Here’s a somewhat round-about explanation of this assertion… Bear with me through what might seem like a long way to get to an answer.
Once upon a time, when I was studying for a PhD, I joined a reading group. At the time I was enrolled at a university some 500 miles away from where I lived and it was hard to get there very often. I certainly couldn’t be part of an everyday research culture. I worked largely on my own, choosing the books and articles that seemed most germane to my topic.
Then, I was invited to join a reading group at a local university. The trouble was that all of the group was focused on literacy/ies and popular culture/s, while I was concerned with questions of policy and equity. There was of course some overlap between their concerns and my own, but their primary reading list looked very different from mine.
Nevertheless, I was keen to be part of a group and I was not uninterested in literacy/ies and popular culture/s so I decided that reading ‘outside’ my area would not be a major distraction. And I needed the sociality of the group.
As it turned out, the decision to respond positively to the invitation was a very good one. Initially, I was concerned that the group was reading a wide range of cultural ‘classics’, many of which I’d heard of but wouldn’t otherwise have picked up, since they didn’t seem to be required for my particular thesis. But this concern soon disappeared.
What I read with the group were books that sparked off ideas, and these made me think differently about the problem I was investigating. I made friends with some authors that were ultimately very useful in my research, even though I hadn’t imagined they would be. Indeed, they helped to provide the ‘originality’ of approach on which the examiners commented favorably. And some of these books and their authors have become staunch allies in the work I continue to do.
But equally important, I found that, in reading these books, I gained a deeper understanding of lots of others. And this is why reading widely and out of what seems to be the immediate area is important and useful.
Scholarship is highly inter-textual, that is, the texts that we write contain references to lots of other writings, often well beyond what is actually cited. This is writing of the kind that Bakhtin (1981) called heteroglossic. There are multiple layers of meaning in heteroglossic texts, and the more the reader understands the references that sit behind the actual writing surfaces, the more they get from their reading.
Let me give an example to make this a bit clearer. A text might contain a reference to surveillance. The actual piece might not explore this concept in any depth, if at all, because the writer assumes that the reader will bring to their reading an understanding of the way in which a theory of discipline and surveillance was explicated by Foucault. Even if Foucault is never ever mentioned, his work is there in the writing. It is hiding behind the term surveillance. If the reader understands this reference and its hidden allusions, then they will read the piece differently than someone who doesn’t have a clue that there is anything more to the term surveillance other than its dictionary meaning.
The point I am making here is that reading writings in the social sciences and/or arts and humanities is never just a question of reading the words on the page. It is always about inter-texuality and is dependent on what intellectual resources the reader can bring to the task. The more the reader understands key texts, histories of ideas, debates, traditions and trends within the discipline and field generally, the greater their appreciation and understanding of what is written is likely to be.
The upshot of my early reading group experience is that I’ve not forgotten the importance of reading outside my field. I currently have on my reading pile books about architecture, contemporary art practices, aesthetics, mobilities and memory. None of these seem to be directly related to my immediate research, but each of them is providing stimulation and new resources to think with. Overall, these disparate texts are deepening my understandings of knowledge-producing traditions in related areas and creating a deeper reservoir of potential meaning-making resources.
I now try to encourage doctoral students to read widely, and not just confine themselves to the ‘relevant’. Neither they nor I can predict how this wider reading might become directly applicable. But what I know from my own experiences, and about scholarship in general, is that much of it will at some time, and in some way, be worth-while. Of course this is not at the expense of what must be done in order to pass. But there is usually time, in a doctorate, to fit in more than the immediately utilitarian, and much to be gained from doing so.
Bakhtin, M. M. (1981) The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays. Ed. Michael Holquist. Trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. Austin and London: University of Texas Press.