Beginnings are tricky. Coming up with an opening sentence for a great big pile of paper is never easy, especially if it’s the first great big pile of paper you’ve written. When you’ve invested at least several years of your life in a project, it can be very difficult to find some way to introduce it to your reader.
It’s customary to start with a quotation or short vignette. One of the most famous of these is Foucault’s introduction to Discipline and Punish:
On 1 March 1757 Damiens the regicide was condemned “to make the amende honorable before the main door of the Church of Paris”, where he was to be “taken and conveyed in a cart, wearing nothing but a shirt, holding a torch of burning wax weighing two pounds”; then, “in the said cart, to the Place de Grève, where, on a scaffold that will be erected there, the flesh will be torn from his breasts, arms, thighs and claves with red-hot pincers, his right hand, holding the knife with which he committed the said parricide, burnt with sulphur, and, on those places where the flesh will be torn away, poured molten lead, boiling oil, burning resin, wax and sulphur melted together and then his body drawn and quartered by four horses and his limbs and body consumed by fire, reduced to ashes and his ashes thrown to the winds” …
This leads Foucault into a minutely description of the gory process which then shifts abruptly to the highly-regimented daily schedule laid down for ‘for the House of young prisoners in Paris’ in the early nineteenth century. These examples, he says, epitomise ‘a time when, in Europe and in the United States, the entire economy of punishment was redistributed … It was a new age for penal justice’. Although I disagree with much of Faucault’s argument here, as an introduction this is a brilliant example of the form.
Despite a strong temptation to buck this tradition, I started my PhD thesis with a quote from John Bunyan, the peripatetic Baptist preacher and allegorist. Although I stuck with that for the book, the first few paragraphs needed a lot of work. I’ll let you judge for yourself whether the result was successful. The point is: beginnings are tricky.
We begin with a stone. … Yes, with a stone. With a stone flying through the air, in the late 1690s, and hitting the head, the confident, ‘middling sort’, noggin of Thomas Smith, who at that present moment, was atop his horse, riding blithely down a road in Warwickshire, England. I think he was close to Warwick town, the county capital. But as I say, our friend Thomas was struck on the head by a stone, while atop his horse, a powerful symbol of his social status might I add, in the late 1690s.
Not bad at all. He goes on to introduce us to an ‘un-named, possibly scottish, vagrant woman who might have had an incredible fastball and a grudge against authority’. She alone is reason enough for me to want to read the thesis.
Is this tendency to open with a story confined mostly to historians and other humanists? Or is this something that social scientists do too?