Citation styles, Foucault, and power.

As I’ve been writing my dissertation there have been fragments, ideas and passages I’ve thought worth keeping, but don’t fit in.  Its a perennial problem of mine, having too many ideas, something that frustrates those I work with as I trip from one thing to the next.  I thought that I would blog some of thse fragments as ‘works in progress’, ideas I might take up some other time.  They are in no way finished but may crop up again in another form, or just lie here.

Citation Styles, Foucault and power.

Citation styles are a complicated artefact of academic discipline. Zotero makes over 1,000 styles available to its users, each a different combination of how exactly to refer to a book, newspaper or journal article, podcast, webpage, radio programme, or any other source that an author may want to refer to. The initial intention of imposing a style is to standardise the way a work is referred to so a reader can follow up in their own research, and to attribute ideas and work due to others. Given that the overall aim is for citation styles to oblige the author to refer to other sources in a consistent manner within a specific publication, why is that consistency not carried across publications? Admittedly, there are a number of citation styles that dominate: MLA, Chicago, APA, (Modern Language Association 2010; University of Chicago 2010; American Psychological Association 2010) and a few others. However, after these the field splinters into the one style per publication model.

I would argue that this splintering follows the lines drawn by each academic discipline, as it revolves around its own discourse setting. In a Foucauldian sense, each discipline creates an internal set of power/knowledge(s) that have the effect of distancing themselves from others, as well as internally strengthening themselves. (references needed) [much much more about Foucault and power and discourse]

The very existence of over a 1,000 academic citation styles is a bald reflection of the splintering of academic discourse itself. Each is intended to simplify, codify and standardise references to academic thought, but the result is to obfuscate and strengthen the boundaries between disciplines. An academic writing a paper for one publication must adhere to the style imposed by it, and if they want to submit the same paper to another publication (in the awful circumstance it was rejected) then they have to do a lot of dull work in learning and then submitting to reworking all the citation styles.

Zotero, and other bibliographical managers, attempt to solve what it sees as a technical problem by capturing information about sources, and storing it in a standard internal manner. You can then choose to format the output of the citations in any style supported by the software in question. As usual, with a technical solution to a non-technical problem, technology can prove useful to paper over the issue, but it never resolves. Zotero has tried to help by working with a team dedicated to a project working on an open Citation Style Language which can describe all the ways a source can be referenced using the meta-markup language XML.

[and on it goes…]


American Psychological Association, 2010. APA Style. Available at: [Accessed July 19, 2010]., 2010. | The Citation Style Language – open and free citation styles. Available at: [Accessed July 20, 2010].

Modern Language Association, 2010. The MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers and the MLA Style Manual and Guide to Scholarly Publishing. Available at: [Accessed July 19, 2010].

University of Chicago, 2010. The Chicago Manual of Style Online: Chicago-Style Citation Quick Guide. Available at: [Accessed July 19, 2010].

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *