Author Michael Billig asks: Do we ‘Learn to Write Badly’ in the Social Sciences?

Michael Billig has been Professor of Social Sciences at Loughborough University for more than 25 years. In 2011 he received the Distinguished Contribution to Social Psychology Award from the Social Section of the British Psychological Society.

 

1. What were the greatest challenges you faced in writing Learn to Write Badly?

The most obvious and difficult challenge was to write clearly. Anyone, who criticises the way that other academics write, inevitably sets themselves up as a potential target. So, I had to try to avoid the faults that I was identifying in others. I am criticising a style of writing, which is currently ingrained within the social sciences and which young postgraduates are being taught to use routinely. Therefore, I am sure that readers will be able to find passages where my own writing falls into this style. But, at least I have tried to escape, drafting and re-drafting in order to say things as simply and clearly as I can.

The other big challenge was to avoid just making a rant. I wanted to analyse the language used by social scientists and to say why the current, economic conditions of university life, with the constant pressure to publish, are encouraging bad writing. At root, I am analysing the linguistic features of much social science writing: abstracted, unpopulated prose, with heavy use of big nouns and verbs in the passive voice. I argue that, when it comes to describing human actions, this way of writing is far more imprecise and contains far less information than simpler, ordinary language. Because I did not want to be accused of selecting extreme examples just to fit my case, I tried to take examples where I found them. In analysing academic writing, I needed to cite studies from linguistics, educational research, sociology etc. And then I would turn on these studies to show how their authors were using language, sometimes to inflate their own claims or to conceal ambiguities or just to sound impressively technical. Normally academics like it when someone else cites their work. Some of those, whom I cite in ‘Learn to Write Badly’, will not be so glad.

 

2. Where do you like to write?

At home, in a small room which I use as a study and where I keep my books. My wife complains that, when my writing is going well, I make insufficient use of the room’s window – and, consequently, I fail to notice matters of interest about the neighbours. It is not good for a social scientist to be more interested in bits of paper than people.

3. What one piece of advice would you give to social science scholars?

This is a more complicated, less innocent question than it might seem. If I was advising young scholars about how to have a successful career, I would advise them to join networks, to use the long words favoured by those networks and to promote their work within and beyond those networks. But if was to advise young scholars how to be genuinely scholarly, I would tell them the opposite: they should try to stand apart from established networks and to try to translate the currently favoured big words into as simple a language as possible. I would warn them that, in the current climate of instant publication and constant academic self-promotion, this scholarly way is not the way to conventional success.

4. What is your favourite example of the wording used by academics/students who ‘write badly’?

It would be invidious to give an example here – especially an example from the writings of a student. In ‘Learn to Write Badly’, I suggest that there are reasons why current academic writing can resemble the language used by administrators, managers and even advertising executives. My favourite example comes from my own university’s official title for the system that we teachers are told to use for recording information about our tutees. The system is grandly called:  ‘Co-Tutor Student Relationship Management System’. The five nouns are strung together without the aid of pronouns, let alone verbs. It’s not a precise term: if you asked an outsider to say what sort of system it was and what it was supposedly managing, they would probably get it wrong. Unfortunately, the social sciences today are full of terms like this.

5. Have you got plans for more books in the future?

Only vague ideas, not definite plans. I am seldom in control of the directions which my interests take me. But at present, I’m looking out of the window more than I hope to be.

 

4 comments to Author Michael Billig asks: Do we ‘Learn to Write Badly’ in the Social Sciences?

  • My sense is a lot of the writing that’s being described here has been heavily influenced by stronger forms of positivism and the need to generalize. The “simple” language Billig is advocating I suspect would need to rely more heavily on forms like narrative which are often seen in research that takes a somewhat oppositional stance to positivism (see for example contemporary ethnographies, narrative inquiry, post-modernist research, etc.). I guess I’m curious to know to what extent Michael Billig sees a connection between epistemology and writing style.

  • rickla

    This book sounds interesting. While I certainly aim to write clearly, I know that I often fail to do so, and an analysis with a large number of examples is probably necessary for most of us to make much progress.

    Sorry to fall into the trap that you identify in (1) of “targeting” you for criticism, but I think another aspect of writing badly is failing to use the linguistic means at our disposal to draw distinctions. One of those distinctions is that between defining and non-defining relative clauses. Compare these two sentences:

    1. My professor, who is going to retire next year, set himself up as a potential target for criticism (by publishing a polemic in a national newspaper).

    2. Anyone who criticises other academics sets him/herself up for criticism.

  • [...] so, he says. rather than making things comprehensible, we actually make them harder to grasp. In a recent interview Billig [...]

  • It is quite easy (albeit time-consuming) to ‘translate’ social sciencese into good English, even for a non-specialist. Therefore I suspect it would be quite easy to write it well in the first place, were doing so considered important within the field: http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/neuroskeptic/2012/07/29/why-dont-social-scientists-want-to-be-read/

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