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.”
Three researchers will share the 2013 Nobel Prize in Chemistry "for the development of multiscale models for complex chemical systems." The winners are Martin Karplus of Université de Strasbourg and Harvard University, Michael Levitt of Stanford University and Arieh Warshel of the University of Southern California.
Princeton University's new president, Christopher L. Eisgruber, has appointed a faculty committee to review the institution's grading policies. In response to concerns about grade inflation, the university in 2004 adopted a policy stating that each department, over time, award no more than 35 percent of its grades in the A-range. The policy has been widely praised by educators who worry about grade inflation, but many Princeton students have been frustrated by it. In his charge to the committee, Eisgruber wrote: "Since the implementation of the policy ten years ago, the number of A-range grades awarded across departments has become much more consistent. Likewise, the grade inflation of the late '90s and early 2000s has been halted. Yet concerns persist that the grading policy may have unintended impacts upon the undergraduate academic experience that are not consistent with our broader educational goals."
Trustees of Loyola Marymount University on Monday voted to end coverage for elective abortions in employee health insurance, The New York Times reported. At the same time, the university announced that another health plan would be available at a higher premium for those who wish to continue coverage of elective abortions. The changes were criticized both by those who have pushed the university to adopt policies more consistent with Roman Catholic teachings, and with those who said the changes were a sign of disrespect to the many non-Catholics who work at the university.
Study comparing grad students with and without collective bargaining for their teaching work finds that those with unions have better pay, and that they are just as close to their professors as those on other campuses.
Francois Englert of Université Libre de Bruxelles and Peter W. Higgs of the University of Edinburgh were awarded the 2013 Nobel Prize in Physics this morning. They were honored for "the theoretical discovery of a mechanism that contributes to our understanding of the origin of mass of subatomic particles, and which recently was confirmed through the discovery of the predicted fundamental particle, by the ATLAS and CMS experiments at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider."
A survey by the Louisiana Board of Regents has found that one-third of the endowed chairs created through a matching grant program by the state are unfilled, The Shreveport Times reported. Campus officials said that endowed chairs can be hard to fill. As a result of the survey, a new rule will bar institutions that have more than 20 percent of their chairs unfilled from adding a new endowed chair.
Three researchers were awarded the 2013 Nobel Prize in Medicine this morning for "their discoveries of machinery regulating vesicle traffic, a major transport system in our cells." The winners are: James E. Rothman, professor and chair of cell biology at Yale University; Randy W. Schekman, professor of molecular and cell biology at the the University of California at Berkeley and an investigator of Howard Hughes Medical Institute; and Thomas C. Südhof, professor of molecular and cellular physiology at Stanford University.