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Social Work

Social Work Library Guide

Why do we cite?

Why We Cite: Whose voices are we uplifting?

Understanding why we cite and the politics of citation is important, perhaps more important than knowing how to cite in a specific style. The feminist theorist Sara Ahmed describes citation as memory. In her book, Living a Feminist Life, she writes about her choice not to cite any white men. Citation matters because we are making a decision about whose voices we are uplifting.

My citation policy has given me more room to attend to those feminists who came before me. Citation is feminist memory. Citation is how we acknowledge our debt to those who came before; those who helped us find our way when the way was obscured because we deviated from the paths we were told to follow. In this book, I cite feminists of color who have contributed to the project of naming and dismantling institutions of patriarchal whiteness.

-Sara Ahmed Living a Feminist Life

In many fields, from economics to geography to communications, the voices of white men are cited far more than any others. Annabel L. Kim writes about citation itself as an object of inquiry, building on the work of Sara Ahmed and the #citeblackwomen movement:

...they articulate the way citation most often violently erases the contributions of minoritized scholars such as women and people of color, thus abetting the continued consolidation of intellectual influence in a white, heteronormative, masculine center.

-(Kim, 2020)

Some databases, such as Google Scholar, Scopus, and Web of Science, indicate how many times a work has been cited. In Web of Science and Scopus you can even sort by highest citations. Often highly cited papers are foundational to particular theories or areas of research, but it's important to interrogate this. If a work is not cited highly, it doesn't necessarily mean that work isn't a significant contribution to the field.

Questions to consider

  • Who are we citing, and why?
  • Should we only cite peer-reviewed articles?
  • Is there benefit in citing non-peer-reviewed sources?
  • How does the peer-review process and measure of impact factor of journals perpetuate or dismantle systems of oppression?
  • How are social workers creating and sharing best practice knowledge outside the academy?

Further reading:

Ahmed, S. 2017. Living a feminist life. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Chakravartty, P., Kuo, R., Grubbs, V., & McIlwain, C. (2018). #CommunicationSoWhite. Journal of Communication, 68(2), 254–266.

D'Ignazio, C. & Klein, L. F. (2020). Data feminism. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Kim, A. L. (2020). The politics of citation. Diacritics, 48(3), 4–9.

McKittrick, K. (2021). Footnotes: Books and papers scattered about the floor. In Dear Science and other stories. (pp. 14-34). Duke University Press.

Mott, C., & Cockayne, D. (2017). Citation matters: Mobilizing the politics of citation toward a practice of ‘conscientious engagement.’ Gender, Place & Culture, 24(7), 954–973.

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Holiday Vega
Librarian for Health, Psychology, and Social Work