Authored by Oliver Marsh, a PhD Researcher in Science Enthusiasm and Social Media at the UCL Science and Technology Studies Department. Originally appeared at the blog SidewaysLookAtScience.
Richard P. Feynman had a habit of being right about science. Mostly physical science, but occasionally biological science, or computer science. And even, it transpires, social science:
There was a sociologist who had written a paper for us all to read – something he had written ahead of time. I started to read the damn thing, and my eyes were coming out: I couldn’t make head nor tail of it! I figured it was because I hadn’t read any of the books on that list. I have this uneasy feeling of “I’m not adequate,” until finally I said to myself, “I’m gonna stop, and read one sentence slowly, so I can figure out what the hell it means.”
So I stopped – at random – and read the next sentence very carefully. I can’t remember it precisely, but it was very close to this: “The individual member of the social community often receives his information via visual, symbolic channels.” I went back and forth over it, and translated. You know what it means? “People read”.
This has been a guide for me ever since I made the leap from physics to social sciences, in conjunction with his more famous first rule of science, “you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool”. Together they provide two essential Thou Shalt Nots for the social scientist. But sometimes – indeed, a worrying proportion of the time – I wish more social scientists had read this short passage. But now it’s become a mere appetiser for a somewhat less pithy, but equally essential, reading – a wonderful book with the excellently severe title Learn to Write Badly: How to Succeed in the Social Sciences by Michael Billig.
Billig’s book has other points to recommend besides an awesome title. In fact, it’s a great lesson in multitasking. Firstly, it provides an extensive study of the way social scientists, as a group, write. Billig notes an overwhelming tendency to turn verbs into long noun phrases (usually ending in –ism or –ization) and acronyms. So instead of saying ‘social scientists are using noun phrases’, many would instead write ‘nominalization has occurred’. The problems with this are fairly obvious. Problem one is that it looks ‘academic’ and ‘authoritative’ – or, as those of us keen on public engagement with academia would say, ‘offputting’ and ‘needlessly opaque’ and ‘stop it’. But beyond public engagement (which Billig expressly states isn’t His Thing) this needless opaqueness is still a problem, even for people who are professionally good at dealing with long words.
This is apparent in the second and third problems. The second problem is that replacing verbs with nouns has the effect of replacing descriptions of actual-people-doing-actual-things with theoretical concepts.1 The cumulative effect of this is to produce, in Billig’s wonderful words, “concept jigsaws” rather than well-evidenced accounts of people living in social worlds. Thirdly, if you trace these highfalutin noun phrases back through a lifetime of citations, you find they have a habit of mutating in meaning. Somewhat unsurprisingly this causes a wee bit of confusion, as different authors unwittingly use one specific word to mean a great variety of things. And no, it turns out that the old trope of ‘defining your terms’ doesn’t stop this – people just end up slowly but surely wandering away from them, whistling nonchalantly as they leave your wonderfully precise description discarded behind them.
Now, some might respond by claiming that these noun-phrases and acronyms are essential tools for efficiently conveying information. The point of these long words is to encode a sentence (or more) worth of information, which is why we write ‘Longwordism is [insert sentence here]’. And if you acronymise a collection of long words, you can have lots of these sentences in a few letters. BONUS. But hold fire for a second there. Even if these long words are conveying information efficiently, amidst all the theoretical jigsaws and mutating meanings they aren’t necessarily conveying it accurately, usefully, or even intelligibly. And even the prosaic ‘oh well at least they’re reducing my word count’ doesn’t hold up either. As Billig notes, if academics were really trying to save space they’d produce acronyms for commonly used phrases like MRIN (‘More Research Is Needed’) or IMCTWT (‘It’s More Complicated Than We Thought’) or SRMWSFLP (‘Someone Remind Me What Sunlight Feels Like Please’).
So why why why do social scientists do all this stuff? Billig to the rescue again. The third, and arguably most interesting, purpose of the book is as a sociology of social scientists. He argues that these writing tropes are symptomatic of other stuff going on in the lives of social scientists today. In particular, it’s down to the hefty competition, CV-building, and self-marketing required in modern academic life. Distinctive noun-phrases and acronyms give you a personal product to market, and a banner for your followers to explicitly align themselves to. There’s also an educational element to it. Undergraduate students can’t just show they’re generally clever, they have to show they were actually listening to the lectures by using the same clever terms. Postgraduate students who are moving into research have to find an ‘approach’ or ‘school’ to align themselves with – by, you guessed it, using the correct terms. And let’s not even think about peer review (that’s a phrase I wish I could say far more frequently). As sociologists like to say, there are ‘structural factors’ at work, not just disconnected examples of bad writing. Which is why Billig downplays the writing-manual side of his book. Cos it ain’t all as simple as everyone learning to write a bit better.
So that, in a rather rapid and reduced nutshell, is Billig’s book. Actually there’s a fourth aspect, but that comes more from my reading than Billig’s writing. It’s also a great lesson in practising what you preach. Because I do have one issue with the book: by suggesting social scientists should use verby language to focus very heavily on actual-people-doing-actual-things, I worry he cuts too deep and makes social science into very detailed description of very particular situations with little cross-comparing, broader theorization, or the like. But then again Billig manages to simultaneously follow his own writing advice – and the book is a superbly good read as a result – but also produce a compelling and broad picture of modern academic life. I’m still not quite sure how he does it. But I’m well jealous. Though still a little unsure.
Anyway. To end, I’d like to extend Billig’s argument into slightly different territories. And, following my own ‘structural factor’ of having just got back from the pub, this is going to take the form of slight rant.2 I agree that clarity of writing does matter, and I get fed up with canonical authors who ‘you just have to re-read a couple of times’ (yes pre-1980s Michel Foucault I am looking at you). But terminology is not just a matter of making sure people get your ideas. As Feynman said, it’s also a matter of sticking your neck out and holding the possibility that you’ve ‘fooled yourself’ up for examination. And in the social sciences we do sometimes fool ourselves. Playing with concept jigsaws is worryingly fun, and when all the pieces fit neatly together the thrill of clever phrasing is easy to mistake for the thrill of discovery. And social science shouldn’t just be about the enjoyment of showing off. That’s one reason blogging and other public engagement stuff is extremely useful – it forces you to strip away terminology and, sometimes, realize you’re actually just stating the bleedin’ obvious. As Feynman noted, ‘people read’ is not actually a scientific discovery.
But the effect of terminology goes beyond lack of comprehension. Terminology conveys an impression. For those already disengaged from the social sciences, bad and unexplained terminology just confirms that we’re nothing but pretentious ivory-tower wordsmiths. And for those engaged with the social sciences, it suggests that long and authoritative words are a Good Thing. I’m particularly thinking of ‘the left-wing’3, a faction that sociology has a long history of (often very productive) links with. Emotionally and spiritually and other abstract-things-ily I am very much in that camp. But I find it sadly hard to intellectually associate myself with a rhetoric that frequently bandies around terms like ‘marketisation’. Yeah sure, we know what markets are and we can get vague idea what that means. But who is doing what to who and where and what can we do to stop it? And I don’t think trying to define the term ‘marketisation’ will work either.4 Neither will creating completely new radical terms that get away from everyday meaning (yet another topic discussed by Billig, the utter machine that he is), as that would just create a very strong in-the-know / not-in-the-know language barrier. But most importantly, think of the impression it conveys. Recall Billig’s argument that noun phrases make it look like theoretical concepts, rather than people, do things; it’s kinda similar to the idea that overarching forces of evil and capitalism (perhaps embodied in a shadowy worldwide cabal) do the bad things in the world.5 It’s the sort of rhetoric that, accidentally or not, sounds a bit crazy-conspiracy-theory; the sort of rhetoric that, in a previous life, put me right off left-wing politics until I fortunately ended up working with a group of friendly socialists who convinced me otherwise. It was a lucky and very effective lesson. I can’t remember exactly how they did it, but I bet they used some verbs.
Basically, what is needed is the diffusion of Billigization across a spatially-extreme but temporally-contracted landscape in a multi- inter- intra- and trans-disciplinary actualization, with concomitant socio-political decontextualisation and recontextualisation. Is that really too much to ask?
1 = This is a crucial difference with the natural sciences, where describing experimental objects – particles, bacteria, whatever –in the language of people-doing-things can produce confusion. For instance the sentence ‘the electron goes towards the positive cathode because that makes it happy’ hides more information than it reveals, no matter how cute an image it is.
2 = For anyone who’s not had the pleasure (read ‘amusement’) of seeing me rant, it’s very stereotypically English. One high-pitched shout, followed by a lot of apologising and retracting and Hugh Grant noises. Also, for anyone who notes that I posted this mid-morning, there was some proof-reading in between the pub and the posting. Honest.
3 = The phrase ‘the left wing’ is a great example of how short words definitely always describe something clear and obvious and concrete. <SARCASM CLAXON>. In seriousness though, I am aware I’m speaking from my experiences of a very limited branch of left-wing-ness and – unsurprisingly – it is a particularly academic branch.
4 = Firstly because of Billig’s whole ‘terms-mutate-meaning-and-there-ain’t-nothing-you-can-do-about it, secondly because sitting down and coming to concrete agreement isn’t the strong point of either sociologists or the left wing, and thirdly because it’d probably look something like this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oW9_GqShJPg. Although, as my lovely friend Sara Peres (off of UCL STS) pointed out, ‘marketisation’ might serve as a useful way of bringing previously hidden links between things to light. That is a fair and complicated and subtle point, and as such has no place in my rant.
5 = Some might argue this is a useful view, perhaps as a metaphor, or perhaps because you take the popular sociological view that everyday acts combine to form overarching social forces. My response is – well, maybe. As a sociologist that’s interesting. Outside of sociology it just sounds kinda trippy.