Public Sociology and Sociological Writing

One of my favourite passages by C Wright Mills concerns the tendency of academics to “slip so readily into unintelligibility”. An “elaborate vocabulary” and “involved manner of speaking and writing” become props for a professional self-image which defines itself, in part, through the inaccessibility of the work being produced:

In many academic circles today anyone who tries to write in a widely intelligible way is liable to be condemned as a ‘mere literary man’ or, worse still, ‘a mere journalist.’ Perhaps you have already learned that these phrases, as commonly used, only indicate the spurious inference: superficial because readable. The academic man in America is trying to carry on a serious intellectual life in a context that often seems quite set against it. His prestige must make up for many of the dominant values he has sacrificed by choosing an academic career. His claims for prestige readily become tied to his self-image as a ‘scientist’. To be called a ‘mere journalist’ makes him feel undignified and shallow. It is this situation, I think, that is often at the bottom of the elaborate vocabulary and involved manner of speaking and writing. It is less difficult to learn this manner than not. It has become a convention – those who do not use it are subject to moral disapproval. It may be that it is the result of an academic closing of ranks on the part of the mediocre, who understandably wish to exclude those who win the attention of intelligent people, academic and otherwise.

C. Wright Mills, The Sociological Imagination, Pg 218

This was written at a very particular point in time. Yet this trend has seemingly persisted, perhaps intensified, even though the particular circumstances of mid twentieth century american academia have passed. The confusion between what issimplified and simplistic persists, with new modes of intellectual expression leading many to conflate the two with a renewed vigour. It’s important to avoid overstating this case. Some readable things are superficial. Some simplified things are simplistic. Would anyone deny this? The point is to sensitise ourselves to where these boundaries fall. At what point does the pursuit of the former risk engendering the latter? Unless we’re clear about this, any activity tending in this direction will be left as a site of unbridled professional neurosis. So while I agree with Arlene Stein here, I think it’s only part of the picture:

I know from my work with Contexts that there are lots of sociologists who have very interesting things to say about the world. And in fact, they yearn to share their work with audiences beyond the academy, but they don’t know how to do so. That’s because they don’t know how to translate their work for different publics.

In recent years, more and more sociologists are making a case for the importance of doing “public sociology.” This discussion, while certainly important, has taken place largely at the level of theory, via the work of past American Sociological Association President Michael Burawoy and others.  Some of it is taking place among those who are engaging in digital sociology, if posts I’ve been seeing on such blogs as The Sociological Imagination are any indication.

Yet few, it seems, are focusing their sights on making sociological writing more engaging, and fewer still see this as central to the public sociology project.

We need to do all of these things simultaneously: reflect upon the work we do and the uses to which it is put; use new technologies as tools for research and communication; and value good writing–and teach others how to do it.

There’s a deficit of skills. There’s a corrosive culture, particularly in graduate school, which socialises trainee academics into unintelligibility. But there’s also something personal and biographical here which needs to be understood. The sacrifices people make to pursue this course of life. The efforts and energies they put into it and the things they forego as a consequence. These engender an investment in a self-presentation of specialisation which has enormous practical implications for their willingness to contort a communicative impulse into the alienated form impelled by the structures of the academy.

Categories: C. Wright Mills, Committing Sociology, Outflanking Platitudes

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5 replies »

  1. One of my favourite paragraphs by Wright Mills!!!

    This idea of things being superficial because readable (or profound because unreadable) is also extended down here, and it’s sometimes difficult to find profound and readable things.

    That’s why I’ve recomended your post in my blog today (in spanish) to remind myself and others to have these concepts in mind when sitting in front the computer to write down the results of our investigations.,

    • Out of interest: how widely read is C Wright Mills in Spanish? I’ve always wondered if he might be a peculiarly anglo-american trend, in spite of his new leftish internationalism.

  2. You can refer to Howard Becker too! 🙂 He writes a whole book about Writing for Social Scientist.

  3. Yep I had a colleague recently critique my writing as “too folksy,” which I took to be a compliment, although I don’t think it was intended that way. I basked in the same passages of the Sociological Imagination. Just because if everything is so “rarified” as to not be accessible to someone who is interested, uninformed but wants to know, we’re just contributing to knowledge as a strategy to oppress. I’m not saying there aren’t occasions and places where complex ideas require complex language, but too often, methinks, it’s hubris driving the bus.

  4. One strategy is to pair up with a good editor and publish on The Conversation – lots of accessible sociology for smart non- sociologists who are happy to test your claims –

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