Review: Writing Wrongs in Sociology Author(s): Charles Tilly Reviewed work(s): Writing for Social Scientists.

How to Start and Finish Your Thesis, Book, or Article by Howard S. Becker Source: Sociological Forum, Vol. 1, No. 3 (Summer, 1986), pp. 543-552 Published by: Springer Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/684654 Accessed: 23/10/2008 02:48
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Review Essays

Writing Wrongs in Sociology
Charles Tilly New School for Social Research Writing for Social Scientists. How to Start and Finish your Thesis, Book, or Article. Howard S. Becker. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 180 pp. $20.00, cloth; $6.95, paper. Anyone who tells you he writes publishable first drafts, John Kenneth Galbraith once remarked, is either a liar or a fool. Galbraith, a prolific, lucid author, knew what he was talking about: the incessant redrafting; the detritus of cute but distracting tricks, name-dropping, portentous references, unfinished thoughts, confusing juxtapositions, and circumlocutions that somehow filters into the first drafts of seasoned authors and neophytes alike; the awkward shift from interrogating yourself to persuading a well-defined audience. Many social scientists only face these painful problems openly when a journal editor sends them the fateful words "revise and resubmit." Even at that point, few of them understand how much of their problem is rhetorical, and therefore calls for a rhetorical solution. Not merely rhetorical! Rhetoric, as the art of stating effective arguments, requires not only intelligible language and devices that guide the audience's attention but also clear arguments and well-crafted connections. Rhetoric operates, furthermore, within limits set by previous discussions of its subject. It concerns, in short, persuasive communication. As Donald McCloskey puts it, The point is that conversations use language. It is impossible to have a language of one's own, untouched by tradition or by the rest of the conversationalists. The mutual persuasion known as knowledge in history or in economics, as in physics or literature, is a social event, like a coronation or a day in the wheat pit (McCloskey 1985:16). The social event has its own rules of effective conversation. Those rules constitute its rhetoric. Not only rhetorical, either. Much of the difficulty in social scientists' writing stems from the confounding of several very different intellectual activities within the apparently unitary act of writing. Most social scientists attempt to solve theoretical and conceptual problems by writing about them and as they write about them. But at the same time and by the same act they also try to report their results, persuade others of the validity of the results, and show the relevance of the results to other work. How well an author performs all these competing 543

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tasks determines the lucidity of the text he or she produces. Few authors can solve intellectual problems and write effective communications simultaneously. Writers whose basic arguments are muddled or contradictory often take refuge in slogans, pomp, wordiness, or abstract obscurity. They thereby fail the tests of effective rhetoric. Many social scientists flunk those qualifying exams. In fact, they often accuse each other of linguistic failings: remember C. Wright Mills' tendentious translations of Talcott Parsons from Parsons into ordinary English. "My purpose in all this," declared Mills, "is to help grand theorists get down from their useless heights" (Mills 1959:33). The word, alas, has spread abroad. For a long time, literati have commonly used the word sociologist as a synonym for pedantic barbarian. "A child," Malcolm Cowley wrote thirty years ago, "says 'Do it again,' a teacher says, 'repeat the exercise,' but the sociologist says 'It was determined to replicate the investigation'" (Cowley 1956:42; note the malicious shift from a child and a teacher to the sociologist). Cowley spat out his assessment of sociological prose: prolix, heavy with neologisms, abstract, pompous, lacking agents and transitive verbs, inclined to translate Caesar's veni, vidi, vici as "Upon the advent of the investigator, his hegemony became minimally coextensive with the areal unit rendered visible by his successive displacements in space" (Cowley 1956:43). Five years later, following the same line, New York Times reviewer Charles Poore remarked of a book by Germaine Tillion that "Although she is a sociologist, her prose . .. has an elegance one does not expect from that guarded enclave of jabberwocky" (Poore, 1961; In fact, Tillion is an anthropologist, but never mind). The barrage continued. In 1966, Mervyn Jones regaled his New Statesman readers with a piece called "The Sociology Ploy." There he spoke of "the claim of sociology, admittedly the most splendid lifemanship ploy of our time, to be a science" (Jones 1966:313). His attack on that claim mainly concerned sociological language. From New Society he plucked the sentence "In the London Traffic Survey, future traffic flows are seen to depend more than anything else on car ownership, and that in turn is shown to be a function of household incomes," which he translated as "Cars are driven by people who own them, and bought by people who have enough money" (Jones 1966:313; Jones's translation misses the point of the functional language, to be sure, but is that his fault or the author's?). After many another swipe at the profession, Jones concluded: All the same, I shouldn't care to be as sweeping as sociology itself and declare roundly that sociology is bunk. The jargon may verge on the incomprehensible, the pomposity may be unattractive, the statement of the banal and the obvious in a tone of discovery may 544

Review Essays be comical; but some of what is said is true. Few of us will feel much doubt that cars are driven by people who own them and bought by people who have enough money (Jones 1966:313). Today, the brickbats keep coming; as I write, yet another New York Times reviewer praises Kenneth Jackson's Crabgrass Frontier by declaring "The key thing to note is that Professor Jackson is not a sociologist, but a historian." For many literary folk, "sociologist" means presumptuous, illiterate nincompoop. No one, so far as I know, has stood up to defend the quality of sociological writing as either better than advertised or necessary for its objectives. Sociologists often try, of course, a conventional defense: that other people write just as badly, but critics single out sociologists because they study controversial subjects on which critics have strong, if uninformed, opinions. Such a defense, however, amounts to pleading nolo contendere. What's the complaint? Essentially that sociologists give spurious authority to banal, confused, or contradictory ideas by sheathing them in verbal obscurity. Is that true? Some of it is: confused ideas breed obscure writing, both readers and writers sometimes mistake opacity for profundity, and sociological journals rarely afford their subscribers literary delight. Other parts of the indictment, however, do not hold so well. Sociologists do not sin against the language more than most other social scientists. Try the standard journals of economics and political science! Few sociologists, furthermore, write ponderously in order to hoodwink their readers; when it comes to their own professional subject, they simply don't know how to write any more clearly. And they often fool themselves into taking their own heaps of verbiage for mountains of thought. Still, is ignorance any excuse? The books, articles, and manuscripts that flow across my desk make me wonder. Many sociologists who show admirable competence in reviewing literatures or reporting findings (or, more rarely, both) fall into fits of incoherence when it comes to linking findings with literatures. They founder, that is, when stating their own arguments. They have particular trouble with agency: who did what to whom. Hence a retreat into the passive voice and a flight to high levels of abstraction. In those distant realms, no one does anything to anyone. Linguistic anemia often afflicts doctoral dissertations. Wanting to accomplish but not to offend, anxious to establish the connections between their work and previous pursuits of the same problems, unsure of their ground, and supervised by scholars who rarely qualify as literary critics, authors of dissertations in the social sciences usually have their greatest trouble when they have to move from a discussion of previous work to a statement of their own views. The "literature chapter," as many people call it, serves to demonstrate both that the nervous can545

Sociological Forum didate has read and judged preceding work and that his or her own work actually adds something new. In general, only a few people anywhere have the interest, stamina, and competence to read the chapter critically; they are the few on whose own contributions the new research bears most directly. The dense discussion pinpoints the position of the new work. But it also makes the next step-stating the work's own arguments forthrightly and persuasively-very difficult. Especially stating them in a way that will interest and persuade others than the handful of scholars for whom the author has actually written the dissertation. Editors tremble when the morning mail brings yet another brownwrapped doctoral dissertation. They know it will not greatly resemble a book, especially a publishable book, and that its author will have trouble understanding why that is so. They know the "literature chapter" will almost certainly have to disappear. They know that the author will announce awkwardly what his subject is, and why people should find it worthy of attention. They know that its rhetoric will be inadequate. Since a large share of social-scientific writing consists of or stems from doctoral dissertations, the difficulties spread. They seep into monographs and articles, as well as into the books that eventually emerge from dissertation materials. Thus defective rhetoric comes to pervade the "literature"of social science. The parlous state of social-scientific writing seems to result from two main causes: (1) confusion between writing as a means of working out ideas and writing as a way of communicating arguments and evidence; (2) lack of rhetorical sensitivity and skill. Not that anything is wrong with working out ideas by writing; on the contrary, writing for personal illumination provides one of academic life's greatest pleasures. When the audience shifts from the author to interested others, however, the style must change as well. The shift calls for rewriting, and more rewriting. (It is hard to see, in fact, how any effective paper can go through fewer than three drafts: one to get the ideas right, another to translate them into terms other people will understand, and a third to perfect the translation.) Authors who lack rhetorical sensitivity and skill make that shift with difficulty. Among social scientists, regrettably, such authors are legion. As a test, take a recent issue of a national sociology journal from your shelf. Almost any national journal will do. Search each article for its pivotal paragraph,the one in which the author states the connection between the literature just reviewed and the findings about to come. Scrutinize the writing for passive voice, vague linking verbs, and highlevel abstractions; you will often find them. Let me report one small result from my own running of the test. Consider a valuable article on liberal attitudes and education in the Au546

Review Essays gust 1985 American Sociological Review. (The article, I insist, reports thoughtful sociological work and deserves its publication in a prestigious journal.) Frederick Weil distinguishes between "psychodynamic" and "socialization or cognitive" theories of education's effects on tolerance, then gives reasons for thinking that the relationship between liberal attitudes and education differs in officially liberal and officially illiberal countries. Then comes the pivotal paragraph. Reviewing the literature, Weil concludes that a number of studies: show that the correlation between education and tolerance varies systematically among such countries, and perhaps also in the same countries over time. This being the case, it would seem that the psychodynamic interpretation can only be maintained by being subsumed under the socialization interpretation, which posits crosscultural variation. If this is true, the next step is to investigate the social and historical factors that influence the values adopted by the better educated (Weil, 1985:460). What on earth do those tangled words mean? In the thicket lurks an interesting argument: Exposure to education does not make people more ideliberal; it encourages them to accept official ideology-whatever rulers have installed. If official ideology is liberal, therefore, edology ucated people become more liberal; if it is authoritarian, educated people become more authoritarian. Once dragged from the verbal brambles, the argument helps us make connections: with Alex Inkeles' ideas about Third-World educational institutions as sites of exposure to "modern" attitudes, with Antonio Gramsci's theories of hegemony, with Karl Deutsch's models of social mobilization. The sociological language, however, hides the argument. The paragraph shows us abstract agents ("correlation," "interpretation," "social and historical factors") and weak-kneed actions ("varies," "would seem," "be maintained," "posits," "is," "to investigate," "influences," with participles "subsumed" and "adopted" complementing the rest). A provocative argument sinks into linguistic quicksand, then suffocates. Why do so many sociological arguments die that awful death? Weil's own analysis, rescued from the sand and hosed off, suggests part of the answer. Education reinforces adherence to the practices of senior scholars. Young sociologists learn to write that way, as willy-nilly they emulate their elders. Through plenty of practice, they become skilled at putting abstract actors through pusillanimous actions. "Bad academic writing," remarks veteran editor Donald Holden, begins in the graduate schools where professors-to-be are trained to write by the professors whose books we turn down. Doctoral programs breed bad writing because they fail (or refuse) to teach 547

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the fundamental lesson that produces a clear, simple, well-organized manuscript: the star of the book is not the writer, but the reader (Holden 1979). If so, we have a cause for despair and a reason for hope. Despair, because bad writing results in part from principles that senior sociologists support, impart, and exemplify. Hope, because youngsters who learn something bad so well can no doubt learn something better equally well. Graduate students ordinarily become quite skilled at subjecting other people's writings to explication and criticism; if they can turn that skill on their own writings, the writings will probably improve. By deliberate comparison of their own products to writing they admire, younger scholars can learn the value of a topical sentence, of a well-told story that illustrates an article's main point, of transitions that sum up where the argument is going, of conclusions that actually conclude. They can also circulate texts to their fellow critics, and self-consciously distinguish the critics' response to their ideas from the response to their prose. The generalized circulation of semi-official working papers by departments and research centers will help. Social scientists need not fail the tests of effective rhetoric. Take heart: even where graduate teachers don't open these opportunities for their students, aid has come for exam-flunkers. In Writing for Social Scientists, Howard Becker asks why and how sociologists and other social scientists fail so often, and what they can do about it. Thirty years of sociological teaching, reading, and writing have convinced him that many social scientists do write badly, and suffer in the process. Yet he devotes little energy to wringing his hands about the horrors of sociological prose. He spends even less time exhorting people to write short sentences, active verbs, parallel constructions and the like. Becker mentions Malcolm Cowley's attack on sociological prose, but resists the temptation either to join the jeremiad or to point out exemplary exceptions, his own writing among them. Not once does he pontificate about what good writers we would all be if we were as cultivated, thoughtful, and experienced as he. He practices what he preaches, of course: his prose canters along in short, punchy, informal sentences. But he does not offer us an instruction book for reproducing his style. No, Howard Becker offers something far better. Writing for Social Scientists presents a personal account of the ways that sociologists and other social scientists subvert their own desires for effective communication with distant colleagues, and a wise inventory of remedies for their ills. Before drafting his book, Becker had thrice run a graduate seminar on writing. It was apparently a great success. It succeeded, evidence in 548

Review Essays the book suggests, because Becker loved vigorous, direct writing, because he was thoughtful and humane, because he persuaded people to think of writing as a form of communication rather than as self-expression or self-mutilation, because the course focused on the students' own practical difficulties rather than on an abstract standard, above all because it gave the participants a chance to confront collectively what most of them had previously thought were their own private, peculiar, shameful inadequacies. No doubt other writing courses have sometimes done the same thing. But Becker has managed to translate the aura of that painful, joyous seminar into 167 pages of print. What is more, he has created a book that encourages its readers to participate vicariously in the seminar, and learn the seminar's lesson. Congratulations, Howard Becker! How does Becker do it? First, he draws mainly on his own experience and first-hand observation. He leaves no doubt who is talking: it is "I," not we, The Sociologist, Good Practice, or disembodied authority. He tells stories about his own difficulties in writing, about his students' dilemmas, about his colleagues' solutions to their problems. He tells us, for example, how Rosanna Hertz, when an advanced graduate student, resisted his simplification of her prose; she felt that his version wasn't as "classy" as hers. At his prodding, Hertz then wrote a superb essay on classiness. It ends with a rueful insight: "I am looking for a writing style that makes me sound smart" (31; Becker adds that she has long since abandoned the equation of style with intelligence). Similar personal anecdotes make most of the book's main points. Second, Becker takes fledgling writers' difficulties seriously. Analogizing with the medical students he knows so well, he notes how many graduate students in the social sciences feel privately that they are not yet competent practitioners and maybe never will be, but must behave publicly like seasoned professionals; adopting the jargon helps ease the anxiety. Becker points out, furthermore, that seasoned professionals face similar anxieties, especially when they strike out into new fields. A case in point: Pamela Richards, well into a successful career, drafted the book's chapter on risk when she had trouble writing up her new study of a women's prison. She set down the chapter as a letter to her friend Howie Becker. Becker had challenged her to say what it would cost her to churn out and circulate a draft she knew to be preliminary and inadequate. She spoke for us all; she sent back a stirring memoir on the fear that her colleagues would read the draft and decide on the spot that she-not it-was worthless. Becker comments that Richards "has in detail the organization of peers and superiors characteristic explored of the world of the young academic and shown vividly how it affects one's willingness to take the chances that trying to be a professional intellectual confront you with" (120). There we see the expert Becker 549

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at work: looking on sympathetically, giving gentle advice, and analyzing the social origins of literary ills. (We also see an author who isn't afraid to end a sentence with a preposition when that avoids a stuffy construction; that trait puts Becker in the company of Winston Churchill, who is supposed to have written on a manuscript whose copy-editor had folded every one of Churchill's prepositions to mid-sentence: "This is the sort of nonsense up with which I will not put!") Third, without ever making a point of it, Becker subtly shifts the emphasis from writing as an individual ordeal to writing as a form of communication with specific others. His approach to sociological theory and research predicts just such a move, yet it comes as a pleasant surprise. Especially in a chapter exorcizing the ghost of the One Right Way to make an argument, Becker insists that we always have choices, and that the choices depend on an interaction between ourselves and the intended audience. Here he is talking about starting an article by dumping whatever fragments of ideas you have onto paper: Once you have the fragments, you can see how disparate they are, how they range from the general to the particular and don't seem to stick to any one way of thinking about your topic. Now you have to arrange them so that they at least seem to move logically from point to point in what a reader would recognize as a reasonable argument. How can you do that? (60) At this point in my reading, I felt two twinges of regret: Becker says little about the forms of argument that sociologists currently find "reasonable," and therefore about the profession's styles of communication and persuasion. And he doesn't quite articulate my own rule of thumb: even when they're wrong, the critics are always right. (Translation: if you've allowed your readers to make a stupid complaint, you probably didn't think hard enough about how they would read your text.) Nevertheless, Becker's instinct was probably correct. Instead of pausing to sermonize, he pushed on with the main job, helping a phantom student, his reader, work through the transition from having bright ideas to communicating them on paper. Finally, Becker offers low-keyed advice: be willing to write something bad on your way to writing something good; remember that there are usually several different ways of putting an argument, none of them perfect; learn to edit manuscripts, including your own; simplify ruththinkinglessly; cut out dead metaphors; do your good writing-and by rewriting; take only so much from "the literature" as you need to make your argument; let your friends criticize your texts before the rest of your professional audience gets at them; figure out who is in that 550

Review Essays professional audience and how they are organized, then decide what it will take to address them effectively. Without spending much time extolling his favorite models of lucidity, he lets his readers know that good writing can be habit-forming, great fun, and easier than bad writing. He helps his readers peer into the world of word processing, explaining how composing at a terminal can smooth out obstacles and dissolve anxieties. Sound, reflective counsel, and all the more helpful for appearing in the midst of a discussion of the reasons why social scientists find such good advice hard to take. Troubled writers now know what manuals they should keep at hand. They still need a good dictionary, a manual of publishing style, and a guide to sentence-making such as Strunk and White's irreplaceable Elements of Style. Next to those standards they can now stand Becker's Writing for Social Scientists. Warning: With those books in reach, excuses for ineffectual rhetoric will decline. Now, if only Howard Becker or someone else would write similar manuals on giving talks, teaching classes, qualifying for tenure, and preparing grant applications, sociology's lucidity level would rise and its tension level would decline. Rarely has anyone made the case so well for teaching as analysis, therapy, and practical guidance. Let no one mistake Becker's message, or my own, for the advocacy of style at the expense of substance. Becker's thoughtful advice will do little good for the author who has pumped obscure writing into an intellectual void. Strunk and White put it well: "Style," they say, "takes its final shape more from attitudes of mind than from principles of composition, for, as an elderly practitioner once remarked, 'Writing is an act of faith, not a trick of grammar.' This moral observation," they continue, would have no place in a rule book were it not that style is the writer, and therefore what a man is, rather than what he knows, will at last determine his style. If one is to write, one must believe-in the truth and worth of the scrawl, in the ability of the reader to receive and decode the message. No one can write decently who is distrustful of the reader's intelligence, or whose attitude is patronizing (Strunk and White, 1972: 77). Or, we might add, whose own ideas are fundamentally confused or pretentious. In those cases, stylistic improvements will simply make the confusion and pretense more obvious. Even there, however, we can find grounds for hope. All of us are confused or pretentious, or both, at least some of the time. If our careful scrutiny of early drafts reveals those soft spots in our writing before they become visible to the rest of the world, we have a chance to eradicate them in time to avoid embarrassment. Draw on Becker's sustaining 551

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advice: Draft, then redraft. Cast a critic's eye at your own prose. Move on from reflection to communication. Work on your rhetoric-there's the message!
REFERENCES Becker, Howard S. 1986 Writing for Social Scientists: How to Start and Finish Your Thesis, Book, or Article. With a chapter by Pamela Richards. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986. Cowley, Malcolm 1956 "Sociological habit patterns in linguistic transmogrification."The Reporter 20 (20 September 1956): 4143. Holden, Donald 1979 "Why profs can't write." New York Times, 5 February. Jones, Mervyn 1966 "The sociology ploy." New Statesman and Nation, 2 September:313. Lehmann-Haupt, Christopher 1986 Review of Crabgrass Frontier, by Kenneth T. Jackson. New York Times, 17 April. McCloskey, Donald N. 1985 "Which past to the road? The unexamined rhetoric of history." Paper presented to the Social Science History Association, November 1985. Mills, C. Wright 1959 The Sociological Imagination. New York: Oxford University Press. Poore, Charles 1961 Review of France and Algeria, by Germaine Tillion. New York Times, 20 July. Strunk, William, Jr., and E. B. White 1972 The Elements of Style. Rev. ed. New York: Macmillan. Weil, Frederick D. 1985 "Thevariable effects of education on liberal attitudes: A comparative-historical analysis of anti-semitism using public opinion survey data." American Sociological Review 50 (August):458-475.

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