Public Sociology and Sociological Writing

One of my favourite passages by C Wright Mills concerns the tendency of academics to “slip so readily into unintelligibility”. An “elaborate vocabulary” and “involved manner of speaking and writing” become props for a professional self-image which defines itself, in part, through the inaccessibility of the work being produced:

In many academic circles today anyone who tries to write in a widely intelligible way is liable to be condemned as a ‘mere literary man’ or, worse still, ‘a mere journalist.’ Perhaps you have already learned that these phrases, as commonly used, only indicate the spurious inference: superficial because readable. The academic man in America is trying to carry on a serious intellectual life in a context that often seems quite set against it. His prestige must make up for many of the dominant values he has sacrificed by choosing an academic career. His claims for prestige readily become tied to his self-image as a ‘scientist’. To be called a ‘mere journalist’ makes him feel undignified and shallow. It is this situation, I think, that is often at the bottom of the elaborate vocabulary and involved manner of speaking and writing. It is less difficult to learn this manner than not. It has become a convention – those who do not use it are subject to moral disapproval. It may be that it is the result of an academic closing of ranks on the part of the mediocre, who understandably wish to exclude those who win the attention of intelligent people, academic and otherwise.

C. Wright Mills, The Sociological Imagination, Pg 218

This was written at a very particular point in time. Yet this trend has seemingly persisted, perhaps intensified, even though the particular circumstances of mid twentieth century american academia have passed. The confusion between what is simplified and simplistic persists, with new modes of intellectual expression leading many to conflate the two with a renewed vigour. It’s important to avoid overstating this case. Some readable things are superficial. Some simplified things are simplistic. Would anyone deny this? The point is to sensitise ourselves to where these boundaries fall. At what point does the pursuit of the former risk engendering the latter? Unless we’re clear about this, any activity tending in this direction will be left as a site of unbridled professional neurosis. So while I agree with Arlene Stein here, I think it’s only part of the picture:

I know from my work with Contexts that there are lots of sociologists who have very interesting things to say about the world. And in fact, they yearn to share their work with audiences beyond the academy, but they don’t know how to do so. That’s because they don’t know how to translate their work for different publics.

In recent years, more and more sociologists are making a case for the importance of doing “public sociology.” This discussion, while certainly important, has taken place largely at the level of theory, via the work of past American Sociological Association President Michael Burawoy and others.  Some of it is taking place among those who are engaging in digital sociology, if posts I’ve been seeing on such blogs as The Sociological Imagination are any indication.

Yet few, it seems, are focusing their sights on making sociological writing more engaging, and fewer still see this as central to the public sociology project.

We need to do all of these things simultaneously: reflect upon the work we do and the uses to which it is put; use new technologies as tools for research and communication; and value good writing–and teach others how to do it.

There’s a deficit of skills. There’s a corrosive culture, particularly in graduate school, which socialises trainee academics into unintelligibility. But there’s also something personal and biographical here which needs to be understood. The sacrifices people make to pursue this course of life. The efforts and energies they put into it and the things they forego as a consequence. These engender an investment in a self-presentation of specialisation which has enormous practical implications for their willingness to contort a communicative impulse into the alienated form impelled by the structures of the academy.


  1. Wow. A stinging critique of the specialized parlance of often incommunicable academic culture! An historical perspective of ‘science’, I think, would argue that what is derived (suppositions/theory) is also contrived (imposition/practice); that assertions of veracity (academic disciplines) being essentially verbal constructs with conceptual baggage outweighing claims to empirical conviction or credibility, systems of assertion from top to bottom and symptoms of cognition in quest of laws governing their speculation, hardly more.

    It’s almost certain that a through deconstruction of historical evidence (verbal edifice of culture), on any issue of academic discipline, will yield points of departure from the exigencies of cognition (as distinct from the interests of the same), lending emergence to apparent meaning, relations, distinctions, definitions, terms contested and falsification, problematic conclusions and ultimately, confusion. Something about the Tower of Babel.

    But for the happy fool who lives in the hour, unmindful of what folly clever men invent, a novice on the scope of being or believing, stalled to wrack the moments anxious or faithful tending expanse, enduring in the true relation, face to face, Who would build a castle in the air in which no one lives, after all? Yet to build the bridges of material or affected importance, necessitating whether defensive strategies and cooperative endeavors or fortified bunkers among tribal distinctions, a nice proposition withal.

    Their are no histories but in the making, and no science except plausible distinctions; wherefore is Speculation and Theory not a specialty of discipline, but an acid-test of Perception, however oriented in Paradigms (objective/subjective/synthetic/absolute). And if Nothing be the Absolute but in the making, half-writ or better intending Story, then Memory gives birth to the Graces, Aesthetics to Wisdom, danced around by Beauty in consummate Creation. Conclusion?

    There is no science, but Art. I do believe that such is at the heart of Existentialism as a kind of ‘punctuated equilibrium’ in practice, lending alternatives in abundance, unconfined to do service in quest of others, no mere badge-wearing lieutenant of bathroom stalls, waiting parlors, dinner conventions or lecture halls, more clap-trap magistrates of conceit than clown cars to go around. Comic/Tragic at once, with scarce relief of Farce between. Better, says the jester, a fools’ calumny in the presence of the naked king for Wit than droll desperation concluding voice among the wise, as all must come to confusion, an April’s day turnabout of roles, upending Odin for one-eyed wonder, wild perhaps of seeming and ruin upon the waters (history)

    So sweet at first the telling page, though in the end a bitter slake.

  2. Thanks for your thoughts on intelligible sociology, Mark. I think you hit it right when you pointed out that graduate students invest in a self-presentation that is the entirely based on specialized language. What begins as a very superficial presentation of self seems to slowly become an embraced academic identity. Even as the jargon feels so foreign to the first-year grad student, the fifth-year can hardly even talk about her discipline without using jargon – possibly because she’s never tried to explain concepts any other way.

    I remember a seminar when I was a first-year. One of the older students threw out some ridiculously loaded point, mostly a series of jargon-filled phrases that may or may not have contained both a subject and a verb. One of the other students asked him to rephrase his point (or question? we weren’t sure). The older student said, “I can’t. That’s the only way I know how to express the point.” We all stared at each other blankly before the professor changed the subject.

    That moment has stayed with me and illustrates, I think, exactly what you’re talking about – academics seem unable, unwilling, or not well practiced at simplifying concepts. I do agree that there’s a movement of sociologists that want to engage in public sociology but perhaps don’t even have the capacity to do so. Maybe we can change that, one blog at a time.

  3. I do think the flip side to this is the utility of technical terms. There are some things that ‘jargon’ makes it possible to say in one word that would otherwise takes sentences. I guess I think it’s the capacity to translate that’s important, as well as perhaps the clarity that comes from being critical about jargon i.e. the terms may be useful but it’s possible to kid yourself you’re saying something concrete whereas you’re actually saying something fuzzy. The first interview I ever did with a journalist about my research involved me talking about ontological stratification and emergence when presented with the question ‘is asexuality nature or nurture’. I soon learned from that experience to just say ‘probably both’ when presented with this question in future when outside of a research context.

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