Tenured professor at Boulder says she is being forced out over lecture on prostitution

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Students and alumni rally around tenured professor who says she is being forced out because her lecture about prostitution (in a course on deviance) might make some people uncomfortable.

Princeton grad student takes on the humanities crisis from a decidedly gendered perspective

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Everyone seems to have a theory as to why humanities majors are disappearing. One doctoral student thinks the trend is due to women's widening career paths. His notion is gaining traction.

Review of Darin Weinberg, 'Contemporary Social Constructionism: Key Themes'

Like a t-shirt that used to say something you can’t quite read anymore, a piece of terminology will sometimes grow so faded, or be worn so thin, that retiring it seems long overdue. The threadbare expression “socially constructed” is one of them. It’s amazing the thing hasn’t disintegrated already.

In its protypical form -- as formulated in the late 1920s, in the aphorism known as the Thomas theorem – the idea was bright and shapely enough: “If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences.” In a culture that regards the ghosts of dead ancestors as full members of the family, it’s necessary to take appropriate actions not to offend them; they will have a place at the table. Arguments about the socially constructed nature of reality generalize the Thomas theorem more broadly: we have access to the world only through the beliefs, concepts, categories, and patterns of behavior established by the society in which we live.

The idea lends itself to caricature, of course, particularly when it comes to discussion of the socially constructed nature of something brute and immune to argumentation like, say, the force of gravity. “Social constructivists think it’s just an idea in your head,” say the wits. “Maybe they should prove it by stepping off a tall building!”

Fortunately the experiment is not often performed. The counterargument from gravity is hardly so airtight as its makers like to think, however. The Thomas theorem holds that imaginary causes can have real effects, But that hardly implies that reality is just a product of the imagination.

And as for gravity -- yes, of course it is “constructed.” The observation that things fall to the ground is several orders of abstraction less than a scientific concept. Newton’s development of the inverse square law of attraction, its confirmation by experiment, and the idea’s diffusion among the non-scientific public – these all involved institutions and processes that are ultimately social in nature.

Isn’t that obvious? So it seems to me. But it also means that everything counts as socially constructed, if seen from a certain angle, which may not count as a contribution to knowledge.

A new book from Temple University Press, Darin Weinberg’s Contemporary Social Constructionism: Key Themes, struggles valiantly to defend the idea from its sillier manifestations and its more inane caricatures. The author is a reader in sociology and fellow at King’s College, University of Cambridge. “While it is certainly true that a handful of the more extravagant and intellectually careless writers associated with constructionism have abandoned the idea of using empirical evidence to resolve debates,” he writes, not naming any names but manifestly glaring at people over in the humanities, “they are a small and shrinking minority.”

Good social constructionist work, he insists, “is best understood as a variety of empirically grounded social scientific research,” which by “turn[ing] from putatively universal standards to the systematic scrutiny of the local standards undergirding specific research agendas” enables the forcing of “the tools necessary for discerning and fostering epistemic progress.”

The due epistemic diligence of the social scientists renders them utterly distinct from the postmodernists and deconstructionists, who, by Weinberg's reckoning, have done great damage to social constructionism’s credit rating. “While they may encourage more historically and politically sensitive intuitions regarding the production of literature,” he allows, “they are considerably less helpful when it comes to designing, implementing, and debating the merits of empirically grounded social scientific research projects.”

And that is being nice about it. A few pages later, Weinberg pronounces anathema upon the non-social scientific social-constructionists. They are “at best pseudo-empirical and, at worst, overtly opposed to the notion that empirical evidence might be used to improve our understanding of the world or resolve disputes about worldly events.”

Such hearty enthusiasm for throwing his humanistic colleagues under the bus is difficult to gainsay, even when one doubts that a theoretical approach to art or literature also needs to be “helpful when it comes to designing, implementing, and debating the merits of empirically grounded social scientific research projects.” Such criticisms are not meant to be definitive of Weinberg’s project. A sentence like “Derrida sought to use ‘deconstruction’ to demonstrate how specific readings of texts require specific contextualizations of them” is evidence chiefly of the author’s willingness to hazard a guess.

The book’s central concern, rather, is to defend what Weinberg calls “the social constructionist ethos” as the truest and most forthright contemporary manifestation of sociology’s confidence in its own disciplinary status. As such, it stresses “the crucially important emphases” that Weinberg sees as implicit in the concept of the social – emphases “on shared human endeavor, on relation over isolation, on process over stasis, and on collective over individual, as well as the monumental epistemic value of showing just how deeply influenced we are by the various sociohistorical contexts in which we live and are sustained.”

But this positive program is rarely in evidence so much as Weinberg’s effort to close off “the social” as something that must not and cannot be determined by anything outside itself – the biological, psychological, economic, or ecological domains, for example. “The social” becomes a kind of demiurge: constituting the world, then somehow transcending its manifestations.

It left this reader with the sense of witnessing a disciplinary turf war, extended to almost cosmological dimensions. The idea of social construction is a big one, for sure. But even an XXL can only be stretched just so far before it turns baggy and formless -- and stays that way for good.

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Review of Thomas Joiner, 'The Perversion of Virtue: Understanding Murder-Suicide'

Two people who died at a San Francisco nursing home on Monday night appear to have been victims of a murder-suicide; they were mother and daughter, though few other details have yet been released. A police officer and "self-confessed gun nut" in Dallas extolled the qualities of his new shotgun in a video posted online a few days before using it to kill his wife and then himself last week. It's reported that his jealousy was stoked by her Facebook socializing. The lack of evident motive makes even more horrific the scene in a Chicago suburb, also last week. After killing his parents and his 5 year old nephew, a man set the house on fire, then shot himself.

These events all occurred during the short time it took me to read The Perversion of Virtue: Understanding Murder-Suicide by Thomas Joiner, a professor of psychology at Florida State University, just published by Oxford University Press. The author estimates that around 2 percent of suicides in the United States are accompanied by the murder of at least one other person. It averages out to slightly more than two murder-suicides per day.

Nearly 90 percent of "ordinary" murders are committed by men, who also make up most (at least 75 percent) of the body count. With murder-suicide, the figures are significantly different: the perpetrators are male more than 90 percent of time, while 75 percent of the victims are female. "Both murder per se and suicide per se involve firearms between 55 percent and 70 percent of the time," the author indicates. "The rate in murder-suicide is considerably higher, with some studies returning rates approaching 100 percent."

But there is the very rare exception, such as the man who killed his wife with an injection cyanide before swallowing some himself. In this case, it was a matter of convenience: "He was a jeweler, and jewelers frequently use cyanide for their wares." Firearms and poison alike can be used in both stages of murder-suicide, while the man who killed his wife and son with a baseball bat three years ago couldn't exactly turn the weapon back on himself. Yet he "did nevertheless arrange that he be bludgeoned to death," Joyner writes; "he placed himself in front of an oncoming passenger train."

An article about the apparent murder-suicide of a man and woman in Cleveland last month reported: "Police have not said which of the two victims they believe was murdered. They also have not revealed why they believe the deaths are the result of a murder-suicide." I have not been able to find more recent news about the case, but Joiner's book makes a confident guess possible on both points.

The author is a prominent specialist in the study of suicidal behavior, and his goal in The Perversion of Virtue is to create "a comprehensive yet parsimonious typology" for what he calls "true murder-suicide." He excludes cases in which a murderer commits suicide to avoid punishment after the attempt to escape has failed, or still rarer instances of the suicide causing someone else's death by accident (say, a pedestrian killed by a building-jumper). In murder-suicide proper, the perpetrator's decision to kill himself is the primary factor. All else follows from it, through a morbid logic in which the thought of the victim(s) continuing to live is "the final barrier to suicide ... in the perpetrator's mind." The resolution to kill himself "necessitates, through an appeal to virtue, the death of at least one other person."

Virtue seems a peculiar word to find in this context, but it is the key to the book's four-compartment typology, defined by the venerable higher goods of mercy, justice, duty, and glory. The perpetrator of murder-suicide considers the death of the other(s) as required by at least one, and possibly two, of the four virtues. The act entails "a perverted and horribly distorted version of [virtue] to be sure," say Joiner, who also indicates that that the decision is always a product of mental illness. From the perspective of anyone but the killer, a murder-suicide compelled by the demands of justice is simply a matter of revenge: the abusive parent or the ex-spouse's infidelity damaged the suicidal person so badly that life is unbearable, but even more unbearable is the idea of them getting away with it.

Conversely, the murder may be committed as an act of violent mercy: a way to spare the victim (or victims) suffering in the wake of the suicide, as when parents in a suicide pact also kill their children. Not altogether distinct from such mercy killings are cases in which the perpetrator feels responsible for a severely ill or otherwise incapacitated person, so that killing them is a duty to be performed before committing suicide.

Finally, and the hardest of the four to regard with sympathy, is murder-suicide as a quest for glory. The primary example Joiner considers is the Columbine killers, who hoped to exceed Timothy McVeigh's death toll, and might have, had their bombs worked. The carnage of Jonestown and Heaven's Gate might also be relevant examples of murder-suicide pursued in the interest of their leaders' heroic self-concept, which to anyone else just looks like grandiosity. Orchestrating mass death was as close to glory as they ever got.

Parsimony, too, is a virtue, though more of the intellectual than moral variety. Having narrowed the scope of the term "murder-suicide," with stress on the suicidal impulse as its driving force, Joiner takes an inductive leap by suggesting a four-part typology of the rationales perpetrators create for their violent actions. Near the end of the book, he points out that the virtues of mercy, justice, duty, and glory can be further reduced to two categories: "one, combining mercy and duty, in which feelings of care and empathy for others are high (if distorting) and another, combining justice and glory, in which callousness and carelessness predominate." But he stops short of pushing any further toward schematism. And a good thing too. Like any virtue, parsimony gone wrong becomes a vice.

Just what value does the taxonomy itself have? Joiner suggests that it could be useful in talking to patients considered potentially violent. People with plans for suicide can be extremely reticent to reveal much about themselves, but a carefully delivered question about some aspect of the four virtues might be useful in assessing their state of mind.

For the lay reader, there's a certain relief at learning some kind of order or intelligibility can be found amidst all the mayhem. If, in addition, the book prevents even one more horror of the kind it describes, it will have served its purpose.


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Review of Goran Therborn, 'The Killing Fields of Inequality'

In one of those cases where satire cannot trump cold hard fact, the power brokers and heavy thinkers who gathered at an Alpine resort in Davos, Switzerland, for the World Economic Forum last month expressed great concern about the danger that growing inequality poses to social stability everywhere. As well they might.

Strictly speaking, "widening income disparities" was only one of 10 issues flagged by the Forum's Outlook on the Global Agenda 2014 report, along with "a lack of values in leadership" and "the rapid spread of misinformation online." But a couple of concerns on the list -- "persistent structural unemployment" and "the diminishing confidence in economic policies" -- were variations on the same theme. Two or three other topics were related to income disparity only a little less directly

In case you didn't make it to Davos last month (my invitation evidently got lost in the mail this year ... as it has every year, come to think of it), another gathering this summer will cover much of the same ground. The 18th World Congress of the International Sociological Association -- meeting in Yokohama, Japan, in mid-July -- has as its theme "Facing an Unequal World: Challenges for Global Sociology." The scheduling of their events notwithstanding, it was the sociologists who were really farsighted about the issue of growing inequality, not the "Davos men." The ISA announced the theme for its congress as early as December 2010.

And the conversation in Japan is sure to be more focused and substantive. A lot of business networking goes on during the World Economic Forum. By some accounts, the topic of inequality figured more prominently in the news releases than in actual discussions among participants. It's almost as if all of Bono's efforts at Davos were for nought.

Available a solid six months before the sociologists put their heads together in Yokohama, Goran Therborn's The Killing Fields of Inequality (Polity) ought to steer the public's thinking into deeper waters than anything that can be reached with a reductive notion like "widening income disparities." Money provides one measure of inequality, but so do biomedical statistics, which record what Therborn, a professor emeritus of sociology at the University of Cambridge, calls "vital inequality." (Income disparities fall under the heading of "resource inequalities," along with disparities in access to nutrition, education, and other necessities of life.)

A third, less quantifiable matter is "existential inequality," which Therborn defines as "the unequal allocation of personhood, i.e., of autonomy, dignity, degrees of freedom, and of rights to respect and self-development." A big-tent concept of Therborn's own making, existential inequality covers the limitations and humiliations imposed by racism, sexism, and homophobia but also the experience of "people with handicaps and disabilities or just the indigent overlorded by poorhouse wardens or condescending socio-medical powerholders," among others.

While analytically distinct, the three forms of inequality tend to be mutually reinforcing, often in perfectly understandable but no less miserable ways: "Nationwide U.S. surveys of the last decade show that the lower the income of their parents, the worse is the health of the children, whether measured in overall health assessment, limitations on activity, school absence for illness, emergency ward visits, or hospital days."

The differences in health between the offspring of well-off and low-income parents "have been measured from the child's age of two, and the differentials then grow with age." A study of mortality rates among men in Central and East European countries shows a pattern of higher education corresponding to a longer life; men with only a primary education not only died earlier but were more prone to longstanding illnesses. (The patterns among women were comparable "but differentials are smaller, less than half the male average.")

Such inequalities within countries look small compared to those between countries, of course -- and Therborn piles up the examples of so many varieties of inequality from such diverse places that it becomes, after a while, either numbing or unbearable. Generalization is hazardous, but the pattern seems to be that a considerable variety of inequalities, both inter- and intranational, has sharpened over the past 30 years or so. Not even the author's own country of origin, Sweden -- so long the promised land for social democrats -- has been spared. Therborn's study of income developments in the Stockholm Metropolitan area between 1991 and 2010 showed that "the less affluent 80 percent of the population saw their income share decline, while the most prosperous 10 percent had their share augmented from 25 to 32 percent."

Furthermore, the share of the income that top tenth earned from playing the Stockholm Stock Exchange grew 282 percent over the same period. In Sweden as elsewhere, "the top side of intra-national inequality is driven primarily by capital expansion and concentration, and that at the bottom by (politically alterable) policies to keep the poor down and softened up to accept anything."

It seems unlikely that the CEOs, financiers, and politicians at Davos ever had it put to them quite like that. But Therborn seems equally unhappy with his own discipline, which he thinks has somehow managed to dodge thinking about inequality as such.

"Among the fifty odd Research Committees of the International Sociological Association," he writes, "there is not one focused on inequality." The closest approximation is the one on "Social Stratification," which he says "has mainly been interested in intergenerational social mobility."

That mobility having been, for the most part, upwards. But the distance from the bottom of society to its top verges ever more on the dystopian. In a rare flourish, Therborn invokes the alternative: "the positive lure of enlightened societies governed by rational and inclusive deliberation, where nobody is outcast or humiliated, and where everybody has a chance to develop his/her abilities."

To reach it, or even to move in that direction, implies a battle. "Nobody knows how it will end," he concludes. "Which side will you be on?"

I don't think he's asking just the people who will be there in Yokohama this summer.

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Sociology professor whose course was questioned will return to Boulder

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Patti Adler will stay on at U. of Colorado, but blasts the way the university questioned a class lesson on prostitutes.

Study tracks changes in sociology departments and faculty workloads

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A new survey of sociology departments from the American Sociological Society shows few changes to department size spanning last decade, which isn't great, but isn't bad, either.

Review of Isaac William Martin, 'Rich People’s Movements: Grassroots Campaigns to Untax the One Percent'

This month is the largely overlooked, and completely uncelebrated, centennial of the passing of the 16th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. That’s the one establishing a progressive, national income tax. And ever since, people have been writing letters to the editor to remind everyone that a progressive income tax was one of the demands of The Communist Manifesto. (For full effect, that last sentence should have been written in all caps and ended with at least three exclamation points.)

The figures whose story Isaac William Martin tells in Rich People’s Movements: Grassroots Campaigns to Untax the One Percent (Oxford University Press) often made the same point. And they were quite correct, though I must fault them for neglecting to mention that the Manifesto included an equally sinister call for free public education and the end of child labor. Maybe people would complain less about the cost of health care if their kids had gainful employment in a coal mine.

But not to quibble. Significant opposition to the 16th began, not when it went into effect, but a few years later, under the double impact of World War I (which increased government expenditures) and Prohibition (which dried up a source of tax revenue). Martin, a professor of sociology at the University of California at San Diego, identifies five waves of protest, expressed through calls to repeal the amendment, to reduce the debt burden of the wealthiest taxpayers, or to fix a maximum rate of 25 percent.

The wonky particulars count for less than the passion of the movement. It was, and is, a crusade, for which a tract such as Frank Chodorov’s The Income Tax: The Root of All Evil (1954) seemed not the least bit overwrought. Most of the leaders and organizations have fallen into obscurity. (Chodorov may be an exception given his place in the early history of The National Review.) But they established a tradition of social protest that, though once marginal, now effectively dominates a major political party.

Calling it a tradition of social protest seems counterintuitive, if not provocative, and Martin is surely looking for trouble with his title’s allusion to Poor People’s Movements by Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward, which has become something like the Necronomicon of Tea Party mythology.

But Rich People’s Movements has a serious argument: Martin contends that the waves of anti-tax activism over the past century have borrowed heavily from the tactics and rhetorical legacies of the Populist and women’s movements, among others. They have been vocal and visible in ways that extremely wealthy people tend not to need to be. Simply at the level of cost and benefit, campaigning for the abolition of income tax would rarely be in the interest of a billionaire.

It is quieter, easier, and more effective to use various loopholes, or to promote legislation amounting to custom-made loopholes. (If a member of Congress fails to cooperate, just buy another one.) By contrast, the American Taxpayers League of the 1920s had organizers who roamed around creating clubs for bankers and small businessmen -- the Wobblies of the bosses, so to speak. Rightward-leaning businesswomen and society ladies who joined the Liberty Belles in the 1950s violated the law by refusing to collect and pay the withholding taxes for their employees and servants. Some of them had learned the principles of civil disobedience from the suffragists of an earlier generation.

And in one of numerous “how the hell did nobody else remember this?” moments the book inspires, the reader learns of the California T (for "tax") Parties of 1962, which “drew hundreds of people together to hear inspiring speeches, watch educational films, and honor [fellow anti-tax] activists.” They also sang a rousing anthem, with the lines

You and I cannot relax

We must repeal the income tax!

Recruits for these groups tended to come, not from the wealthy and powerful, but from people in a slightly lower tax bracket -- the merely well-off and comfortable, to put it one way. Martin shows convincingly that the movement’s periods of growth were triggered by a policy threat, i.e., when “the loss of economic or personal security is attributable to a real or anticipated change in public policy.” Then blame for the dread or panic can be focused on specific policy makers, creating an opportunity for political entrepreneurs to organize a movement.

The reader will no doubt be able to think of various in American politics over the past five years that seem to fit Martin’s generalization. So rather than belabor the point, I want to raise some questions that have come to mind about Rich People’s Movements. It is, by the way, a very lucid book, written as if the author expected it to have readers. Imagine that.

One thing conspicuously missing from the book is the phenomenon of tax resistance of the kind that gets in the news every so often -- say, during a standoff with some guy with a bunker full of automatic weapons, snakebite kits, and 100 pounds of beef jerky, plus a suitable quantity of Gatorade, as per his interpretation of the Revelation of Saint John. The groups Martin chronicles tried to craft legislation that would alter or abolish the income tax. The survivalist or paramilitary right tends to be equally obsessed with the other unholy monstrosity created in 1913, the Federal Reserve system, and longs for a much more dramatic reckoning than repeal of the 16th Amendment.

By e-mail I asked Martin if he’d given any thought to the extremely hardcore anti-tax people. He explained that he had defined his project “to encompass movements that make explicit policy demands, within the framework of American political institutions, to change the income tax or the estate tax in ways that would categorically benefit the rich,” while the Posse Comitatus or militia groups “deny that the income tax was ever legitimately enacted in the first place, and often deny the legitimacy of the federal government altogether.”

The one significant point of possible similarity between the groups Martin studied and what he calls “a revolutionary movement that denies the legitimacy of the U.S. government altogether, or a movement that embraces the tax strike as a revolutionary or separatist tactic” might be the role of policy threats in spurring them to action. The rise of the militia groups in the mid-1990s coincided with the Clinton tax increases and health care efforts, for example.

But the more absolutist political entrepreneurs did not focus on alliance-building and policy-crafting that are necessary when activists “orient themselves towards making concrete policy proposals,” as the activists treated in Rich People’s Movements did. Then again, alliance-building presupposes a certain level of mutual trust, which I take it is in fairly short supply on the paramilitary right, so target practice would probably count as the more appropriate use of resources.

I also wondered what difference being a sociologist, rather than a political scientist or a historian, might have made to Martin’s project. The borders between disciplines don’t always correspond to distinctions among the objects of study, of course. But it seemed worth asking.

“Sociology gave me the questions,” he answered. “Where do these social movements come from? Why, in this instance, unlike almost every other movement described in the literature, are people explicitly protesting on behalf of others who are even richer than themselves? Who are these people, anyway? I think it is my background in sociology that primed me to pay attention to protest movements (including grassroots organizing, civil disobedience, and so forth) as interesting phenomena in their own right. I think it is unlikely that most political scientists or political historians would have lavished as much attention on the recreating the internal dynamics of obscure movement organizations -- not because of any theoretical blinders, but simply because they are not primed by their disciplines to be as interested in those organizations, until they happen to intersect with the doings of, say, Congress.”

Speaking of Congress, it’s striking how closely the rhetoric of 20th-century anti-income tax movements corresponds to that of today’s Teapublicans. Only the names have been changed to update the guilty. No doubt you’d get wild applause at an American Taxpayers Union meeting in the 1920s by denouncing Calvin Coolidge for his use of the 16th Amendment to impose Bolshevism.

But the events of the past few weeks have clearly strained relations between business-friendly politicos of the pragmatic sort and today’s descendants of the League and the Liberty Belles.

“The alliance was always shaky,” Martin said when I asked about recent developments. “Movement people always made the establishment business conservatives a little nervous.” Still, crusaders against the income tax had their uses, if only by making the policies of establishment business conservatives appear centrist by contrast. The latter eventually began directing funds to the “grassroots” groups, given their value as shock troops.

“But [the politicos] never controlled the grass-roots organizations on their right flank,” Martin continued. “Those waxed and waned according to their own dynamics; and part of the reason those organizations sometimes sounded crazy was that they were staffed by true believers whose ideas, at least sometimes and in some respects, really were extreme. And when those organizations and their true believers took over some critical parts of the Republican Party, it paved the way for a clash between pragmatists who control the money and the true believers who control the mailing lists.”

Here the opposition between “money” and “mailing list” ought not to be construed too literally. If you have one, you can usually get the other. What the true believers really have, besides fervor, is what Martin calls tradition, “a name for practices that persist across generations because they are passed down by learning and teaching.… I don't think the right differs in this respect from the left, and I think this sort of intergenerational transmission of practical habits and ways of organizing is also true in other movements.”  

Tradition, so understood, is the slow work of building forces; it is the education that takes the form of action, and vice versa. “Today's organizers learned how to recruit members from someone who learned it from someone and so on,” Martin told me, “and you could follow that thread of teaching and learning all the way back for at least a century, even if you'd find that the practices changed and evolved a bit along the way, and even if no one remembers more than one or two generations back.”

Rich People’s Movements is a valuable study of how that happens, and it deserves study -- even, perhaps especially, by people who do not think of the 16th Amendment as the root of all evil.

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Review of Michael Billig, 'Learn to Write Badly: How to Succeed in the Social Sciences'

No reader of The Sociological Imagination (1959) will soon forget C. Wright Mills's “translations” of a few passages from The Social System by Talcott Parsons, one of the most eminent American social scientists of the day. Here's a representative selection from The Social System, in the original Parsonian idiom:

“Attachment to common values means, motivationally considered, that the actors have common ‘sentiments’ in support of the value patterns, which may be defined as meaning that conformity with the relevant expectations is treated as a ‘good thing’ relatively independently of any specific instrumental ‘advantage’ to be gained from such conformity, e.g. in the avoidance of negative sanctions. Furthermore, this attachment to common values, while it may fit the immediate gratificational needs of the actor, always has a ‘moral’ aspect in that to some degree this conformity defines the ‘responsibility’ of the actor in the wider, that is, social action systems in which he participates.”

And here is how Mills put the same thoughts into demotic English:

“When people share the same values, they tend to behave in accordance with the way they expect one another to behave. Moreover, they often treat such conformity as a very good thing – even when it seems to go against their immediate interests.”

To get the full effect, you have to see Mills perform the operation upon much larger chunks of ore – a solid page of Parsons, massy and leaden, followed by its rendering into three or four spry statements of the relatively obvious. “I do not pretend that my translation is excellent,” Mills writes, “but only that in the translation no meaning is lost.” He later quotes a suggestion by Edmund Wilson that social scientists get help from their colleagues in the English department.

That advice dates the book considerably, of course. Michael Billig, the author of Learn to Write Badly: How to Succeed in the Social Sciences (Cambridge University Press) is a professor of social sciences at Loughborough University, in Leicestershire, and the examples he cites come chiefly from sociology and psychology. But the techniques and strategies he describes work just as well in humanities and education departments, among others.

Billig’s title is sardonic, but the text itself, for the most part, is not. I half expected an annotated scrapbook of scholarly bloviation -- and it does give you a feel for the state of the art. But description and complaint are secondary to Billig’s much more interesting effort to understand the purpose and enabling conditions of successful bad writing. For despite the note of sarcasm, even the book’s title is serious: people do not come into the world knowing how to be verbose and evasive, or to prop up a shaky idea with resonant jargon. It has to be learned, and there must be incentives to learn it.

In the 1890s, William James complained that trendy psychological jargon of his day, such as “apperception,” served little purpose beyond, as Billig puts it, “enabl[ing] professors to be professorial” so as “to impress the impressionable.” The exotic word was assumed to be exact and rigorous, but apperception, James said, meant “nothing more than the act of taking a thing into the mind” -- an act more precisely characterized in already available terms such as “assimilation,” “elaboration,” or “interpretation,” among others. James was ambivalent about the then-emerging tendency toward ever-narrower academic specialization. But he seemed to think (in some moods anyway) that the need to communicate outside one’s professional peer group might limit the linguistic damage.

What he could not foresee, as Billig says, is the explosive and continuing growth of higher education as a whole (“the numbers of tertiary education teachers across the word rose from just under 6.5 million in 1999 to over 9.5 million in 2007”) and the paradoxical effects of disciplines becoming “too big to control and too powerful to avoid.” Within a given field of study are “communities or subdisciplinary tribes” using their niche vocabularies not just to communicate research but to establish affiliations and establish institutional power.

“For most journals in the social sciences,” Billig writes, and the point can be generalized further, “there will be some sets of terminology that will identify the author as belonging to an approved approach, discipline, or subdiscipline. This means that many journal editors are likely to practice, without conscious intention, a restriction upon free use of language…. Some words will have to pass stringent tests before they can gain admittance. Others will be protected currency, circulating untaxed between authors and readers.”

The hint of protectionism here is not accidental. A terminology signals an approach -- and an approach implies a social and professional network. Becoming comfortable and proficient within a subdiscipline’s semantic field is the prerequisite for disciplinary socialization. (Billig has some amusing and revealing pages on the expression “semantic field,” while “socialization” is a boilerplate example of the ubiquitous reliance on “-ization” and “-ification” to create words of a pleasing vagueness. The author considers the latter tendency a form of reification, then discusses how the term very "reification" is itself an example of the problem,)

One standard explanation of the value of a theoretically informed and narrowly circulating vocabulary is that it avoids the assumptions and restrictions of ordinary language. And it very well may, though Billig has some sharp points to make about the simple-mindedness of treating “ordinary language” as some homogenous and uniformly contaminated medium.

But his more important point, I think, is that apprentice scholars don’t typically “find that their research meets an impasse which they can only overcome by seeking out different words or phrases, either because they are confronting new problems, which cannot be expressed in the old ways, or because they have been discovering new phenomena, for which there are no existing names.” Instead, they assimilate “this odd way of writing and speaking as a sign that they are entering into the world of research, thereby leaving behind their ordinary ways of talking and writing.” Otherwise, Billig says, your peers won’t know that you aren’t just somebody who’s just wandered in out of the rain.

So in a way Billig is confirming what Talcott Parsons said in that passage quoted earlier:

“Attachment to common values means, motivationally considered, that the actors have common ‘sentiments’ in support of the value patterns, which may be defined as meaning that conformity with the relevant expectations is treated as a ‘good thing’ relatively independently of any specific instrumental ‘advantage’ to be gained from such conformity, e.g. in the avoidance of negative sanctions.”

How true!


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Sociologists Debate Terminology for Members

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American Sociological Association tries to figure out the gender choices members should get to categorize themselves -- and the process is far from simple.


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