In this series, we examine how Umberto Eco’s book, ‘How to Write a Thesis,’ can be used to help writers improve their focus, research smarter and get any writing project done faster. In part 10, we examine the skills of cross-referencing.
There are many research techniques and processes explored in Umberto Eco’s recently-English-translated book, “How to Write a Thesis” that many veteran and novice writers can learn from. One technique the author praises is cross-referencing, which Eco says results in a well-organized thesis.
In this blog post, we examine the skills of cross-referencing, which helps us find the center and periphery of our work.
Why cross-referencing is important, according to Eco:
- Cross-referencing avoids unnecessary repetition; and demonstrates the cohesion of the work as a whole.
- Cross-referencing can signify that the same concept is valid from two different points of view.
- Cross-referencing can show that the same example demonstrates two different arguments.
- Cross-referencing can show that what has been said in a general sense is also applicable to a specific point in the same study.
It’s a tool to sew through-lines in your work to parts of itself (from one idea in one chapter to another idea in a different chapter, or from an idea in your text to a part in another author’s text). It demonstrates how a piece of writing and the original ideas within it, fold into, or are connect to other thought-systems that came before it.
Let’s take a modern-day idea called the “world systems paradigm” to demonstrate why cross-referencing is crucial to making your ideas clear.
Penned by sociologist Immanuel Wallerstein, the “world systems paradigm” claims that the world can be divided into “core” countries, “semi-periphery” countries and “periphery” countries linked together under a global and capitalist economy.
Core areas like the U.S., Canada, and the European Union draw into their inter-regional orbs higher skilled workers, higher wages and capital-intensive production.
Meanwhile, semi-periphery areas like China, Brazil and India and some parts of Southeast Asia, show signs of having high-tech industries and better-educated populations but also suffer from what periphery areas like Africa and Central America face such as a low-skills workforce, labor-intensive production and/or intense extraction of raw materials.
Taking this example of writing a thesis on the world systems paradigm, how would Eco help an audience of thesis-novices find the center and periphery for a paper on this topic?
Steps to establishing a thesis’ center
Eco explains that the logical structure of a thesis contains: topic, center and periphery, and ramifications. (To see a more detailed breakdown of his logical structure for a thesis, see the Tree Diagram).
Here are some helpful tips Eco gives for finding the center of a thesis:
- Don’t assume your audience of scholars or your advisor knows all the terms you are using or referring to. So, first step is to define your terms, unless they are irrefutable canonical terms of the discipline. Define all technical terms used as key categories in your argument.
In a world systems paradigm paper, it might be good for the writer to define what is meant by the use of the words, such as: “core,” “semi-periphery,” and “periphery” and why they might differ from words such as, “industrialized” or “underdeveloped.”
- Don’t presume readers have done the work you have. Clearly introduce the ideas of other authors from which you will compare, contrast and share points with.
Clearly, a writer would quickly summarize and cross-reference all the thought-systems that are related to the world systems paradigm, such as dependency theory, economic anthropology and political economy. There would be clear cross-references to the Marxist tradition and the Annales school.
Hinting at a thesis’ periphery
It could be argued that there is no end to cross-referencing. A writer, frustrated with too much information, might shrug their shoulders and simply say: well, everything is related to everything else!
Eco wants writers to focus by holding their ground and stating boldly what is the center of their thesis. He says writers can do that by defining their terms and being explicit. Yet there is no denying that like one constellation has a bridge to other constellations, a cross-reference lets the writer allude to a network of other people’s ideas which feed and nurture your main ideas, but also opens up new key questions.
The periphery is a way of suggesting to your readers, areas of research questions that you could not and did not cover in this thesis, but others could take on given the ground you’ve covered.
To extend that to a paper on the world systems paradigm, a writer might raise new questions in the periphery, such as:
- What causes world systems to change?
- What are possible indicators to track or predict the change from the existing hierarchy of core and periphery nations now to what might happen in the future?
Good writers and major thinkers often concede that nothing they write about comes out of a vacuum. Whatever ideas they present are linked to other pathways. It’s what makes research and writing an endlessly fruitful endeavor. Even though a reader is thoroughly engaged in the current work you are presenting them, cross-references show the reverence you have to a “periphery,” where countless thought system exists, or can be discovered.
Read other articles in this writing series:
- Research Like a Pro: The Professor’s Guide to Smarter Writing Research
- Why Academic Humility Is an Essential Part of Research and Writing
- Free-Writing and Journaling: Tools to Activate Original Ideas
- We Love Libraries: A Writer’s Endless Treasure Trove for Ideas
- Cultivating Old Sources for New Stories: Treat Them Like Your First Love