I recently wrote an academic encyclopedia entry for my area of specialization; it was strange. The first reason for strangeness is that I associate writing encyclopedia entries with graduate school. Several of my graduate student colleagues wrote encyclopedia entries that had been passed on to them by professors – sometimes these professors coauthored the entries and sometimes they did not. This association is likely faulty – I’m sure that many professors, even those at my graduate institution, have written encyclopedia entries that I am not aware of since they aren’t likely to be publicized much – but it still made the thought of writing one myself seem strange.
This association was easily overcome by the fact that writing the entry would be relatively easy since it in my area of expertise and it would count as a form of the “evidence of scholarly activity” my school wants to see; the second was more difficult. The instructions and sample encyclopedia entry made it clear that I was to write with no citations in an authoritative tone. As an academic, the first of these requirements was difficult. After years of citing everything and instructing my students to do the same, I had a hard time writing about research findings without the context provided by authors and dates. As a sociologist, the practice of writing in an authoritative tone was also difficult. I’ve read a number of psychological studies where the authors state that their findings “prove” a hypothesis while sociologists are more likely to say that their findings “demonstrate” something. For the encyclopedia entry, though, I had to write as if the findings by one or two groups of researchers could be taken as fact. I attempted to overcome this as much as possible by mentioning the context in which studies were conducted (e.g., “a nationally representative sample” or “a study of women in their 30s”).
In the end, I think that the difficulties I experienced were similar to the obstacles sociologists face when communicating with the general public. We like to emphasize the contexts in which research was conducted in order to recognize the diversity of the social world. This diversity also prevents us from making broad declarative statements regarding the generalizability of our findings. The public, or at least the media that typically exposes the public to our research, likes short, easily digestible statements (possibly in bullet-point form). Finding a comfortable middle ground is a challenge that we have to face if we want to reach beyond the ivory tower.