A scholar in a fit of despair, writes “who cares about my work?” It is a poignant lament, and I do not downplay the emotional distress that would trigger such an outburst. This is, I think, a doubt that strikes many scholars—the fear that their work is unimportant and/or only matters to a tiny audience of specialists. Elsewhere, I have written about this from the angle of the inherent value of research.
Here, I want to look at this differently. I want to look at this lament as a possible starting place for an exercise of exploration, of scholarly/academic thinking, and of practical writing skills. Generally, I would say that, in the abstract, a true philosopher would be interested to explore any unanswered question: what is this, how does this work, and how does this interact with the world? Whatever your work might be—let’s call it “topic X” or just “X”—we can explore what it is, where it came from, how it operates, and how it interacts with the rest of the world. To an open, inquisitive mind, such questions can be asked about anything. A child doesn’t ask about the importance of some enthusiasm they find, they simply pursue it and try to learn more about it. The older we get, the more likely that we feel pressure to do something that others will think important, and thus we lose some of the freedom of inquiry that makes exploration not just possible but interesting.
Before getting into some of the specifics that I want to talk about, I want to note, generally, how value is at least partly dependent on those who perceive it. I say “partly” because I want to avoid debate over whether value is entirely subjective. For the purposes of this post, I am purely interested in the subjective aspect of value, which is what counts if your concern is that no one cares about your work or if your interest is to get published, sell books, and inform, educate, or entertain others. Things are valuable if someone values them. Of course, different people value different things, so values attributed to various ideas may vary widely. The fact that many people do not recognize value in some X does not mean that X has no value.
Many scholars pursue topics from personal interest/value, even though their interests seem unimportant to few or no other people. This propensity to study that which others think important contributes to the stereotype of the “Ivory Tower” divorced from the “real world.” Having an unusual perspective almost guarantees that someone will accuse you of being out of touch with the real world (even if your unusual perspective is based on empirical study of the real world). When doing independent and original work, there is always the danger that your topic, whatever its validity or potential value, will not catch the popular trend of whatever research is in style, and may not get the respect your work might have earned had research trends developed in a different direction. At the same time, however, doing original work also has the potential reward of other people recognizing value where they had not seen it before. Scholars are supposed to do original work precisely because that originality—that value others had not seen before—is how the research community evolves.
In short, value has a large subjective element. Being original means seeing value where others have not, and then working to make that value apparent to other people, too. But seeing value where others have not also brings up the danger that other people won’t care (at least until they’re convinced that there is real value).
As a cry of despair, “who cares about X?” is an expression of the thought “no one cares about X; X is not important.” But as a question, it is amenable to the kind of analysis that scholars tend to carry out, and can provide insight into the topic at hand.
What happens when we take the question “who cares about X?” as the start of an intellectual exploration? What happens if we do as scholars do, and enumerate those who fall into the category of interest (i.e., the grouop of people who do care)? And when we examine reasons that people fall into the category? We may never be 100% sure of the motivations of others, but as scholars we can absolutely explore the possible motivations of people (including ourselves) and thus gain some insight into the possible importance of a subject. Simply examining who does care can offer a lot of insight.
Caring about some issue that doesn’t interest others can feel selfish, especially if that issue is somehow related to personal experience. People sometimes talk about “me-search” as a bad thing, but a question that is important to one person is often important to many, so “me-search” about some experience that you had may provide insight into an experience that many others also have.
Saying “I care because of my history,” that’s a weak foundation for research and seems fraught with personal bias. But if you go one analytical step, and say “I care because of my history, and my history of has characteristics X, Y, and Z,” then you move toward an academic statement in which something more general is being defined. Those characteristics X, Y, and Z, each may be relevant to many other people. The characteristics themselves are also subject to further analysis or definition, which could indicate other issues of relevance. The more you pursue that analytical approach, the more likely you are to find some connection to other issues and to issues that other people have found important. Your life experience may be unique, but even so, it shares similarities with the life experience of others. In those similarities lie the elements of ideas that concern many people.
Face your fears: exercise
If you lament that nobody cares about your work, you might benefit from facing those fears directly as part of an attempt to objectively analyze the potential audience from many different angles:
- Are there authors who have written about your subject? Who are they? We can assume they care about your work, or at least would be interested in other work in their field.
- Are there any authors who have written about specific aspects of your work (e.g., using a method from a different field or in a novel way, methodologists might be interested even if they’re not interested in your general topic)?
- Are there any people who would benefit from your insights?
It’s possibly also useful to make a matching list of people who don’t care. But in making such a list, don’t assume that people won’t care; stick to people that you know don’t care (e.g., colleagues who have explicitly expressed disdain; friends who just have different interests). If you want to exercise your imagination, exercise it trying to think about who might value your work, rather than those who would not.