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.”
Very seldom in writing about scholarly publishing have I had an occasion to use the word “fun” -- actually, this may be the first time -- but with a couple of recent titles, nothing else will do.
They are not frivolous books by any means. Sober and learned reviews by experts may appear in specialist journals two or three years from now, and they will be instructive. But the books in question should generate some interest outside the field of J. Redding Ware studies.
Nobody who appreciates the history and color of the English language can fail to enjoy the University of Oxford Bodleian Library’s new facsimile edition of Ware’s masterpiece, the invaluable Passing English of the Victorian Era: A Dictionary of Heterodox English, Slang, and Phrase. First published in 1909, shortly after Ware’s death, it is now available as Ware’s Victorian Dictionary of Slang and Phrase -- a title that is more marketable, perhaps, but decidedly wanting in precision. Most of the lingo it covers is Victorian, but the dictionary itself, appearing as it did in the final month of the king’s life, is Edwardian. (A pedant’s work is never done.) The new edition contains a valuable introduction by John Simpson, who retires this month as chief editor of the Oxford English Dictionary.
It covers almost everything currently known about Ware (i.e., not much) and assesses his contribution to lexicography, which was considerable. Ware’s dictionary is cited in the OED more than 150 times, including “almost 50 times for the first recorded evidence for a word or meaning.” My earlier reference to Ware studies was a bit of a stretch, since nobody has ever written a book about him, nor a dissertation -- nor even, it seems, a journal article devoted solely to his life or works. A couple of papers by Joyce scholars identify his dictionary as a source the novelist consulted while writing Ulysses. Simpson’s introduction is the landmark in a nearly barren field.
Ware was born in 1832 and his first name was James, after his father, who was a grocer. In his teens the future author served a short jail sentence following a violent family quarrel, during which he grabbed a bacon knife and threatened to kill James the elder. He worked as mercantile clerk while writing his first novel, published in 1860. From that point on Ware seems to have eked out a hardscrabble existence along the lines George Gissing depicts in New Grub Street, cranking out fiction, journalism, and quite a few plays, along with a handbook on playing whist and a tourist’s guide to the Isle of Wight.
Simpson unfortunately neglects to mention one other documented occasion when Ware went to court, seeking relief from a downstairs neighbor who played the piano at all hours. The outcome remains unclear but it seems no bacon-knife was involved.
Not quite a gentleman, then, nor by profession a scholar. Ware’s dictionary was commissioned by Routledge as a supplement to another volume on colloquial English. “His lexicographical method is arguably modern,” Simpson notes, “as he based his selection largely on printed evidence that he (and, one imagines, other interested parties) had collected principally from newspapers and other ephemeral sources… The latest quotations date from 1902, though the majority date from the 1880s and 1890s.”
No don would have come up with what Simpson calls Ware’s “idiosyncratic labeling system,” which identifies the provenance of a given piece of slang through categories such as “Slums,” “Italian Organ-Grinders,” “Music Hall,” or “Colloquial Imbecile.” He clearly spent a good bit of time hanging around theaters and pubs, and “was painfully aware of changes in hairstyles and fashion generally over the decades, and can with the help of his printed evidence place the introduction of a new ‘look’ to a precise year.”
Some of the expressions Ware includes have passed into accepted use. He identifies opportunism as a piece of political slang from the 1860s, explaining: “Used rather in contempt, as subserving conscience to convenience, or to personal advantage.” It turns out that flappers -- young women of an immodest sort -- were on the scene well before the 1920s, And while Susan Sontag doesn't mention it in wrote her notes, Ware identified camp as an adjective applying to “actions and gestures of exaggerated emphasis," noting that it was “used chiefly by persons of exceptional want of character.” By that Ware undoubtedly means sissies, “effeminate men in society,” a term he indicates (citing an American newspaper) caught on in the 1890s.
I would have assumed the slang word narc -- pertaining to an informer, and used as both noun and verb -- derived from narcotics. Apparently not: copper’s nark is defined as thieves’ argot, also from the 1890s, meaning “a policeman’s civilian spy.” Ware indicates that police were called coppers from 1868 on, and you’d have found a copper-slosher (“individual with the mania for ‘going for’ policemen”) hanging around a copper’s shanty, as the station house was known. A working-class person thought to be blustering risked the taunt “Copper! Copper!” – implying that he was “giving himself the airs of police authority.”
But where did cop itself come from? “There has been more discussion over this widely applied word than any other in the kingdom of phrase,” writes Ward in one of his longer entries. It is incredibly polysemic, meaning “taken, seized, thrashed, struck, caught by disease, well-scolded, discovered in cheating,” and could also be used as a verb meaning “to take too much to drink” (hence copping the brewery). Thunderous applause for an especially good show at a music hall show would cop the curtain, so that the performer could take a bow.
The vast majority of Ware’s 4,000 entries define expressions that vanished without a trace. Hence his original title: "passing English" comes and goes. It's the vigor of language that drives the vitality of the book.
One craze of the 1880s was corpse-worship – “the extreme use of flowers at funerals” – which got so bad that by the ‘90s “many death notices in the press were followed by the legend ‘No flowers.’ ” Slang words often come from the contraction of common expressions; for example, damirish, “damned Irish,” and damfino, “I am damned if I know.”
Nobody still describes an egg gone bad as suitable for electioneering purposes (derived from “the exercise of projecting them at antagonistic candidates”) and the culture is all the poorer for it. Then again, it's a relief that suggestionize -- an old bit of legal jargon meaning “to prompt,” as with a witness – never caught on. Now if we could just euthanize “finalize.”
Decades before the birth of Jerry Garcia, deadhead was the entertainment-industry label for an audience member who got in without buying a ticket. It applied to critics and “’theatrical people’… [who] never pay to enter a theatre.” Ware, as a playwright, resented them, and the dictionary vents his frustration in an amusing manner:
“The experienced eye can always divide the deadheads from the ‘plank-downers’ in a theatre. The deadheads are always dressed badly, and give themselves airs when looking at the inferior parts of the house. The plank-downers never give themselves airs, mean business, and only look at the stage. Deadheads are very emphatically described by a theatrical official: ‘Here come two more deadheads; look at their boots.’”
Many entries are no doubt the only record of a term or catchphrase, and in some cases the lexicographer can just guess what they originally signified. Who stole the goose? is an “interjection of contempt, which appears to have some hidden meaning, probably of an erotic nature.” in the case of Who took it out of you?, Ware doesn't even try. The meaning is “wholly unknown to people not absolutely of lower class.”
Of comparable subaltern origins, but easier to understand, is the slang term label for sausage: bags o’ mystery. That one should come back into circulation. Its use could be extended to the hot dog.
Speaking of mystery, another book recently reissued in facsimile is Andrew Forrester, Jr.’s The Female Detective, a collection of short fiction from 1864, reprinted by the British Library and distributed in the U.S. by the University of Chicago Press. A digital edition is available from Amazon.
You can find the book online in PDF for free -- which is also true with Ware’s dictionary, although Simpson’s introduction is not to be missed. With The Female Detective, the new material consists of a foreword by Alexander McCall Smith (best known for his No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency novels, but also the author of What W.H. Auden Can Do For You, just out from Princeton University Press) and an introduction by Mike Ashley, whose books include a biography of Algernon Blackwood.
The Female Detective is offered as a collection of reports from the files of the elusive Miss G----- (she is nothing if not discreet) as edited by Forrester. The detective’s “casebook” was a very popular genre at the time, part of the “railroad literature” that sprang up to meet the demand of commuters. Forrester later wrote at least two more such collections, but his place in the history of the genre comes from having created Miss G---- (a.k.a. Mrs. Gladden), the first female professional detective in fiction. Kathleen Gregory Klein devoted several pages to the book in The Woman Detective: Gender & Genre (University of Illinois Press, 1988) and puzzlement over Forrester's identity – was it a pseudonym? – has echoed down the scholarship ever since.
It now seems very likely that the author was, in fact, J. Redding Ware. Simpson accepts it as credible in his introduction to the dictionary, as does Mike Ashley in the opening pages of the short-story collection. The identification was proposed by Kate Summerscale in the notes to her nonfiction novel The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: A Shocking Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective (2008). In researching her book, Summerscale noticed that Ware published a pamphlet about the crime in question: a child murder that occurred in a country house in 1860. (The circumstances are oddly reminiscent of the JonBenet Ramsey case.) He seems to have incorporated the text into a chapter of The Female Detective.
Mrs. Gladden had keen powers of observation and deduction, and a reader can’t help thinking of the much better-remembered private eye who came on the scene later in Victoria’s reign. Ware must have felt that Arthur Conan Doyle had stolen his thunder – though that seems like a rather peculiar phrase, come to think of it.
Wade lists it in his dictionary, explaining that it means “annexing another man’s idea, or work, without remunerating him, and to your own advantage.” It was first used, he writes, by one John Dennis, “a play-writer of the 17th century, who invented stage thunder for a piece of his own which failed.” The theater manager incorporated the technique in the production of someone else’s play, prompting the enraged Dennis to yell out, “They won’t act my piece, but they steal my thunder.”
I hope J. Redding Ware studies comes into its own, or at least that others discover him. How often is it worth reading a dictionary just for the stories?
University presses -- like other publishers -- know that not all reviews will be favorable, and generally don't respond to most critiques of their books. But the debate over a new book published by Harvard University Press has led its director to issue a defense of the decision to publish. The book in question is The Collaboration: Hollywood's Pact With Hitler, by Ben Urwand, a fellow at Harvard. The book has been praised by some for revealing the extent to which Hollywood avoided offending the Nazis, but has been harshly criticized by others for oversimplifying the history. The New Yorker has been particularly critical, with David Denby first publishing a negative review and then following up with a piece called "How Could Harvard Have Published Ben Urwand's The Collaboration?" In that piece Denby outlines what he considers to be numerous "omissions and blunders."
A statement from Harvard University Press says in part: "We stand by the integrity of our refereeing and editorial procedures. A thorough review process is standard at Harvard, where we take very seriously the imprimatur of the university’s name. Though not all reviewers agree with Urwand’s interpretation of the actions he describes, nearly 60 pages of notes and documentation enable readers to judge for themselves the strength and validity of his presentation. Via his agent Urwand has responded to Denby and the New Yorker, but as yet we have no indication that his response has been published."
Last week Pope Francis, who is on something of a roll, assured atheists that they could get into heaven. As one of the unchurched and the disbelieving, I appreciate this expression of good will without finding the news especially consequential. There’s enough to worry about as it is, this side of death.
But the pontiff’s timing is impressive. Ronald Dworkin’s Religion Without God, the philosopher’s first posthumous work, appeared in bookstores a few days before Francis made his statement -- even though Harvard University Press listed it as an October book. (When he succumbed to leukemia in February, Dworkin was a professor of law and philosophy at New York University and an emeritus professor of jurisprudence at University College, London.) Surely it’s a matter of providence at work, or at least of synchronicity, depending on which way you’ve staked that existential wager.
I call it Dworkin’s first posthumous book, not on the basis of inside information, but from the certainty somebody is bound to raid the Nachlass of any figure so prominent in Anglo-American discussions of the philosophy of law across four decades.
Even a fairly stringent assessment of him as someone more esteemed outside his discipline than in it -- ever the complaint when someone is just too visible as a public intellectual -- ends up conceding that he did play a catalytic role, at times. Much of the commentary since his death seems to echo Dworkin’s own recollection of serving as Learned Hand’s clerk: “I disagreed with everything he said, but he was a very good person to have to argue with.” (By the way, a book bringing the philosopher’s and the judge’s ideas together for comparison seems like a project full of interesting possibilities.)
Religion Without God is based on the three Einstein Lectures that Dworkin gave at the University of Bern in Switzerland in December 2011. The lecture series began in 2009. The speakers rotate, from year to year, between a physicist, a mathematician, and a philosopher. Einstein’s occasional remarks about God (the things he actually wrote and said, not the kudzu-like apocrypha) are the seed crystals for the lectures, rather than their topic.
According the publisher’s note, Dworkin “planned greatly to extend his treatment of the subject over the next few years” but “had time only to complete some revisions of the original text,” although the volume closes with a fourth piece, “Death and Immortality,” shorter than the lectures, which bears no indication of when it was written. It begins on a mordant note, as if in reply to the Pope: “When Woody Allen was told that he would live on in his work, he replied that he would rather live on in his apartment.”
For a while I suspected that Religion Without God might be a very late installment in the New Atheism saga, and on that basis gave it wide berth. All the polemical gunpowder has run out on both sides. The very prospect of another battle -- Dworkin v. Dawkins! -- sounded as appealing as a sawdust burrito or an afternoon in line at the Department of Motor Vehicles. Life is too short.
Happily the lectures are nothing of the kind. Arguments for or against the existence of God (or gods, if you prefer) form no part of Dworkin’s project. He takes it as a given that the dispute will continue, as it must, at varying degrees of heat and lucidity. But he also takes as important and meaningful that some forms of atheism are as deeply shaped by the numinous as any religious faith.
“Numinous” is the term Rudolf Otto coined in The Idea of the Holy (1917) to name an overwhelming experience of the grandeur, power, order, significance, and strangeness (“otherness”) of the universe, or of being itself. It can be blissful, and it can be terrifying. Religious mystics have no monopoly on the numinous. Physicists and mathematicians have written about it, for example, and one of the passages from Einstein quoted by Dworkin expresses it in a forceful manner:
“To know that what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty which our dull faculties can comprehend only in the most primitive forms – this knowledge, this feeling, is at the center of true religiousness. In this sense, and in this sense only, I belong to the ranks of devoutly religious men.”
On another occasion, Einstein said, “He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead; his eyes are closed.” Dworkin stresses that while monotheists may understand numinosity as a revelation of the power and awe-full reality of the Creator, it does not, as such, compel belief in a personal deity (what Dworkin refers to, from time to time, as “the Sistine god,” in honor of Michelangelo’s rendition).
Einstein, for one, dismissed the idea of such a Supreme Being existing prior to, and apart from, the universe. He said so repeatedly, although believers kept construing his remarks about “belong[ing] to the ranks of devoutly religious men” to the contrary. The physicist thought of himself as a kind of pantheist, along Spinoza’s lines. The difference between pantheism and atheism is arguably one of shading -- and Dworkin subsumes Einstein’s perspective under the rubric “religious atheism,” which would also apply to beliefs such as Ethical Culture and some kinds of pacifism.
“Religious atheism” is not meant to be an ironic label; the author shows no interest in it as paradoxical. Dworkin’s point is that a sense of “life’s intrinsic meaning and nature’s intrinsic beauty” runs deeper than one’s judgment of the source or intelligibility of that meaning and beauty. Values “are real and fundamental, not just manifestations of something else; they are as real as trees or pain.” The theist understands meaning, beauty, goodness, and other values to be the intentional creation or the commandment of a higher being, who thus merits our worship, or at least our very close attention. To live a good and meaningful life means living in accord with the divine purpose.
But for the religious atheist (which is to say, for the author himself) that is getting things more or less backward. Dworkin seems to have reached the same conclusion as Descartes on a matter that bothered the earlier thinker in his final years, as mentioned in Steven Nadler’s The Philosopher, the Priest, and the Painter (discussed in this column).
In short: Is something good – or (true, beautiful, just, etc.) because God wills it? Or is it the other way around? What if the bearded man on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel decided that theft, murder, and cannibalism were totally fine, and even to be encouraged? Would that make them good? If not, then in some sense we have accepted that right has priority even over divine might.
Thus concluded the theist Descartes, as did the religious atheist Dworkin. There is much that I am scanting in Dworkin’s book here, in the interest of time, but that should provoke enough thought, and elicit enough invective, for now. Let me end this column, as it began, with a look to the afterlife. In a symposium at the Boston University School of Law a few years ago, Dworkin announced that he’d had a glimpse of paradise:
“Lots of people, including among them among the most distinguished philosophers and lawyers in the world, have come together to discuss a book of mine. As if that weren’t good enough, they discuss it before I’ve actually finished writing it so I can benefit from what they say. That isn’t the best part. The best part is that I don’t even have to die.”
The implication, by contrast, is that hell is all about the deadlines.
CourseSmart, the digital publishing company founded by higher education publishers, today announced options to make renting and purchasing educational materials more flexible. Previously, the company only allowed customers to rent e-textbooks for 180 days -- a window that is now being expanded to half a dozen options ranging from a 60-day rental to purchasing the book outright. CourseSmart also introduced Subscription Packs, which allow students to fill six slots in a "digital bookshelf" for a flat fee of $200.
"There’s a lot that’s to be said about how digital can save students money," CourseSmart CEO Sean Devine said. "Instead of going out and spending hundreds of dollars on textbooks ..., you can come to one place."
CourseSmart is also working with its publishing partners to add more interactive elements, like embedded videos and multiple choice tests, to its e-textbooks, Devine said.
"One of the criticisms of e-textbooks to date has been that they don’t add a lot of value -- except perhaps saving students money," Devine said. "There’s a fair amount of convergence going on beween what was previously a flat textbook and the more interactive, digital products. It’s our belief that digital products in the future will look more like this."
Cambridge University Press will power its learning management system with technology from Knewton to teach English to students around the globe, the two companies announced on Thursday. Knewton will work with the publisher to build a series of English Language Training (ELT) products for the Cambridge LMS platform, which serves about 250,000 students. As part of its expansion plans, Knewton will also open an office in London that will coordinate the company's work in Africa, Europe and the Middle East.
Introductory college biology textbooks prepare students – even those who don’t plan to become doctors – to take medical school examination tests, while devoting little attention to such topics as evolution, a new study shows.
Steven Rissing, professor of evolution, ecology and organismal biology at Ohio State University, analyzed eight commonly used introductory biology textbooks and found that all closely followed the curriculum suggested for pre-med students by the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT). All texts included at least 50 percent of the primary MCAT biology content specifications within the first 30 percent of text.
Over all, they put a heavy emphasis on molecular and cellular biology while underemphasizing “big issues,” such as personalized medicine, evolution and climate change, that have more relevance to students who don’t plan on being medical doctors, Rissing said in a news release. “We need to have biology education for citizens and voters, not just for future doctors.”
There are no easy solutions to these problems. Nevertheless, we think that a more public-facing academy is a necessary, if insufficient, response. Public engagement helps to demonstrate the value of research. It also helps to generate a larger audience for scholarly research and therefore potentially more revenue for publishers. We are not suggesting that research intended for a broader audience can or should supplant research targeted at the scholarly community. But we think there is room for more scholars to demonstrate that their expertise is important outside their subfield.
We have a new book on the 2012 presidential election, The Gamble, that provides one model for public engagement. The book was designed to be an accessible academic account of the election, written in real time and published within a year of the election itself — standard timing for books focused on the general public, but an unusually short time frame for a scholarly book. Together with our publisher, Princeton University Press, we structured the project so that we could enter into the ongoing public discussion about the election alongside pundits and journalists — via continuous analysis and writing, serializing the process of peer review, and accelerating the final mechanics of publication.
Our experience writing this book suggests to us that there are underutilized opportunities for both scholars and their publishers to innovate on traditional modes of academic writing and thereby bring scholarly research to a much larger audience. We joked over the past two years that part of "the gamble" was simply writing the book itself. We believe that this gamble has paid off, and we offer our story in hopes that it might encourage others to roll the dice. We think this sort of project can benefit scholars, publishers, and the broader public alike.
Why We Wrote the Book
The book was motivated by two goals. The first was simply to tell the story of what promised to be a lively and competitive election. The second goal was to amplify the voice of political science in the conversation about the election—from events on the campaign trail to explanations and interpretations of the election after it was over.
Journalists typically write the history of American presidential elections, a history built on their access to decision-makers in the campaigns. We believed that the social scientific study of campaigns, with its emphasis on systematic data and statistical analyses, adds something important. Whereas journalistic accounts effectively capture why campaign principals made the decisions they did, a political science account can better determine whether those decisions mattered.
The problem, however, is that political scientists — like most academics — usually work too slowly to have much influence. Science takes time, and so the first academic articles might appear about 18 months after an election. Academic books may take two to three years or even longer. By this point it is too late. The conventional wisdom about the election has congealed — whether it is correct or not — and journalists, commentators, and voters are already thinking ahead to the next election. After the 2004 election, for example, the misinterpretation of a single question on the exit poll led some commentators to attribute President George W. Bush’s victory to his appeal among "values voters."
We wanted to be different. We wanted to write an academic book, but with a journalist’s faster metabolism.
How We Wrote the Book
In August 2011, we pitched the book to several different presses. In February 2012, we signed a contract with Princeton University Press. In August 2012, the first two e-chapters of the book were made available for free by Princeton Press. In January 2013, a third e-chapter was released. In April 2013, a fourth and final e-chapter debuted. In September 2013, the print edition of the book will be published — including revised versions of the e-chapters as well as four additional chapters. Looking back at our drafts of the initial and final chapters, we wrote the entire book in about a calendar year. How were we able to do this?
Like Lennon and McCartney, we got by with a little help from our friends. Their help was most evident in the data we were able to obtain at no cost — weekly survey data from the firm YouGov, daily data on media coverage from the firm General Sentiment, data on candidate advertising courtesy of The Washington Post, and multiple other datasets from generous colleagues. These data were necessary to make our book stand apart from other accounts of the campaign. Most importantly, we received these data promptly and continuously, allowing us to do analysis while the campaign was under way.
Second, we wrote about our findings in public forums during the campaign itself. This writing had several benefits. It helped ensure that the book would be completed in time. It allowed us to elicit responses to our argument that, at times, led to revisions and corrections — a sort of crowdsourced peer review. And it put our perspective into the conversation happening in the moment. We found blogs to be the ideal venue for doing this because they allowed us to write and publish with minimal editorial delay and to get feedback in comments threads under each blog post. We contributed to The Monkey Cage, YouGov’s Model Politics, Campaign Stops and FiveThirtyEight at The New York Times, and Wonkblog at The Washington Post.
Finally, and perhaps most important to the successful completion of the book, was the innovative plan devised by Princeton University Press (PUP), which certainly took a gamble as well. Our editor at the project’s inception, Charles Myers, convinced us that the book would be more accessible to a non-academic audience if it had a chronological narrative at its core, rather than the thematic structure that academics often favor. Then, as we completed drafts of individual chapters, PUP sent them out for peer review, rather than waiting until we had finished the entire manuscript. PUP had secured reviewers in advance and requested a tight turnaround. PUP also produced the multiple e-chapters that allowed the book to be partially serialized. In their view, having these e-chapters — and giving them away for free — would help build interest in the book. Over 2,000 copies of these chapters were downloaded from Amazon, in addition to an untold number of PDF copies downloaded from the PUP website or The Monkey Cage. Several colleagues assigned these chapters to their students, circulating them further.
PUP also accelerated the process of producing a print volume — giving us stringent deadlines that we had to meet. We managed to do this with modest success, although we created delays by adding a new chapter at the 11th hour and by fine-turning analyses for weeks on end. But ultimately, we finished the manuscript in time to produce a book that would be published alongside, or even before, the journalistic accounts. PUP deserves credit here as well, as it is taking them only three months to turn that final manuscript into a book available for purchase.
What impressed us throughout this process was the press’s flexibility and willingness to innovate. The press showed how to take the existing model of scholarly publishing — one centered on peer review — and modify that model to produce a book that was still rigorous but also timely and, we hope, lively.
Did “The Gamble” Pay Off?
We believe that it did. We sought to tell the story of this election, and we believe that our account provides a novel perspective that challenges much conventional wisdom. More than a few commentators argued that the underlying economic and political fundamentals were not in Obama’s favor. We show that this was untrue: the economy was growing fast enough for the incumbent to be favored. Many commentators also saw the Republican primary as a search for "anybody but Romney." We show that this was also untrue. The many anybodies — Rick Perry, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, etc. — surged largely because of temporary increases in media coverage of them, and not because Republican voters had any underlying hostility toward Romney himself.
After the election, commentators were quick to attribute Obama’s victory to his superior campaign. We show that the effects of things like campaign advertising and field organizing were likely not large enough to account for Obama’s victory. We also call into question many prevailing interpretations of the election — that it augured a Democratic realignment, that it suggested a profoundly "Liberal America," that it suggested the Republican Party needed a complete overhaul. On the whole, the 2012 election was very much what extant political science research led us to expect. It showed that a book building on and elaborating that research could make a useful contribution.
We also sought to be part of the conversation among journalists and commentators, and we felt included in that conversation. This was reflected in opportunities and invitations to contribute to media outlets — such as our collaboration with Ezra Klein to develop a forecasting model for Wonkblog. It was reflected in the willingness of high-profile journalists and commentators to endorse the book. It was reflected in ways in which commentators chose to engage with political science in their own writing. Even when they disagreed with us, with other political scientists, or with their conception of what "political scientists say," it was better than being ignored.
Of course, we will have a better sense of whether our book has any particular impact after it is out. But regardless we believe — although it is difficult to measure — that political science ideas and findings are much more in the bloodstream of campaign journalism and punditry than they once were.
John Sides is an associate professor of political science at George Washington University. Lynn Vavreck is an associate professor of political science and communication studies at the University of California at Los Angeles.