
quently is to detect variation in the types of
submitted papers place only slightly more
originality privileged by different disciplines.'-^
emphasis on findings and somewhat less on
Table 3 shows aggregate differences in the use
theory than do reviewers of research proposals,
of generic types of originality across these dis-
at least in the case of sociology. In our case, a
ciplinary clusters. A chi-square test (X^ = 34.23
comparison ofthe originality types used to on 12 d.f) indicates significant differences
describe proposals and those used to describe between the disciplines in the way they define
completed academic work, such as panelists' originality at a high level of confidence {p <
own scholarship, showed very similar patterns .001), The main finding is that a much larger
(tables showing these results are available from percentage of humanists and historians than
the authors). Future research will determine social scientists defined originality in terms of
whether evaluators of submitted papers in the the use of an original approach (with respec-
social sciences, humanities, and history place tively 33 percent, 43 percent, and 18 percent of
greater emphasis on different types of origi- the panelists referring to this category).
nality as compared to evaluators of fellowship Humanities scholars were also more likely than
proposals (e.g.. stressing different dimensions historians and social scientists to define origi-
of original theory—"new theory" more than nality in reference to the use of original "data,"
"mapping ideas"—or placing less importance which ranges from literary texts to photographs
on the originality ofthe approach or the to musical scores. Twenty-one percent of them
method). Focusing on the multiple meanings of referred to this category, as opposed to 10 per-
originality, as we do, is a precondition for rec- cent ofthe historians and 6 percent ofthe social
ognizing that the salience of definitions of orig- scientists. Another important finding is that
inality varies across stages of research as well social scientists were more likely than human-
as evaluative settings. A more open-ended ists and historians to define originality in terms
approach to studying the meanings of original- of method (witli 27 percent. 4 percent, and 8 per-
ity than the one used by the canonical literature cent referring to this category, respectively).
is needed to identify and empirically assess Moreover, compared to panelists from other
these variations across the humanities, the social
sciences and the natural sciences, for proposals
as well as completed research.
'^ Whether this is because reviewers from a given
disciplinary cluster are more likely to describe a pro-
VARIATION IN DEFINITIONS OF posal as original if it embodies a particular type of
ORIGINALITY AMONG DISGIPUNARY originality, or because the proposals that reviewers
CLUSTERS read are more likely to embody a particular type of
originality (since they may tend to come from the
Can we detect variation among disciplines in the same disciplinary cluster), we can still draw an infer-
categories of originality that reviewers used ence about the types of originality valued in that
when assessing academic quality? To answer cluster. Note also that the weight or importance that
this question, we analyze only generic cate- panelists attached to a given criterion relative to other
gories of originality, because the specific types criteria changed from proposal to proposal.
ORIGINALITY IN HUMANITIES AND SOCIAL SCIENCES aoi

Table 3. Generic Definitions of Originality by Disciplinary Cluster

Humanities History Social Sciences All Disciplines


Originality Type N % N N N
Approach 29 33 26 43 12 18 67 31
Data 19 21 6 10 4 6 29 13
Theory 16 18 11 18 13 19 40 18
Topic 13 15 6 10 13 19 32 15
Method 4 4 5 8 18 27 27 12
Outcome 3 3 4 7 2 3 9 4
Understudied Area 5 6 3 5 5 7 13 6
All Generic Types 89 100 61 100 67 100 217 100
Note: Some columns may not sum to 100% due to rounding.

disciplines, social scientists appeared to have a ing to categories like "approach," "data" and
slightly more diversified understanding of what "methods." This risks masking a deeper level of
originality consists of, in that they privileged to difterence between the meaning of these cate-
approximately the same degree originality in gories for the humanities, history, and social sci-
approach (used by 18 percent ofthe panelists in ences, to which we now turn. First, when
this category), topic (19 percent) and theory humanities scholars we interviewed referred to
(19 percent), with a slight emphasis on method original "data," they typically referred to writ-
(27 percent). ten texts, paintings, photos, film, or music and
This suggests that the scholars from our three often used words like "text" and "materials;"
categories privileged different dimensions of historians usually referred to archival docu-
originality: humanists valued the use of an orig- ments and used the word "evidence;" social
inal approach and new dat;i mostfrequently;his- scientists generally meant quantitative data sets.
torians privileged original approaches above all Second, there were sometimes distinct ways
other forms of originality; while social scientists in which humanists and social scientists talked
emphasized the use of a new method.'^ Hence about taking a new approach. For instance,
the significance ofthe typology. It is a heuris- humanists would often praise how an estab-
tic tool that takes into consideration the ftjll lished approach (e.g., feminist analysis) was
range of definitions of originality used by applied to a "canonical" author (e.g., Albert
humanists and social scientists, and that avoids Camus) for the first time. In contrast, social
understanding these disciplines refracted scientists rarely described novelty of any kind
through the lens ofthe natural sciences. in terms of how it related to the "canon" or was
"noncanonical." and as we have seen, relative-
MAKING SENSE OF DISCIPUNARY DIFFERENCES ly few described originality in terms of
approach.
The disciplinary difterences discussed thus far
Third, humanists' and historians' references
are couched at a level of abstraction that allows
to "original approach" are spread more evenly
us to compare these disciplinary clusters accord-
across its specific subtypes than those of social
scientists. One third of humanists (8 of 27)
defined original approach in tenns of taking a
'^ These findings should be understood as sug- "new approach to a tired/trendy topic," but
gestive, rather than conclusive, for two reasons: first. referred to all the other types with nearly equal
because the sample size results in small ceil sizes; sec- frequency. And although historians mentioned
ond because Table 3 aggregates multiple descriptions "new questions'* more than any other specific
of originality from the same individuals, so the
type of approach (32 percent or 9 out of 28),
descriptions of originality are not independent of
each other. To compensate for this, we conducted a they often mentioned other specific types as
variety of regression analyses, which corroborated the well. Social scientists, in contrast, talked over-
findings presented here. Results of these analyses are whelmingly in terms of asking "new questions"
available upon request. about topics that have already been studied
2O2 AMERICAN SOCIOLOGICAL REVIEW

(accounting for 8 of 12 social science mentions concept-driven generalizations. History is pulled


of original approach).''' in both directions (also see Novick 1988). In
Fourth, while we have defined "methods" text-driven disciplines, the author begins with
broadly to categorize the way that humanists, a text, which "drives the development of inter-
historians and social scientists described orig- pretive abstractions based on it." In contrast,
inal uses of data, this should not be taken to with conceptually driven generalization,
mean that "method" meant the same thing to all research is designed "in order to make progress
of them. Reviewers in the humanities and his- toward answering specific conceptual ques-
tory tended to provide less methodological detail tions" (MacDonald 1994:37). These insights
than social scientists concerning, say, a research appear to map well onto our findings: original
design. For example, an historian described data excites humanities scholars, because it
vaguely someone as "read[ing] against the grain opens new opportunities for interpretation.
ofthe archives" and an English scholar enthused Since the existence of a text precedes the act of
about how one applicant was going to "synthe- interpretation, focusing on new or noncanoni-
size legal research and ethnographic study and cal texts can constitute a major path of innova-
history of art," without saying anything more tion for humanities scholars. In contrast, social
specific about the details of this methodologi- scientists are more focused on answering or
cal melange. In contrast, social scientists went informing specific conceptual questions (e.g.,
into more detail, like this political scientist who the relationship between social movements and
said that an applicant "inserted a comparative welfare state formation). As such, they tend to
dimension into [his proposal] in a way that was value original methods and research designs
pretty ingenious, looking at regional variation most highly, because these hold the promise of
across precincts." Social scientists also some- informing theories and contributing to progress
times described innovative methods as those in answering specific conceptual questions or
which would answer "unresolved" questions "resolving old debates." The emphasis of
and debates (e.g., the question of why the U.S. humanists and historians on original approach-
does not have corporatism), whereas humanists es is an indication that, while they are general-
and historians never mentioned this as facet of ly not as focused on the production of new
methodological originality. generalized explanations ("original theories") or
Ultimately, the differences we find between on devising ways of answering specific con-
disciplinary clusters are arguably linked to their ceptual questions ("original methods"), they
distinct rhetorics (Bazerman 1981; Fahnestock tend to value an "original approach" that enables
and Secor 1991; Kaufer and Geisler 1989; the researcher to study a text or an archive in a
MacDonald 1994) and epistemic cultures way that will produce new conceptual abstrac-
(Knorr-Cetina 1999). We do not wish to make tions or yield novel interpretations. In a sense,
sweeping generalizations about the individual then, making progress on a specific conceptu-
disciplines that compose each cluster, since al issue is less valuable to them than opening up
they are internally heterogeneous. Nonetheless, new conceptual frontiers or revising current
research on the distinct modes of knowledge- interpretations (for example, see McPherson
making in some ofthe disciplines can inform the 2003 for a description of revisionism as "the
patterns we find across clusters, if only in a lifeblood of historical scholarship"). That none
speculative manner. ofthe humanists and virtually none ofthe his-
In her comparison of English, history and torians we interviewed expressed concern about
psychology, MacDonald (1994) shows that gen- a proposal's hypotheses—in contrast to social
eralizations in English (especially in the New scientists, who mentioned it frequently—is but
Critical mode) tend to be more text-driven than one illustration of this difference.
in the social sciences, which tend to pursue
THE SAUENCE AND MORAL
MEANINGS OF ORIGINAUTY
'* We do not attempt to draw confident inferences
with such small frequencies, but merely point to pat- The meanings of originality discussed in the pre-
terns that emerge in the definition of an original vious sections were substantive in nature: they
approach. broadly concerned the ways in which research
ORIGINALITY IN HUMANITIES AND SOCIAL SCIENCES 203

was seeti as making a new contribution to of panelists referred at least once to morality,
knowledge. However, closer analysis reveals and 50 percent made more than one such ref-
that panelists valued originality for nonsub- erence. Next, we examine these associations
stantive reasons as well. As we show in this through qualitative analysis to gain a better
section, panelists associated substantively orig- understanding of the meaning these associa-
inal work with personal moral qualities, which tions have for panelists.
they valued and sought to reward. Conversely, Applicants' whose proposals were deemed
they treated unoriginal work as a sign of moral original were often described with such adjec-
failure, which met with opprobrium. And this tives as adventurous, ambitious, bold, coura-
connection appears to be true for some other cri- geous, curious, independent, intellectually
teria as well; producing work deemed socially honest, and risk-taking. They were also viewed
significant, for example, was associated with as "going out of their way," "challenging the sta-
caring about real-world problems as opposed to tus quo," "thinking for themselves" and "hav-
being solipsistic. These associations have gone ing a passion for ideas." Likewise, the
entirely unnoticed by the literature on peer vocabulary used by panelists to describe schol-
review, which remains focused on substantive ars whose proposals lack originality has a clear
judgments and the extent to which these are moral tone. Such applicants were deemed to be
biased by nonsubstantive, personalistic consid- unmotivated or incapable of independent
erations. To understand more fully the meanings thougbt and were described with terms {hat
given to originality in tbe social sciences and the include: conformist, complacent, derivative,
humanities, it is imperative that its moral sig- facile, gap-filling, hackneyed, lazy, parochial,
nificance be considered closely. pedestrian, rehashing, tired, traditional, uncrit-
First, we document tbe frequency of instances ical, "spinning their wheels;" or alternatively,
where panelists made a connection or associa- fashionable, trendy, "shambolic," slavish, "rid-
tion between substantively original (or unorig- ing on the band wagon" or "throwing around
inal) work and moral qualities (or lack thereof). buzz words."'^ At its core, this lexicon describes
Table 4 presents tbe aggregated distribution of qualities that indicate whether or not one pos-
these associations in the humanities, history, sesses intellectual authenticity. Scholars who
and the social sciences. It shows that panelists do original work are independent, because they
referred to morality in about 40 percent of their follow their own, authentic interests—whatev-
discussions of originality, with no statistically er tbe cost. Conversely, lack of originality indi-
significant differences between disciplines. cates a scholar who is lazy, disingenuous, eager
Hence, Table 4 clearly demonstrates that pan- to please, which shows that s/he possesses no
elists often connected substantive originality authentic intellectual passion or interests. In
with morality.'-'' When Table 4 is disaggregated short, independent and dynamic scholars are
at the individual level, we find tbat 81 percent authentic, whereas phony scholars are lazy or
worse, trendy. Individuals with such moral

'^ Like the analysis of disciplinary distributions in


Table 3, this analysis aggregates multiple mentions "^ It should be noted again that the interviewer did
of originality for each individual respondent. A not elicit the responses detailed below by asking
regression ofthe likciihood of associating original- direct or leading questions that might have prompt-
ity with personal qualities is consistent with the find- ed panelists to link proposal originality to personal
ings reported here. These results are available upon virtue. Typically, she questioned respondents on what
request. they meant when they said something was original.

Table 4. Associating Originality with Moral Qualities by Disciplinary Cluster


Humanities History Social Sciences Ail Disciplines
Total Mentions of Originality 103 68 69 240
Associations with Moral Quality 41 32 26 99
% of Times Moral Quality is Mentioned 40 47 37 41
3O4 AMERICAN SOCIOLOGICAL REVIEW

integrity were singled out by panelists for recog- risks shows that the author is pursuing his or her
nition, while applicants who were seen to lack authentic interests, which is something that pan-
this integrity were deemed unworthy of sup- elists valued a great deal. They often spoke
port. According to the panelists we interviewed, explicitly of their desire to reward applicants
authenticity is achieved hy successfully navi- deemed morally worthy. For example, a schol-
gating the Scylla and Charybdis of academic ar working in the field of Women's Studies
life: avoiding a reproduction ofthe status quo explained that she supported a proposal, because
while steering clear of the latest intellectual "it was much more risky than some ofthe oth-
trends. This association between morality and ers and somehow I wanted to reward this risk-
originality is particularly limpid. Hence, we can taking." Rewarding "creative risk-takers" ought
compare how panelists support courageous, to be the panel's primary objective, according
"original," risk-takers, and penalize lazy con- to one program officer. Similarly, a historian
formists. argues.
It's so important to appreciate that that guy, In the
COURAGEOUS RISK-TAKERS disciplinary context to which he is most closely
connected, what he's doing is really unconven-
Being original is not just about coming up with tional and is really likely to put him in consider-
something new; it is also about acts of courage able risk. And 1 just think that is worth rewarding.
and taking risks. This is illustrated by a politi-
cal scientist who praised "a proposal that's sim-
ply bold and brash," a historian who remarked LAZY CONFORMISTS
how taken she was by a proposal "that strikes Never hesitant to extol the virtues of original fel-
me as being bold and daring,"'^ an English pro- lowship applicants, panelists were equally effu-
fessor who liked "people to take intellectual sive about the moral failings they associated
risks, some kind of adventure," a sociologist with unoriginal proposals. People who were
who appreciated a candidate's "willingness to viewed as reproducing the status quo were often
take on a very risky project," and a musicolo- regarded as lazy. As this historian remarked:
gist who spoke vividly about the relationship
I don't flop over for joy when someone comes in
between courage, independence, and authen-
and says, "I use race, class, and gender as my cat-
ticity. Discussing a proposal, she said: egories." That could be OK, thai could be fine for
Courage is important... to go against the received a different project, but it's what everybody does.
so-called consetisus. to be suspicious of that, to ask It's the line of least resistance now. When they do
interestitig questions . . . none of us can be origi- the line of least resistance and flow in that rheto-
nal, but certainly I think amongst all of us, and for ric of subversion, I tend to get very tumed off.
myselfas well, [what we are looking for is] a nose Often, accusations of laziness involvedjudg-
for a real passion for ideas, regardless of whether ments about originality in ligbt ofthe author's
they get the grant or not, a real love of working with prior work: "if they're just rehashing what they
their minds. . . And somehow, it's an aroma.
did as a doctoral dissertation, that's probably
The "aroma" of originality emanating from where they're going to be stuck for the rest of
original proposals gave the panelist an indica- their academic career." Doctoral students were
tion of the researcher's authenticity ("a real sometimes the object of a particular kind of
passion for ideas"). To be cotirageous and take scorn when their work was seen in relation to
their advisor's work. An historian revealed that
he reacts "very strongly when I see work that's
extremely derivative. When I see dissertation
'^ When discussing moral qualities, panelists often projects which are spin-offs of the advisor, I
appear to use metonymy, which means using "the always say, 'Oh, well, I'm not sure about this
name of one thing for that of another of which it is person.'" What she's not sure about is whether
an attribute or with which it is associated" (Merriam- or not this person possesses any genuine intel-
Webster's Dictionary 2002). Just as "the oval office" lectual interests or passion.
is often used to refer to the president, panelists will
describe a proposal as risk-taking, for example, while People whose work was seen as lacking orig-
they appear to be describing the author as taking a inality were often criticized, because they were
risk (since a proposal does not act by itselO- perceived as following the latest trends. Note
ORIGINALITY IN HUMANITIES AND SOCIAL SCIENCES 205

this historian's disdain for an applicant who qualities characterize people who are inau-
"was trying to use what I think he thought were thentic, or scholars who lack "genuine" intel-
buzz words that were sort of trendy and would lectual interests and passion. Otherwise, they
attract interest. I just thought it was very disin- would break free ofthe inertial forces of aca-
genuous" and "kind of intellectually preten- demia to pursue their ideas at all costs, instead
tious." Originality indicates someone who is of just going with the flow."*
"not just on a kind of bandwagon of. 'Oh, let's These examples illustrate clearly how the
learn about this, it's getting news headlines."" reviewers we interviewed frotn a range of dis-
The line between originality and trendiness is, ciplines associated substantive worth with non-
however, very thin; substantive worth: original scholarship was
I'm always tom trying to balance creativity and viewed as a sign of moral integrity and unorig-
newness with the fear of just supporting the fash- inal work as an indication of moral failure. In
ion. Because so much of what we do is driven by addition to valuing original work for its sub-
essentially a fashion system . . . just whatever is stantive contributions to knowledge, reviewers
there at the national conferences and whatever has also valued the moral integrity of scholars who
the buzz attached to it. I try to see if there's some produce original work. The moral judgments
way I can both give scope to whatever is new and
interesting and at the same time not be caught by that reviewers make about the individual on the
just supporting a fad. basis of his or her work are hence an integral
part of their decision-making.
When in doubt, jargon is usually taken as a
reliable indicator of trendiness, as this econo-
CONCLUSION
mist noted; "The idea of studying [that topic]
was cool. Some of his cultural studies jargon that In this paper, we take a "new approach" to the
was from like page three through ten—that was study of originality by analyzing inductively
extremely uncool, it was very faddish." Another the criteria that individuals serving on funding
instance is provided by an English scholar who panels used to evaluate proposals and by exam-
explains the moral pitfalls she associates with ining the various meaning they gave to origi-
jargon: nality. Similar to constructivists concemed with
If I feel someone's using the jargon just to throw the content of scientific claims (Knorr-Cetina
it around and say, "I read Homi Bhabha," forget it, 1999; Utour 1988; Poovey 1998; Somers 1996),
you know? That dog's not going to hunt with me. we are concemed here with the content of the
I mean, I'm not hostile to jargon, but you do see judgments that peer reviewers make about the
a lot ofslavishnessto it. It's a kind of, now I don't quality of academic work. The interviews we
think I want to use a word as strong as dishonesty, conducted with panelists in the social sciences
but it's a kind of trying to parade a supposed
and the humanities show great diversity in the
sophistication. It can also be a kind of laziness.
way they define originality as well as important
Drawing a link between reproducing the sta- disciplinary differences. This enriched under-
tus quo and following the trend, a sociologist standing complements the standard sociologi-
associated both of these with the same person- cal definition of originality as the production of
al flaws; new theories and new findings. A more multi-
valent understanding was invisible to the canon-
There is a tremendous inertia in academic life to
reproduce what s going on, to reproduce advisors, ical approach to originality, because it ignored
projects, frameworks, theories, or whatever. There the way that scholars themselves define origi-
is a tremendous self-imposed constraint about nality. Further, our results indicate that an under-
emulating what's considered hot, which obvious-
ly generates its own form of conformity. [It's]
emblematic of a whole general intellectual orien-
tation: not willing to take chances, not willing to '^ Note, however, that working within one's area
think for themselves, not being reflexive. of expertise or extending one's past work can also be
seen by panelists as strengths, since they indicate
The problem with trendiness, as with repro- that the researcher will be able to carry out the pro-
ducing the status quo, is not so much that it posed study. Thus, what might in some cases be con-
reflects conformity, laziness, dishonesty, fad- sidered a weakness ean be constructed as a strength
dishness or disingenuousness. It is that these in others.
2o6 AMERICAN SOCIOLOGICAL REVIEW

standing of originality modeled on the natural might be called "scholastic virtue." Scholastic
sciences would be inadequate when it comes virtue includes all those aspects of moral char-
to the humanities and the social sciences, if acter that reviewers may perceive to be relevant
only because it fails to capture the centrality to producing scholarship: being serious; hard-
ofthe creation of "new approaches" as a high- working; committed to producing socially or
ly valued form of originality. A widespread politically "relevant" research (or alternatively,
practice of taking the natural sciences as a politically "neutral" research); enthusiastic;
normative model has generated problems in the curious; careful; or caring about "giving voice"
theoretical cultures of the social sciences in to subaltern groups. These are all moral quali-
particular (see for example Turner 1989; ties that reviewers associated with other sub-
Wagner and Berger 1985; Wallace 1983). They stantive criteria they used in their assessments
have often been subjected to an artificial of what counts as "quality" scholarship. It is pos-
leveling when conceptions about the natural sible that reviewers look for signs in the pro-
sciences^such as the functionality of origi- posals that the applicants possess these
nality for knowledge building—^are taken as attributes, which they may take as evidence of
normative in the name of a scientistic episte- the ability to produce worthwhile work.
mology that does not characterize all social Although originality is composed of manifold
science fields (Mallard, Lamont, and Guetzkow definitions and multiple dimensions, it is itself
2002). Acknowledging the diverse forms that only one of many standards by which the peer
originality takes is an important corrective that reviewers we interviewed judged academic
can have implications for the practice of worth: significance, soundness, political rele-
research and peer evaluation. vance, interdisciplinarity and clarity, to name a
The study of peer review remains heavily few, are various standards that panelists invoked
influenced by the institutional paradigm asso- in their judgments. Sometimes, these criteria
ciated with Merton and his concern with the were applied in concert with originality to affirm
norms of universalism (Merton 1973 [1942]). a proposal's quality. But often, they competed
This paper has called into question the institu- with and trumped originality—as when review-
tionalist imperative to dissociate substantive ers agreed that a proposal was original but found
and nonsubstantive (or particularistic) dimen- it unimportant or methodologically flawed. Or,
sions in the evaluation of originality, it has a proposal would be seen as going overboard on
shown that nonsubstantive, and particularly, originality, attempting to draw together too
moral dimensions, were central to the accounts many theoretical concepts together in a way
that panelists provide of their evaluation of pro- that was ultimately seen as "chaotic." These
posals, at least as it touches upon the question other criteria—what they mean, how they are
of originality. This finding resonates with a used, the virtues they imply, how they relate to
growing body of research on how moral stan- one another and whether they apply to the nat-
dards shape evaluation in a wide range of non- ural sciences—are topics for further research.
religious institutional settings (Clecak 1983; So, too, are the potential policy implications of
Jackall 1988; Lamont 1992; Lamont 2000; our research, such as the possible impact of
Lamont, Kaufrnan, and Moody 2000; Leidner individual disdain of "derivative work" on the
1993; Leinberger and Tucker 1991; Meyer 1987; macro fragmentation ofthe social sciences and
Morrill 1995). It also dovetails with studies the humanities; and the privileging by public and
showing a general tendency among scientists to private funders of social science research that
identify researchers with their object of inves- follows a natural science model by claiming to
tigation or favored theoretical perspective contribute "new theories" and "new findings.."
(Latour 1993; Mitroff 1974). as opposed to new approaches.
Of course, the specific moral qualities that the
reviewers were concerned with are limited in APPENDIX A: DESCRIPTION OF
scope; they pertain not to every dimension of SPECIFIC ORIGINALITY TYPES
individual morality, but to characteristics that are
ORIGINAL APPROACH
relevant to one's conduct as a scholar. Being a
courageous risk-taker with authentic intellectual This code was used when panelists referred to
interests appears to be a component of what a proposal as taking a new approach to a topic
ORIGINAUTT IN HUMANITIES AND SOCIAL SCIENCES 207

that had been studied already. Descriptions per- APPROACH THAT MAKES NEW CONNECTIONS.
taining to the use of "new approach," "fresh When panelists described how the new approach
perspective," "making a new argument" and was a result of connecting different approach-
"asking new questions" are included under this es or findings or insights together—sometimes
category. See the section above on definitions from different disciplines—or linking the
of originality across the disciplines for a more topic/approach to a range of broader issues.
detailed discussion of distinguishing original This subtype does not include references to the-
approach from original method and original
ories or "literatures" being connected or com-
theory.
bined (see "Synthesis of literatures" under
"Original Theory").
NEW APPROACH. This type includes basic
Example: '*... putting individual topics into con-
descriptions of a new approach, where panelists text with his whole philosophy...it's really about
neither said anything specific about the connections between things."
approach nor evaluated the merit ofthe approach
in relation to the topic (see "new approach to
tired/trendy topic" below). NEW ARGUMENT. This type pertains to cases
Example: "That was an original approach." where the approach was described as original
because it made a new argument. This is dif-
ferentiated from other specific types of "new
NEW QUESTION. This type was used when the
approach," either by use ofthe words "new
approach was described as original because it
ai^ument," or because the panelist described
asked new questions. New questions are not
the proposal as contradicting existing approach-
considered a type of "Original Topic," because
they refer to new questions that are asked about es and/or claiming that existing approaches are
topics that have been studied before. simply wrong, as opposed to claiming that they
need revision in some way.
Example: "Me'd really worked out a very bold.
fleshed out series of questions to ask about [that Example:"... a unique argument about how con-
subject]." cern for [social welfare] began a few years earli-
er and elsewhere in [Europe] than most people
think."
NEW PERSPECTIVE. This type was used when
the panelist referred to the "perspective,"
"angle" or "take on" a subject. INNOVATIVE APPROACH FOR DISCIPLINE. This

Example: "That was actually looking at post-com- type was used when the approach was described
munist issues from a reallyfreshperspective." as one that, although not new in general, was
new in the discipline ofthe applicant.

NEW APPROACH TO TIRED/TRENDY TOPIC. This Example: "[Aramaic] is usually Ireated in a new
type was for cases when panelists did not say critical way or a philological way, and the fact that
anything specific about the approach, but eval- this person was going to deal with [Aramaic] writ-
ing as a tool of social historical cultural analysis
uated its novelty in relation to a topic that would
seemed to me really wonderful."
otherwise not be worth studying by emphasiz-
ing that the topic was tired, traditional, famil-
iar, canonical or trendy. This is distinct from the UNDERSTUDIED AREA
more basic code, "new approach," because this
is reserved for cases when the reviewer This category pertains to descriptions of
described the topic being approached as having research that was original because it was con-
been over-studied or as part of a trend, some- ducted (or going to be conducted) on an under-
times derisively. studied region or an understudied time period.
This is distinct from the category "Original
Example: "All of them took up problems that are
familiar, but what they looked at was how a [bina- Topic," because it does not refer to the topic of
ry] approach to them hadn't worked, and they were the study, but to the region or period in/on which
going to revisit them." the study is to be conducted.
2o8 AMERICAN SOaOLOGICAL REVIEW

UNDERSTUDIED REGION. This is for research Example: "Maybe the reason it's a cliche is because
conducted in an understudied geographic region, people think it's so old hat it's not worth studying,
often non-western. but often that's the reason to study something."

Example: "It wasn't an area where people studied


the spread of [Buddhism]." ORIGINAL THEORY

This category was used when a proposal's the-


UNDERSTUDIED PERIOD. This is for when the ory was described as being new in some way.
research involved a topic set during an under-
studied time period. NEW THEORY. This type refers to basic descrip-
Example: "People who are working on the late tions of a new theory being developed.
19th century never look at the [literature of the]
Example: ". . . makes conceptual breakthroughs
1870s."
that are convincing and that open up ways for
other people to go on and build on that."
ORIGINAL TOPIC

This category was used when a proposal's topic CONNECTING/MAPPING IDEAS. This type was
was described as being new in some way. This used for descriptions of innovative theory con-
is distinct from "Original Approach," which ceived as connecting, linking or juxtaposing
refers to new approaches to established topics. disparate ideas; or mapping or laying out exist-
ing theoretical issues in a new way.
NEW TOPIC. This type was used when the Example: "... the juxtaposition of ideas that nor-
topic was described as having never been stud- mally one might not associate to be in one proj-
ied. ect."
Example: "... a topic that I was surprised hadn't
been done." SYNTHESIS OF LITERATURES. This type
describes theory that was original because it
synthesized or brought together theories or ideas
NoNCANONiCAL TOPIC. This type was used from disparate literatures, often literatures from
when the topic was described as original, different disciplines. This is distinct from a
because it was noncanonical, unusual or subal- "new application," because the proposal creat-
tern. ed a novel theory out of this synthesis. It is also
Example:"... going outside canonized authors of distinct from the "Original Approach" subtype,
that period" and "[it] was a little-studied topic that "making new connections," because this novel
no doubt could do with some more work." synthesis was valued in its own right and not in
connection with taking a new approach to an
TOPIC CHOICE IS UNCONVENTIONAL. This type established topic.
includes instances where the topic was described Example: "... tbe ability to basically pull togeth-
as original, because studying it flouted con- er theoretical insightsfromdifferent disciplines and
ventional standards or fashion. Typically, such combine them in interesting ways."
instances occurred when a proposal was laud-
ed for tackling a topic that others had not stud-
NEW APPLICATION OF EXISTING THEORY. This
ied because it was considered boring or
uninteresting or taken for granted; or it was a type pertains to descriptions ofthe original use
topic that had been studied at one time, but had of existing theory to study a topic/object/sub-
fallen out of fashion, even though it was still ject/problem that had not been studied using
"important." This is distinct from taking a new that theory. It often pertains to an existing the-
approach to a tired/trendy topic, because here ory that was imported to a discipline where it
the novelty arises from studying the topic per had not been used before.
se, and not from the way in which the topic was Example: "He was bringing performance theory
approached. to bear on this [arcbaic] material."
ORIGINALITY IN HUMANITIES AND SOCIAL SCIENCES

RECONCEPTUALIZATION. This type includes Example: "looking at new data sets and compre-
instances when panelists described a proposal hensive datasets and bring them to bear on ques-
as "re-conceptualizing" theoretical concepts. tions that are in current debate."
Example: "reconceptualizing the whole relation
between [technology] and image during that peri- INNOVATIVE FOR DisciPLrNE. This type was
od." used when the method was described as being
I original for the discipline in question, although
it is not original in general.
UNCONVENTIONAL USE OF THEORY. When a the-
ory was described as being used in an unusual Example: "... to go out and check out in two dif-
or unconventional way, this type was used. ferent locales, and that was at least, as far as I know,
pushing the boundary of that discipline."
Example: "She uses theory and [choreography] and
visual arts theory in the way other people don't."
ORIGINAL DATA

ORIGINAL METHOD This category refers to descriptions ofthe data


itself as original, as opposed to originality in the
This category was employed when the method way that the data was used. Panelists referred to
or use of data was described as new in some way. "data" as evidence, text, archives, materials or
data. All of these were included in this generic
INNOVATIVE METHOD/RESEARCH DESIGN. This type.
type refers to the use of a wholly new or inno-
vative method or research design. NEW DATA. This type was used for basic
Example: "Original in that she was trying to make descriptions of the data as new.
a connection between [ethics and practice] by Example:"... looking at manuscripts that haven't
comparing two institutions." been looked at before."

SYNTHESIS OF METHODS. This type was used MULTIPLE SOURCES. This type refers to data
when the originality resulted from the use of that were described as original because they
multiple, often disparate or interdisciplinary, were drawn from multiple sources, often across
methodologies; or when panelists described a tbe disciplines. This is distinct from "Synthesis
method as original in the way it brought togeth- of Methods," in that this type applies to instances
er, connected, juxtaposed or synthesized dis- where there was no reference to the way these
parate forms of data or evidence. materials were (to be) used.
Example: "[It brings] together ethnographic work Example: "[My work] uses many and different
with historical work." sources of data."

New use of old data. This type describes a NONCANONICAL DATA. This type describes
method that was said to be original because it instances when the data used in the study were
used existing data in a way that had not been described as original because they were non-
done before; sometimes described as "ingen- canonical, unusual or subaltern.
ious" or "subversive."
Example: "[he could] identify texts about which
Example: "most of us ignored [those documents] other people haven't thought much about."
because we were sort of trained to look away from
them. So here he is . . . writing centrally about it.
ORIGINAL RESULTS
Even at his level of development, he grasps exact-
ly why this is unbelievably subversive." This is for descriptions ofthe (potential) out-
come of a study regarded as original for some
RESOLVE OLD QUESTION. We use this type
reason.
when originality was explicitly attributed to a
method that would help resolve old or estab- NEW INSIGHTS. This type is used in instances
hshed questions/debates. where the outcome was described as original
2IO AMERICAN SOCIOLOGICAL REVIEW

because it is a new insight, understanding or Innovation." Science and Engineering Ethics


interpretation. This is distinct from the "Original 3:63-84.
Approach" subtype, "new perspective," main- Bakanic, Von, Clark McPhail, and Rita J. Simon.
ly because this refers to statements about 1987. "The Manuscript Review and Decision-
Making Process." American Sociological Review
insights that the candidate had already made
52:631-642.
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Blank, Rebecca M. 1991. "The Effects of Double-
Example: "She seemed to me to be doing very deft, Blind versus Single-Blind Reviewing:
elegant and nonobvious, nontrivial reading of Experimental Evidence from the American
[these texts]." Economic Review." American Economic Review
81:1041-67.
NEW FINDINGS. This type refers to an out- Braxton, John M. and Lowell L. Hargens. 1996.
"Variation among Academic Disciplines:
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Analytical Frameworks and Research." Pp. 1-46
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Camic, Charles and Neil Gross. 1998. "Contemporary
Joshua Guetzkotv is a Ph.D. candidate at Princeton Developments in Sociological Theory: Current
University. His dissertation focuses on the changing Projects and Conditions of Possibility." Annual
relationship between social welfare and criminal Review of Sociology 24:453-76.
justice policy in the United States over the last 30 Campanario, Juan M. 1998a. "Peer Review for
years. Beginning in August 2004, he will be a Journals as It Stands Today: Part 1." Science
Postdoctoral Fellow at the Robert Wood Johnson Communication 19:181 -211.
Foundation Scholars in Health Policy Research . 1998b. "Peer Review for Journals as It
Program, where he plans to study the growing use of Stands Today: Part 2." Science Communication
the criminaljustice system to manage public mental 19:277-306.
health problems. Champion, Dean J. and Michael F. Morris. 1973. "A
Content Analysis of Book Reviews in the AJS,
Michele Lamont is Professor ofSociology at Harvard
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Advanced Research, where she codirects the research Sociology 7S:\256-65.
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Gregoire Mallard is a Ph.D. candidate at Princeton Fahnestock, Jeanne and Marie Secor. 1991. "The
University and at the Ecole Normale Superieure Rhetoric of Literary Criticism," Pp. 76-96 in
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