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.”
Ulrich Beck is an internationally known and highly influential sociologist -- easily one of the biggest names in social theory alive today -- and he is to be thanked for finding a way to talk about postmodernity without subjecting us to that word. He refers instead to “second modernity,” and understands it less as a period than as a process. Old-model modernity came from the advance of scientific knowledge, mass production, and instrumental rationality, which broke down patterns of pre-industrial social life and replaced them with its own institutions, such as the nuclear family and the nation-state. With second modernity, individuals are increasingly capable of questioning and challenging those institutions as well, creating new forms of relationship or affiliation.
In particular, Beck’s work on the concept of the “risk society” helps make sense of a contradictory phenomenon. The prediction and control of risk becomes a normal part of life under first modernity. “If a ﬁre breaks out,” he writes, “the ﬁre brigade comes; if a trafﬁc accident occurs, the insurance pays.” But at the same time, our technologies and second-modernity lifestyles don’t inure us to risk. On the contrary, they generate and expose us to new kinds of risk: identity theft, for example, or bizarre meteorological events resulting from global ecological changes. (Or “allegedly” resulting from them: Beck indicates that cultivating ignorance or denial of the new dangers is one possible social response.) Furthermore, the emerging risks tend to be on a scale that cuts across national borders: the globalization of unanticipated danger.
Beck’s latest book in translation, Twenty Observations on a World in Turmoil (Polity), is a collection of sociological commentaries originally published in European magazines and newspapers between July 2009 and September 2011. Theorizing via journalism means painting a landscape from the back of a moving train. But Beck’s established concepts are broad enough to fit the contours of the major events of the past few years, which he lists as “the nuclear worst-case scenario in Fukushima, the global financial crisis, the chaos in the European zone, the uprisings of the Arab spring, as well as the protest movements in Athens, Barcelona, New York, Moscow, etc.” All of them were, he writes, “by nature transnational and therefore cannot be understood and explained within the frame of reference of the national outlook.” (The same would be true of other developments from this period that come to mind: the British Petroleum spill, the Wikileaks document releases.)
Elsewhere, Beck has referred to “zombie concepts”: ideas that are no longer alive but continue moving and, presumably, eating our brains. And the nation-state as a basic scene or subject of political action is, for him, clearly one of the most noxious. At the same time, the new sources of danger are of a nature that makes planning and preparation (by whoever, on whatever scale) both critically urgent and almost impossible. “If man-made climate change has gone beyond the point of no return,” Beck writes, “if terrorists have access to atomic weapons, if the global economy has already imploded, then every measure comes too late! Therefore, we have to invest in new technologies, develop new notions of justice, reduce our consumption and pump billions into failing banks in order to prevent ‘the worst,’ which must never occur and in the face of which our concepts fail.”
That they do. A refusal to think apocalyptically may soon count as irresponsible. And yet Beck’s notes are not despairing. In one essay the argument makes a detour to the American philosopher John Dewey’s book The Public and Its Problems (1927). “According to Dewey,” he writes, “a transnational public sphere powerful enough to create a community arises not from political decisions but from the consequences of decisions which have come to seem problematic in the eyes of citizens. Thus a publicly perceived risk triggers communication among people who would otherwise prefer to have nothing to do with one another. It imposes obligations and costs on people who resist – and who often have the prevailing law on their side.”
Or, to put it in a 1960s way, "democracy is in the streets." We will need what he calls a “global domestic politics” – one recognizing that the well-being of the rest of the world is, after all, a matter of enlightened self-interest. People will have to assume a second-modernity reflexive stance toward their own status as national citizens, and create new modalities of political belonging. The contours of such a politics are barely visible in Twenty Observations: a cross between the Occupy movement and the European Union, perhaps, with some Wikileaks features thrown in. Beck will presumably have more to say about it in his future work.
As for the book now in hand.... Well, the implication seems to be that the transnational public sphere will emerge (and a practice of global domestic politics to go along with it) only in the wake of worldwide catastrophe, not before. And that is an optimistic reading. But then Beck is looking at things from the back of the train, and really doesn't know any more about where it is headed than the rest of us.
I am a product of my times. Born at the end of the “gee whiz” Eisenhower years; raised in the idealism of the 1960s; lulled into political boredom in the 1980s and disaffected with political conversations ever since. Middle age has allowed me to let politics become the background noise murmuring away on NPR. This ended when I saw how quickly the unemployment numbers issued two weeks ago by the Bureau of Labor Statistics became a political football. We are once again plunged into that world where the apparatus of the federal government that collects and reports data is challenged for political purposes. Wasn’t it just this spring when the American Community Survey was branded as too invasive and threatened with extinction? For some, the current flap over the unemployment rate might be another interesting election story, but for me this is now a deeply emotional issue. For many people, the core of democracy is the freedom to act --- for me, it is the freedom to know.
The federal government of the United States since its inception has been in the business of collecting data. The original purpose of the decennial Census is well-known -- to supply the population counts necessary to ensure political representation is allocated fairly. To me, the marriage of politics to data at the birth of the nation is not a sign that data can be corrupted by political influence but rather that our political forebears understood that the key to good government is information.
The American statistical system, which includes the Bureau of Labor Statistics, grew from these exalted beginnings to be among the most admired in the world. The federal government collects data to inform both policy and science. Knowledge about the government and its citizenry has long been recognized as the key to democracy. The stigmata of tyranny is an unwillingness to collect or share data. The U.S. has surpassed other democracies by declaring data collected by the government to be a free good and by providing open access to microdata (that is de-identified individual records) for almost 50 years. Governments as modern as those of France and Japan have only recently begun to provide minimal access to microdata. The difference between reading aggregate statistics tabulated by the government and having access to the raw data used to create those tabulations is like the difference between looking at a painting of a mountain and actually climbing that mountain. Having your hands in the raw material allows you to discover important and controversial things regardless of your political affiliation.
The scientific, political, and economic engine created by federal data collection is enormous. Others have eloquently recounted the spillover into marketing, store locating, oil and gas exploration, to say nothing of what we have learned about family formation, poverty, residential segregation, income inequality and all the other social issues that dog American society. Conservatives suggest that the free market can generate alternatives to the data collection done by the government. These alternatives are called Google and Facebook.
Data-gathering enterprises such these are on the other end of the continuum from the supposedly invasive partisan data collected by the federal government. Google and Facebook monitor your daily activities and require you to opt out of monitoring, not in. They sell data but do not share. They do not ask if you have a toilet but rather passively track where you bought it, what kind it is, who uses it, and who hates you for having it. Transparent, free, democratic access to data collected under scientific protocols that can be reviewed and replicated using techniques that must pass the rigorous scrutiny of human subjects review is asked to make way for unregulated black box methods to collect data that can only be purchased and only by selected individuals. This feels like a step back from democracy -- not a step forward.
Regardless of your generation or your politics, if you value the right to know as the highest form of liberty, I urge you to go to your closet and find your tie-dyed T-shirt. Tie back your hair, put on your sneakers, and find your bullhorn. While there have always been challenges to federal data collection activities, the threatened loss of the American Community Survey, which in itself replaced the much maligned Census long form, and the unsubstantiated claims of bias in the monthly unemployment numbers suggests that the political heat is once again turned up. The cause of liberty requires knowledge and to generate knowledge we need data. Man the barricades in defense of the American statistical system. And bring data.
Felicia B. LeClere is a principal research scientist in the Public Health Department of NORC at the University of Chicago, where she works as research coordinator on multiple projects. She has 20 years of experience in survey design and practice, with particular interest in data dissemination and the support of scientific research through the development of scientific infrastructure.
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