Some thoughts on sociological writing

The denial of what Ben Agger calls ‘authoriality’ in sociological texts helps explain why concerns about the character of sociological writing have figured so prominently in recurrent anxieties about the status and future of the discipline. Its suppression involves a certain kind of self-presentation for sociology, as individual sociologists frame their work in a way which systematically occludes their involvement in it. When authoriality is suppressed we are left with little sense of how sociologists figure in sociological writing: the path which has led them to write this piece, the purposes it serves and why it matters to them. This reinforces the ‘axiological neutrality’ so integral to a certain understanding of scholarship in which scholarship and commitment are understood as antipathetic. In this mode of scholarly production the objectivity and rigour of what is produced is seen to be threatened by the values which motivate that production. In this sense we can see that sociological writing is irrevocably tied up in the process of professional socialisation: learning to write in the ‘proper’ way is integral to becoming a sociologist. The corollary of this is that concerns about the purposes and ends of sociological inquiry, as well as what it means to be a sociologist, recurrently lead those who see a crisis (coming or otherwise) in sociology to contest the dominant understanding of how sociologists should write.

Sociological writing sits at the intersection between “the normalizing pressures of careers” and the “originating moral impetus” which in many cases leads people towards sociology in the first place. It is through negotiation between the two that “the original passion for social justice, economic equality, human rights, sustainable environment, political freedom or simply a better worlds” begins to be “channelled into the pursuit of academic credentials” as Michael Burawoy once put it. This is why attempts to reclaim the former so often lead to the impulse to rethink the latter: sociological careers largely advance through writing. Perhaps the most famous critique to this end comes from C. Wright Mills whose repudiation of the sociological establishment of his time went hand-in-hand with a critique of how sociologists were socialised in a way that reproduced that establishment and its relation to the broader social and political context:

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 conflation of readability and superficiality persists in present circumstances. Part of the difficulty which blogging poses for sociologists (and for academics more broadly) lies in this pervasive failure to distinguish between material that is accessibly simple and that which is simplistically accessible. Blogging readily lends itself to both and can often blur the boundary between them such that ‘academic blogging’ can seem to corrupt the ‘academic’ through proximity to ‘blogging’. The analysis of Mills was rooted in a particular time and place, reflecting upon tendencies specific to that environment, such that it would be a mistake to simply project them on to the present contexts within which sociologists write. Its value is in reminding us of the ways that sociological writing and its (in)accessibility are woven together in the formation of professional identities: it is not simply a matter of who sociological writing is for but also of who it isn’t for.

The commitment involved in pursuing graduate education is an important biographical dimension to how these identities form and how sociologists come to write. These efforts and energies, as well as the things foregone as a result, can work to engender an investment in a self-presentation of specialisation which, often unwittingly, contributes towards the marginality of sociological contributions in the ‘marketplace of ideas’. Once answer to this problem can be seen in David Beer’s notion of ‘punk sociology’. Treating punk music as a cultural resource to be drawn upon in rethinking and reinvigorating the communicative styles and strategies of sociologists, Beer points towards a broader understanding of writing which incorporates many of the possibilities which social media affords for communicating within and beyond the discipline. Beer talks of punk sociologists who “communicate widely, with various audiences, and the work they produce is direct and incisive, whilst still being lively, nuanced, and layered”. These will vary, eclectically and enthusiastically, because sociologists working in this manner will “will look to exploit the opportunities for communication that are available and will respond to these opportunities”. His point is not simply to sustain optimism in the face of ‘Sociology’s misfortune’ but to respond to this broader context of retrenchment and constraint in a genuinely creative way. He paints a vivid picture of the diversity which characterises the working patterns of the punk sociologist:

“One day the punk sociologist is writing a blog post, the next they are working on an audio podcast, the next they are creating posters, the next they are making short films, the next they are curating content. They gather, uncover, and generate insights through their sociologically sensitive trawling of the social world, using the things they find to illustrate and enliven sociological topics (using anything from art, to film, to advertising, to photography, to web visualizations, to flyers they get through their front door, to guidebooks – the options are limitless). Books and journal articles will still matter; they are still likely to be the bedrock of academic communication. But the punk sociologist looks to use these traditional forms of communication in unusual and maybe even subversive ways, and then looks to build on this work through other forms of communication and through other media. The debates on open-access publication, escaping the paywalls that limit communication, create new questions for academic publishing and communication, the punk sociologist is likely to be working around the edges of what is possible and exploring the reach of their means of communication anyway.”

We don’t have to accept Beer’s notion of ‘punk sociology’ to be able to take something from the vision he’s outlining here. His case is a proposition about how sociology could thrive under present circumstances: “sociologists need to be bold, to be outspoken and daring, to take risks, and to, on occasion, be audacious”. My point is not that we should all become ‘punk sociologists’ (though I personally find the notion appealing) but rather that a turn towards digital engagement, perhaps as part of a broader move towards a Digital Sociology analogous to the Digital Humanities, must be accompanied by some explicit dialogue about the ends served by such engagements. In doing so, we effectively recast the risks social media undoubtedly poses into opportunities for us to rethink sociological craft in a way that ensures the viability and vibrancy of the discipline within a social and intellectual context likely to become ever more challenging.

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