Alienated and alienating writing (by alienated and alienating social scientists)

The problem for social scientists is that our jargon, like that of the natural scientists, is heavily biased towards nouns and noun phrases. Our big words are nearly always nouns, such as “re-ethnification”, “mediatisation”, “deindividuation” and all the other “isations” and “ifications” that dominate so much empirical and theoretical writing. […] The preference for nouns is found across the social sciences, affecting the writings of both postmodernists and old-style empiricists. We can see it in the current fashion for using the definite article to transform adjectives into nouns, thereby creating a seemingly endless supply of new things to study: “the comic”, “the homely”, “the pastoral” and so on. What next? The grumpy, the drizzly, the pretentious? […]  by using big nouns, analysts can avoid describing people. If we assume that there is something called “nominalisation”, then we need not specify what exactly people might be doing if they are said to “nominalise”. In fact, statements, with active verbs and small ordinary words, generally contain much more information about actions than do the big nouns, which supposedly describe such acts. According to critical linguists, that is precisely why those in power like to use big nouns: they can transform the uncertain world of human acts into a world of necessary things

This great article by Michael Billig (HT Dave Beer) makes an incisive point which echoes a powerful argument in Andrew Sayer’s last book. Sayer argues that the pervasive disregard for ‘lay normativity’[*] within social science (i.e. what matters to people and why)  helps produce a vision of the social world which is alienated and alienating. Perhaps the pervasive tendency for social scientists to nominalise as part of their process of conceptualisation helps entrench this situation, as  every occasion of linguistically distancing ourselves from concrete actors leaves us ever further from the ethical texture of everyday life. The result is an eviscerated view of the social world, with an apparent explanatory plausibility belying the loss of a significant part of the first person experience of being human. One of the things that most interests me is the possibility of sustaining the capacity for abstraction which brings about this state of affairs but doing so in a way which preserves lay normativity. Without the former, sociology becomes merely descriptive (in which case I’d much rather read essayists, journalists and novelists thanks) but without the latter its explanatory function is, at best, truncated.

*Which to his eternal credit he acknowledges as a rather alienated way to express the idea.


Categories: Committing Sociology, Sociological Craft

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