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Caveat Emptor: Pop Scholarship in a Mass Media World

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I recently picked up a non-fiction book called Generation Me. I wasn’t expecting a monumental work, but about fifty pages in I set it aside in boredom and disgust. Bamboozled again, by my old nemesis: pop scholarship.

What is pop scholarship? Let’s break it down.

The author proposes a vague, generic ‘thesis’: the twilight of American culture, the “tipping point” of trends and fads, the American dream meeting American medicine, and so on. It’s not really a thesis so much as a catchphrase.

The next step is for the author to gather data and evidence for his ahem, thesis. But that takes a lot of work, so what really happens is that the author reads a few books on a similar topic and calls that research. Toss in some Wikipedia and a few journal articles for good measure, and presto! A bibliography. As far as statistics in pop scholarship: well, as the joke goes, “I never meta-analysis I didn’t like.”

By the way, when you read pop scholarship, take note that while there is a “Notes” section at the back of the back, there are no footnotes or endnotes actually in the text. Why not? Well, for one, the author and/or publisher is afraid that a potential reader will be turned off by seeing superscript numbers that correspond with the source of information. Second, when your research is shallow and shoddy and your sources reflect that, it makes sense to make it difficult for readers to keep tabs.

Anyway, once the research is gathered, it’s time to write. Actually, many of these works aren’t written at all: they’re dictated, which is why the prose of pop scholarship often sounds so colloquial or dumbed-down. Still, the authors are wily, and if they sense they’ve gone too far, even for pop scholarship, out come the academic buzzwords or jargon (anything containing “paradigm” or “gender roles” are especially handy).

But finally the drafting is done. Whew. Unfortunately, the manuscript is barely long enough for a good, in-depth magazine article, let alone a book. And this is another point about pop scholarship books. Most of them aren’t books at all. They’re simply bloated articles or blog entries sold as books. Of course, readers don’t realize this until long after the credit card is approved.

Back to the writing process, though. How can the author pump their flimsy essay into a book? Bring on the filler.

And this filler is the most offensive aspect of these “lite” non-fiction works. The pages sag with miniature book reviews, movie synopses, factoids, annoying repetition, newly-minted useless acronyms, and personal anecdotes, rather than primary-source data, investigative reporting, apt analogies and genuine insight. Generation Me is especially shameless with its never-ending TV and movie recaps, which make for delicious irony given the author’s griping about modern-day attention spans. In fact, an Amazon customer review from “Sam B” – and these reviews are usually the only honest ones of pop scholarship – points this out trenchantly:

While the beginning of the book is made up of one insight after another backed up by some quality and unique research,  the rest of the book is one point of hearsay after another backed up by quotes from Dawson’s Creek and Teen magazines. Seriously! I was shocked that a supposed academic would use dialogue from a television show as insight into a generation, and then have the audacity to call it “research”. She would actually use fictional television dialogue to lend support to her analysis. If she hoped to define a generation, a lot more is needed than pop culture references.

Well said, Sam B. I’d also note that: 1) that beginning of the book might have made a good article, and 2) I often find blatant mistakes when authors quote TV/movie lines, which raises the question of  whether the author has actually seen them, or just heard about them.

Finally, the manuscript is finished and polished up. One last thing to do, and here I give the authors and editors a lot of genuine credit: think up a catchy and far-reaching title. Or perhaps I’ve got it wrong. Maybe the catchy title comes first. (Either way, like Slate articles, the book never lives up to the title.) Then it’s time to solicit bombastic blurbs, most of which will contain the word “Brilliant,” and ship it off.

Here I could delve into some “solutions” to pop scholarship, such as keeping articles and pamphlets as articles and pamphlets. But there’s no use. We’re free to print whatever we want (a good thing), and clearly the economics of pop scholarship work out on some level, at least for now. If readers want their ideas watered-down, filled with third-hand “data,” and sugarcoated with elementary prose and fun TV examples, then why not give it to them? If I were a publisher, I might do the same.

All I can really do, then, is to offer a warning to serious readers. By draping a scholarly robe over puny “infotainment,” these slapdash works of pop scholarship, despite their right to be written and sold, are simply a waste of readers’ time and money. Caveat emptor.

(Hm, that could work, actually… See how easy it is?)

M. Elias Keller grew up in Bucks County, PA and earned degrees in Anthropology and Urban Studies from the University of Pennsylvania. He recently published Strange Case of Mr. Bodkin & Father Whitechapel, a companion novel to Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde. Visit his blog at

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