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

'Learn to Write Badly'

October 9, 2013

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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