books book review

Learn to Write Badly:
How to Succeed in the Social Sciences
by Michael Billig

Reviewed by T. Nelson

book review

Learn to Write Badly:
How to Succeed in the Social Sciences

We've all come across examples of bad writing, like this one from a popular news site:

Cosmic rays are still a mystery to astrophysicists. There's a huge number of them flying through the cosmos and astronomers think they come from powerful forces like black holes and exploding supernovas.

Flying astrophysicists? Cool! But that is not quite the kind of bad writing Michael Billig has in mind.

Writing sharpens our thoughts, and muddled thinking leads to obscure writing. Michael Billig calls academic language a dialect created to impress colleagues and obscure a lack of clear thinking. Both of these, he writes, are essential in today's academic environment. Following Stanislav Andreski, who blasted social science writing as “sorcery,” Billig says a culture of boasting and self-promotion is seeping into academia due to economic competition. Today's academics must write even when they have nothing to say. You have to study long and hard, he says, to write this badly. Hence the title, with its two meanings.

The result is intellectual sterility: convoluted paragraphs and made-up words that give the appearance of rigor, but obscure their own imprecision. The big noun clusters sociologists use are not only tools for reinforcing ingroup identity, they are also marketing tools.

Sociologists must try to sell their new concepts by claiming their new word, unlike the old ones that came before, represents something real. Billig compares this to Pepsi Cola, advertised as the ‘real thing.’ In effect, he writes, they're saying: “Put a sparkle into your research with ‘mediatization.’” Terms like ‘ideational metafunction’ and ‘chronotopic lamination’ are ritualistic ways, says Billig, that sociologists encapsulate their ideas to ensure their success. They also dissuade criticism and reduce competition by raising the barriers to entry.

He restricts himself to the social sciences where, he says, academics have a tribal culture comprising specialized disciplines with mutually antagonistic philosophies. The reason is that little in the soft sciences can be proved; knowledge is therefore not cumulative. Even within sociology, different branches deny that the other has any validity. This is how it differs from the hard sciences. He writes: “It is as if the mycologists wanted to rid biology of all pollens, so that the fungi could rule unchallenged.”

Junior sociologists, struggling to grasp the concepts, believe it is obscure writing, not the subject matter, that gives a paper rigor. So they make their writing obscure in order to be accepted. Authors must not only adopt the correct philosophies and use the same methods; they must also repeat the correct shibboleths to prove themselves members of the tribe.

Billig is not concerned with the possibility, made famous by Sokal and Bricmont, that the currently fashionable ideas in sociology may be arrant nonsense. Nor is he concerned with stylistic issues, as Orwell was in his famous essay. Billig believes noun-based, abstract writing is fine for natural science, where impersonal phenomena are being studied, but inappropriate for social sciences because it treats people as inanimate, theoretical objects. Using passive voice avoids saying who did what, and discards important information by concealing what really happened in the experiment. Important-sounding nouns are also misleading, because they suggest that some real phenomenon has occurred.

Sociologists will no doubt dispute this. The purpose is not, they will say, to obscure meaning (though that might be the effect); it's to identify, in as concise a way as possible, what one wants to talk about. That's important. But what Billig really seems to want is to challenge the epistemology of sociological theory itself. The idea is that complex terminology is a type of pseudo-knowledge that substitutes phony jargon for real understanding. Does it make any sense, Billig asks, to treat reification as if it were a material thing? Deeper criticism may be just what sociology needs, but Billig doesn't go any further, having his professional standing to worry about.

Billig is witty and he's a good writer. But why should anyone listen to him? Sociologists aren't going to stop trying to name things. He gets too distracted at times by linguistic issues, and he's too close to the subject to risk drawing blood. But if there's a take-home message, it's this: if you want your writing to be remembered, write so they can figure out what the hell you said.

Update (Oct 15, 2014) Think sociology writing is hard to read? Here's a sentence I came across the other day. It makes perfect sense to molecular biologists, but probably sounds like pure gibberish to everyone else.

This pathway includes the type II receptor Wishful thinking, type I receptors Thick veins and Saxophone, and the second messenger Smads Mothers against dpp (Mad) and Medea.

This is what you get when you allow graduate students to pick names for genes. Sociologists have it easy.

oct 11 2014

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Learn to Write Badly: How to Succeed in the Social Sciences
by Michael Billig

On the Internet, no one can tell whether you're a dolphin or a porpoise

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