Of group sizes and word counts


in Geek stuff, Oxford, Politics, The environment

Lincoln College, Oxford

According to Malcolm Gladwell, something fundamental happens to human organizations once they grow beyond 150 people. This is called Dunbar’s Number. If you take the size of a primate’s neocortex, relative to the rest of its brain, you will find a close correlation to the expected maximum group size for that species.1 This number corresponds to village sizes, as seen around the world, to the sizes of effective military units, and to the size at which Hutterite communities split up. It seems that, above this size, organizations require complex hierarchies, rules, regulations, and formal measures to operate efficiently.

I think that something very similar happens to pieces of academic writing, once they get beyond about 5,000 words. That is the point where my ability to hold the entire thing at once in my mind fails, often leading to duplication and confusion. Even with two levels of sub-divisions, things simply become unmanageable at that point and I go from feeling total control over a piece of writing (2,500 words) to feeling that it has sprawled a bit (3-4,000 words) to feeling rather daunted by the whole thing. With my revised second chapter at 5,700 words and three to seven hours left prior to submission, I am certainly feeling as though things have grown beyond the bounds of good sense and comprehensibility.

[1] Gladwell, Malcolm. The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference. Back Bay Books; New York, 2000. p.179

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Milan March 4, 2007 at 7:08 pm

My plan is to have three substantive chapters of about 7,000 words, with an introduction and conclusion of just under 5000 words each.

Within the substantive chapters, the plan is to have several sections that are logically seperable from one another. For chapter two, they are:

Introduction and definition of ‘problems’
Climate Change
Comparisons and themes

None should even approach 5,000 words. My problems right now are as much about being sick to death of this particular chapter (which I have been hammering at for X days straight) as with the length issues above.

Anonymous March 4, 2007 at 7:11 pm

I am betting most people would rather read about something other than your thesis.

Maybe Kerrie’s idea of making this a thesis-free-zone is a good one.

R.K. March 4, 2007 at 6:03 pm

You could always write six 5000 word chapters.

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: