Digital scholarship and the tendency of academics to “slip so readily into unintelligibility”

For sociology to be to be effective, especially beyond the academy, it must have literary ambitions. Mills’ assessment of the quality of the sociological writings of his time is damning. He argues that there is a ‘serious crisis in literacy’ in which sociologists are ‘very much involved’ (1959:239). Mills’ position here is an extension of his earlier attack on Parsons and Lazarsfeld, and is just as fierce in tone. He observes that ‘a turgid and polysyllabic prose does seem to prevail in the social sciences’ (Mills, 1959:239), and adds that this style of writing has nothing to do with the complexity of the subject matter. Mills explains the prevalence of this style, instead, in terms of a quest for status. He declares: ‘Desire for status is one reason why academic men slip so readily into unintelligibility. And that, in turn, is one reason why they do not have the status they desire’ (Mills, 1959:240). This thirst for status is said to be driven by an underlying desire for the sociologist to achieve recognition as a ‘scientist’; something, he argues, that led to sociology written in clear and accessible prose (including, presumably, his own work) to be dismissed by many as mere journalism.

C. Wright Mills 50 Years On: The Promise and Craft of Sociology Revisited

What implications does social media have for this ‘serious crisis in literacy’? I’m thinking about this question for a book chapter I’m working on about para-academics and social media. I’m trying to argue that calls for digital scholarship to be ‘recognised’ should be treated cautiously because of the risk that the incorporation of digital outputs into the evaluative frameworks of contemporary higher education would risk distorting many of the aspects of digital scholarship which are most refreshing. I think academic bloggers enjoy a degree of freedom from the sorts of pressures which concerned Mills and, with sufficient ‘mainstreaming’, perhaps this could be threatened.

However I don’t want to overstate the case here, not least of all because I’m aware that unless I’m consciously ‘writing an article’ I tend to be rather lazy when I blog. So I’m not for a second suggesting that online communication represents an absolute avoidance of this tendency to ‘slip so readily into unintelligibility’. However when this does happen, I’d argue it is for entirely different reasons e.g. time pressure, seeing the medium as informal, seeing blog posts as provisional. Furthermore I think it confers an important freedom to experiment intellectually, reinforced by the concomitant liberation from any prior formatting constraints i.e. the freedom to write 20 words or 2000 as the situation demands helps with the iterative development of ideas.

This has made me think about how I approach my own writing though. I tend to see stylistic editing as a form of polishing, sometimes necessary but not something I particularly value or enjoy. However I’m increasingly uncomfortable with what I now see as an instrumental understanding of the value of improving my writing because, now I’ve thought about it, it seems obvious that  blogging could constitute an extremely rewarding forum in which to deliberately and reflectively work on your own writing. This is one of many things I think Mills would have approved of about blogging.

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