The academic blogosphere, scholarly craft and the end of ‘pluralistic ignorance’

One of many useful discussions in Howard Becker’s Writing for Social Scientists concerns ‘pluralistic ignorance”. He argues that this social psychological effect manifests itself in academia in relation to writing. Academic writing is a private and isolated endeavour, in which adversity (rejections by journals, lacerating criticism, endless requests for revision) are dealt with in isolation. The proliferation of journals, writes Becker in 1983, means that every point of view can ultimately find a home. So the public markers of difficult (i.e. going unpublished) diminish at the same time as private difficulties remain or may even increase, as the proliferation of journals goes hand-in-hand with a pluralisation of standards, meaning that navigating the submission process becomes a more complex and less predictable task. This results in a state of affairs where “Everyone thinks that everyone else is getting it done” and “They keep their difficulties to themselves” (pg 21). The privatised character of the process means that “sociological writers do not develop a culture, a body of shared solutions to their shared problems” because no peer group has the same problem (pg 20). In its absence, the tendency is to assume that everyone else copes with writing without problems.

It’s in this context that I find ‘craft’ so interesting. In a descriptive sense, I think of ‘craft’ as encompassing the practical activity involved in creative production. So it’s all the practical embodied things involved in academic writing, as well as the order in which they fit together into a sequence. The concept provides a normative standard, in the substantive perspective it offers from which to critique instrumentalism, but there is also a normative dimension to the practices designated by the concept. To engage with craft involves an encounter with standards inherent to the practice, though of course our acquaintance with those standards is fallible and constrained by our circumstances. I like Richard Sennett’s account of this:

Craftsmanship names an enduring, basic human impulse, the desire to do a job well for its own sake. Craftsmanship cuts a far wider swath than skilled manual labour; it serves the computer programmer, the doctor, and the artist; parenting improves when it is practiced as a skilled craft, as does citizenship. In all these domains, craftsmanship focuses on objective standards, on the thing in itself. Social and economic conditions, however, often stand in the way of the craftsman’s discipline and commitment; schools may fail to provide the tools to do good work, and workplaces may not truly value the aspiration for quality. And though craftsmanship can reward an individual with a sense of pride in work, this reward is not simple. The craftsman often faces conflicting objective standards of excellence; the desire to do something well for its own sake can be impaired by competitive pressures, by frustration, or by obsession.

Richard Sennett, The Craftsman, pg. 9

Assuming you accept the coherency of ‘academic craft’, variegated in terms of disciplines and traditions, it becomes increasingly curious that there’s no “body of shared solutions” of the form invoked by Becker. Tricks of the Trade* might be passed on by supervisors or within networks of friends and colleagues. But there’s a striking absence of a public stock of knowledge, a common culture orientated towards practical affairs that is tied in with professionalisation. I think something of this is captured in the notion of ‘professional socialisation’ but that this framing is a symptom of the problem rather than a potential solution to it. I think it also inevitably enters into training in methods and methodology, with questions of technique coming closest to the more everyday conception of ‘craft’. But it still seems there’s something rather major that is conspicuous by its absence.

The prominence of ‘craft’ in professional consciousness is inversely proportional to pluralistic ignorance of the sort Becker describes. The more people talk about the practicalities of doing writing, the less room there is for the assumption that everyone else finds it easy and one’s own difficulties are unusual. But discussions of writing will tend to be marginal in traditional modes of publication. There are only so many books about writing that social scientists are ever going to produce. There are only so many books about writing that social scientists are every going to buy. Likewise I suspect that market forces will tend to push these towards the lowest common denominator, though of course there are many exceptions to this.

However the academic blogopshere and the academic twittersphere, to use two terms I hate, seem obviously amenable to these discussions. They create a space for them that was previously absent. Furthermore, the market constraints which perhaps mitigate against discussions of craft in traditional publishing** could be said to encourage it in a way in the space of academic blogs. My experience on this site and has been that discussions of writing, professional practice and higher education tend to attract much more attention online and they circulate further on social media. The influence of these ‘market forces’ on academic blogging is a complex issue, representing a problem in many ways, but I think this is one way in which they can be helpful. To anyone trying to build an audience for a blog, it creates an incentive for them to reflect on scholarly practice in a way they might not otherwise. In this sense, I think that the academic blogosphere might involve a tendency to go against the grain of a broader trend within social science that C Wright Mills was fulminating against over half a century ago:

Be a good craftsman: Avoid any rigid set of procedures. Above all, seek to develop and to use the sociological imagination. Avoid the fetishism of method and technique. Urge the rehabilitation of the unpretentious intellectual craftsman, and try to become such a craftsman yourself. Let every man be his own methodologist: let every man be his own theorist; let theory and method again become part of the practice of craft. Stand for the primary of the individual scholar; stand opposite to the ascendancy of research teams of technicians. Be one mind that is on its own confronting the problems of man and society.

C Wright Mills, The Sociological Imagination, Pg 224

*To use another catchy term of Becker’s. He has a knack for them.

**This is a completely speculative idea that only occurred to me when writing the post.

Categories: Higher Education, Outflanking Platitudes, Sociological Craft

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