Instrumentally rational academics are supposed to avoid book chapters like the plague. They are not prestigious. They do not get cited very much. They are often hard to access. They tend to take forever to be published. As one colleague likes to say: “Friends do not let friends write book chapters.”
And yet I end up doing it again and again, sometimes quite like it.
As I see it, the key issue is not what the book chapter itself can do for me, but what the process of writing it can help me do. This may not be instrumentally rational, but perhaps reasonable.
I’ve found the genre helpful in three ways in particular (and I hope the outcome is sometimes useful for others). I think of them as (1) argumentative chapters, (2) trailer chapters, and (3) review chapters.
First, argumentative chapters—a book chapter can be a useful way of developing an argument that is interpretive and personal, a genre that contemporary social science is not very hospitable to. For example, I thoroughly enjoyed thinking through the relationship between digital technology and democracy as I wrote my entry for Ben Peter’s Digital Keywords. It’s help me share some thoughts that underlie quite a lot of other things I do and also generated a lot of really interesting discussions at various presentations in recent years.
Second, trailer chapters. A book chapter can help test out ideas in advance of a larger empirical project operationalizing the underlying concerns. For example, back in 2014, I wrote a chapter on varieties of online gatekeeping (which now, more than two years later, is on its way out…) that helped me formulate some of the questions I am now pursuing in a project focusing on the relationship between digital intermediaries and news organizations.
Third, review chapters—a book chapter can help structure a systematic review of a field of research, something I did for example when I wrote this handbook chapter on the business of journalism which after further revisions has come out in the new SAGE Handbook of Digital Journalism. Writing such a chapter imposes an obligation to really review what is out there, but also make judgements about what the most important findings are.
It’s clear that there are other times where a book chapter does not help develop a personal, interpretive argument, trail a research program, or review a field.
But hey—academics are in a high waste business. Much of what we do have no impact at all, even within our own internal discussions.
It’s hard to know in advance what will help you and what might help others, so maybe hard and fast judgements for or against a whole genre are a bit premature. Of course we need to make choices, and especially junior academics have to think about not only what they value, but also what their field values.
But not everything we do need to be instrumentally rational, as long as it is intellectually useful, and I’ve found even much-maligned book chapters intellectually useful for some things.