Alienated and alienating writing (by alienated and alienating social scientists)

The problem for social scientists is that our jargon, like that of the natural scientists, is heavily biased towards nouns and noun phrases. Our big words are nearly always nouns, such as “re-ethnification”, “mediatisation”, “deindividuation” and all the other “isations” and “ifications” that dominate so much empirical and theoretical writing. […] The preference for nouns is found across the social sciences, affecting the writings of both postmodernists and old-style empiricists. We can see it in the current fashion for using the definite article to transform adjectives into nouns, thereby creating a seemingly endless supply of new things to study: “the comic”, “the homely”, “the pastoral” and so on. What next? The grumpy, the drizzly, the pretentious? […]  by using big nouns, analysts can avoid describing people. If we assume that there is something called “nominalisation”, then we need not specify what exactly people might be doing if they are said to “nominalise”. In fact, statements, with active verbs and small ordinary words, generally contain much more information about actions than do the big nouns, which supposedly describe such acts. According to critical linguists, that is precisely why those in power like to use big nouns: they can transform the uncertain world of human acts into a world of necessary things

This great article by Michael Billig (HT Dave Beer) makes an incisive point which echoes a powerful argument in Andrew Sayer’s last book. Sayer argues that the pervasive disregard for ‘lay normativity'[*] within social science (i.e. what matters to people and why)  helps produce a vision of the social world which is alienated and alienating. Perhaps the pervasive tendency for social scientists to nominalise as part of their process of conceptualisation helps entrench this situation, as  every occasion of linguistically distancing ourselves from concrete actors leaves us ever further from the ethical texture of everyday life. The result is an eviscerated view of the social world, with an apparent explanatory plausibility belying the loss of a significant part of the first person experience of being human. One of the things that most interests me is the possibility of sustaining the capacity for abstraction which brings about this state of affairs but doing so in a way which preserves lay normativity. Without the former, sociology becomes merely descriptive (in which case I’d much rather read essayists, journalists and novelists thanks) but without the latter its explanatory function is, at best, truncated.

However I don’t think the problem can be reduced to questions of theory or methodology. Nor even is it a matter of style per se. Instead is there a problem of the value placed on communication? Or rather the lack thereof. One of the thoughts that I’m untangling in my own mind (and likely will be for some time) is the status accorded to the communication of sociological knowledge and whether ‘public engagement’ represents a potential avenue through which the communication of knowledge is rescued from its longstanding relegation to a secondary status. If communication were valued more would people write in such a rush? Though I can’t escape the irony that I am rushing to finish writing this post so that I can get on with other things. This contradiction, between an increasingly attractive idea of ‘slow theory’ and ‘slow scholarship’ in my head and the reality of what I actually do, does kind of bother me. It’s little things like returning to blog posts to edit them. It’s so easy and quick to do. But it’s often difficult to get myself to do it and it feels like a chore, in spite of the difference I know it makes to the quality and coherence of the writing.

Though another way of looking at this occurs to me. Perhaps the ‘rushing’ is a consequence of the value I place on writing rather than the lack thereof. Or rather the expression of an idea, using writing as a medium to move it from something inchoate to something which I have articulated (and will inevitably do so again and again in an iterative process of saying what I’m trying to say). I feel rushed when an idea is live in my mind and beyond speculating that this is because I really enjoy the process of expressing it, I’m not really sure why this is. It’s also when writing becomes indescribably easy, as words flow when an idea is at the forefront of your mind and gradually cease to flow as the idea comes to feel something more external (objectivised in text) than internal. I find it extremely difficult to write without a live idea in this way. For a long time I had a file of ‘blog post ideas’ which I eventually gave up because I almost never wrote any of them.

*Which to his eternal credit he acknowledges as a rather alienated way to express the idea. 

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About Mark