On Assuming Mental Paralysis

A fellow graduate student recently asked me how I approach literature reviews. This question of how to find, read, and synthesize a body (or more) of research is central to producing good academic work. Yet it brings to mind Bellatrix Lestrange’s vault in Gringotts, where every paper you read yields six more until you’re neck deep with no foreseeable way out.

When I first started studying parents and social media use, I was content with Irwin Altman’s definition of privacy as controlling access to the self. Digging deeper, I learned to think of privacy as contextual integrity (thanks to Helen Nissenbaum) and as boundary management (thanks to Sandra Petronio). As I continued studying privacy over the years, I learned that lawyers, psychologists, communication scholars, economists, and computer scientists all conceptualize privacy in different ways. During my first year in the PhD, I considered creating a disciplinary map of privacy for a class project but quickly realized that was a much bigger undertaking than I imagined.

I’ve grown familiar with the feeling. I took a seminar with Jason Farman on “Place, Space, and Identity in the Digital Age,” and saw that entire careers can (and have) been built around each of these concepts. Place isn’t just a label on a physical space, it’s objects and bodies and relationships and memories and information flows and more coming together in a particular arrangement at a particular moment. Identity isn’t just a list of demographic characteristics, it’s the facets, fragments, memories, experiences, beliefs, roles, imaginaries and more that constantly intersect and intertwine into you. And this morning, while reading John Law’s “Objects and Spaces,” I realized that we can’t even take physical, 3-D, Euclidean space as a given.


It’s easy to see moments like these as overwhelming, paralyzing even. Especially when you do interdisciplinary research and plan to borrow theories and methods from other disciplines. Or to see these moments as challenges, as piles of reading to conquer so that you can one day claim the prize of “knowing” something.

But these moments keep happening. So the options are to feel constantly overwhelmed or to see grand quests pile up, neither of which is healthy (nor encouraging). I’ve come to an alternate response after starting a daily meditation practice: Let it go.

Let go of the overwhelm. Let go of the fear. Let go of the burden. Worried you don’t have time to read everything? Let it go. Concerned that you might overlook something? Let it go. Dreading the moment another scholar tells you, “Yeah, but what about [totally separate body of work that may or may not be relevant to your topic]?” Let it go.

It sounds simple, I know. But these three words, combined with the acknowledgement, acceptance, and even embrace of the vast, unimaginable, and ultimately unknowable amount of prior work out there is freeing.

I spent all day brainstorming the verb for this post’s title. When I do literature reviews, and when I do research in general, I want to assume mental paralysis. Meaning, I want to assume that I will experience moments of mental paralysis, of viewing the work ahead as a sheer, insurmountable rock wall I somehow have to climb, as a tangled thicket in dark jungle through which I have to chop my way out.

But I also want to take up the mental paralysis, to wear it as a badge, to make it part of me. Because even after I climb this wall or chop through those vines, there will be another wall, another tangle. And by accepting that, I hope to take greater joy in those moments when I DO learn something, when a concept finally DOES click in my head, even if it falls apart again a moment later. By acknowledging and expecting the complexity, I release the sense that I need to master it, to someday “figure it out.”

And that, I suppose, is how I approach literature reviews.

(Oh, and for anyone who wants actual advice on how to do a literature review, Raul Pacheco-Vega has a series of relevant blog posts.)




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