“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?