Yesterday, while waiting to receive back comments from my committee on the finalized prospectus draft, I finally wrote my abstract. The dissertation abstract distills the project down to one page, emphasizing the major questions, arguments, interventions, and case studies that underpin the study. I dreaded this task for weeks. My study is SO BIG! I intervene into three historiographies using three case studies, which gives the study a national scope yet focuses on three very local examples. I examine the issues I'm interested in from both a top-down and bottom-up perspective, reading the reports and records of leaders and organizations and gleaning the "lived experience" and agency of grassroots actors. How the heck can you summarize a project like that in one page!?
Well, the truth is, you can't. I managed to draw out the most salient points and arguments I plan to make, but the abstract feels very flat to me. That's the whole point, and in fact it's what makes an abstract useful. It's oversimplified and easy for a non-expert reader to digest. I struggle with it, however, because it feels somehow untruthful. It's an obfuscation, by definition, of all the complexity and nuance that really explain why events in the past happened the way they did. The best arguments manage to hint at this messiness while delivering clarity, but this project is still so new that my argument has yet to develop this sophistication.
The good news is that the abstract may evolve along with the dissertation, and I'll have more than ample opportunities to revise and rewrite it. I'm sure that by this time next year I'll be on my tenth version, and I'll still hate the abstract--but by then, I hope it will just be because I'm sick of re-doing it!