Sociologist is the “Jane Goodall of the [insular] art world”

Sociologist Sarah Thornton provides a behind the scenes look at the elite art world:

It’s an exclusive, insular world, but Thornton’s first book about art, 2008’s “Seven Days in the Art World,” was pure populism, a dishy, behind-the-scenes read about heady auctions at Christie’s, the cutthroat atmosphere of art fairs, and much more. It became an unexpected bestseller and landed the writer in art’s inner circle…

Thornton has the ability to “seduce people to expose themselves,” the artist Andrea Fraser recently told an audience at New York’s New Museum.

The author’s two volumes on art read nothing like most art books, which are often academic tomes or picture-filled coffee-table books. But “33 Artists” has just one muddy black-and-white image for every chapter. Instead, Thornton fills in the blanks, writing so evocatively that the reader can easily imagine the immensity of a hundred million sunflower seeds rendered in porcelain by Ai…

Fraser and others opened their doors to Thornton as she traversed the globe to interview and observe artists in their own world. The author watches as Maurizio Cattelan prepares for what he called his retirement retrospective at New York’s Guggenheim in 2011. She is with eccentric Japanese pop artist Yayoi Kusama on the eve of her phenomenal 2012 comeback, when she landed a retrospective at the Whitney and a complementary Louis Vuitton line. And Thornton spends time in the studios of photographer Laurie Simmons and her husband, painter Carroll Dunham, just before their daughter, Lena, lands a deal with HBO.

This is one of Thornton’s greatest knacks: She tends to arrive on artists’ doorsteps just before some seismic shift in their public profiles. But her other talent is gaining access, penetrating artists’ private spheres as both an art-world insider and an academically minded outsider.

While the article is short on details about the art world, it does describe three unique features that help Thorton’s work stand out. First, she effectively uses the ethnographic method. One artist describes her as “like a ghost” and she clearly has the ability to build relationships and then use connections to explain the broader world of major artists. All of this takes time, sustained effort, and the ability to systematically gather information. Second, she is able to write in a way that appeals to a popular audience. How many sociologists write bestsellers or are said to write evocatively? Third, she gets access to an elite group. Artists whose works sell for millions have a particular social status and can be inaccessible to the average person. (I remember one of my art colleagues asking a group of other faculty about how many of the most famous artists alive today they could name. We did not do well.)

It all sounds interesting to me…

“Learn to Write Badly: How to Write in the Social Sciences”

A new book titled Learn to Write Badly highlights the poor writing in the social sciences. Here is an example of such writing as sociologist C. Wright Mills tries to simplify the work of Talcott Parsons:

No reader of The Sociological Imagination (1959) will soon forget C. Wright Mills’s “translations” of a few passages from The Social System by Talcott Parsons, one of the most eminent American social scientists of the day. Here’s a representative selection from The Social System, in the original Parsonian idiom:

“Attachment to common values means, motivationally considered, that the actors have common ‘sentiments’ in support of the value patterns, which may be defined as meaning that conformity with the relevant expectations is treated as a ‘good thing’ relatively independently of any specific instrumental ‘advantage’ to be gained from such conformity, e.g. in the avoidance of negative sanctions. Furthermore, this attachment to common values, while it may fit the immediate gratificational needs of the actor, always has a ‘moral’ aspect in that to some degree this conformity defines the ‘responsibility’ of the actor in the wider, that is, social action systems in which he participates.”

And here is how Mills put the same thoughts into demotic English:

“When people share the same values, they tend to behave in accordance with the way they expect one another to behave. Moreover, they often treat such conformity as a very good thing – even when it seems to go against their immediate interests.”

To get the full effect, you have to see Mills perform the operation upon much larger chunks of ore – a solid page of Parsons, massy and leaden, followed by its rendering into three or four spry statements of the relatively obvious. “I do not pretend that my translation is excellent,” Mills writes, “but only that in the translation no meaning is lost.” He later quotes a suggestion by Edmund Wilson that social scientists get help from their colleagues in the English department.

The short book review suggests the author argues disciplinary jargon is the result of new adherents wanting to fit in. One way to fit in is to talk and write like a social scientist, which includes certain conventions.

Still, I’ve heard this argument for years from within sociology and from the outside (including lots of students): sociologists should be able to explain their ideas in simpler terms. Particularly when the complaint arises that sociology gets less of a public hearing than other disciplines, this topic comes up. But, I haven’t heard too many responses to this complaint that include citing sociologists or journals or book series that do a good job of writing sociologically. Are there widely accepted examples of sociologists consistently writing well?

Reviewing “American Grace”: it is readable!

The book American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us was released this past week. In addition to being co-authored by Robert Putnam (author of well-known Bowling Alone), the study has been hailed by several sources as a (and perhaps the) comprehensive look at religion in American society.

But a feature of a positive review written by a historian in the San Francisco Chronicle struck me as intriguing:

Among the great virtues of this volume is its combination of two features that are all too rarely found in close proximity. One is a commitment to the most rigorous standards of contemporary social science, bolstered by statistical sophistication. Do you like multiple regression analysis? You’ll find lots of it here. The other feature is a commitment to get their message across to educated readers who are put off by the excessive jargon and abstraction of most sociological studies. Only such a combination could make a 673-page tome worth the attention “American Grace” deserves.

Reading between the lines, here is what is being said: sociologists are not often able to combine statistical evidence (regression analysis of survey results is the gold standard for studies like this that claim to be comprehensive looks at American society) and winsome writing. Essentially, the book is “readable.”

A few thoughts come to mind:

1. What exactly about it makes it “readable” or “understandable”?

2. When reading a book using regression analysis, how much should the “typical educated reader” know about this kind of analysis? This might say more about general statistical knowledge, even among the educated, than it does about the book.

3. This is a valid concern for a book that hopes to be read by many people – writers should always consider their audience. However, it still strikes me as a lower-level priority: isn’t the argument of the book much more important than how it was written? The style of writing can detract from the argument but what we should grapple with are Putnam and Campbell’s conclusions.