Howard S. Becker
Some words about writing:
One way to understand the problem
of writing is to see it in context. We write what we write--in the case
at hand, a dissertation--in the context of academic institutions. The
problem's solution, in this context, requires not only putting together
ideas and evidence clearly and convincingly. It also requires that we
satisfy the requirements those institutions insist on for such a document.
The author, the dissertation writer,
has first to satisfy the immediate readers, the people who will say
yes or no, pass or don't pass, go back and do it again and we'll
have another look or, for the lucky ones, "Well done! Get it published
and get on with your life and work." People who serve as this kind
of reader--for the most part reasonable, sane people--still have to
consider more than the quality of the work before them. They think about
the politics of their departments ("Old George will have an apoplectic
fit if you attack his favorite theory") or, more commonly, of the
discipline ("I agree with what you have written, but if you take that
unpopular position or write in that unconventional style you will have
trouble getting your work published") and as a result suggest changes
in substance and style that have no reason in logic or taste, but which
result purely from academic convention.
The most common faults arising from
such causes these days include the piles of unnecessary bibliographic
references decorating academic writing and the incessant use of passive
grammatical constructions. Authors generally insert those unnecessary
references because the item has turned up in a bibliographic computer
search or because some critic has said "You haven't mentioned So-and-so,
who has also written on this subject." It's far easier to insert
the whole list the search engine turned up or to mention So-and-so than
to make the perfectly good argument for not doing so you might have
ready. I solve this problem for myself by insisting that every reference
in what I write contain specific page numbers--not the whole article
or book, just the pages relevant to the point where the reference has
been inserted. Occasionally I do mean to refer to the whole book or
article but usually not, there's just a paragraph or sentence that's
relevant an d I have the page number to put in. I generally suspect,
perhaps unfairly, that authors who don't provide page numbers haven't
read the item they're citing.
We insert unnecessary references because
someone has actually insisted that we do (journal editors and referees
often insist on just such things) or because we, probably correctly,
anticipate that they will and try to forestall their complaints by beating
them to the punch.
I also mentioned the fault of using
passive grammatical constructions, in which the verb in the sentence
is some form of "to be." Stylistically, this flattens the prose,
makes it dull and boring to read. Well, who said sociology was supposed
to produce exciting, lively prose? The fault lies much deeper. In an
era when people argue endlessly about the relative importance of "structure"
and "agency," this stylistic convention systematically hides agency
when everyone knows that it operates in the situation we're studying.
I have worried this example to death elsewhere, but will repeat it here.
The so-called "labeling theory of deviance," if it says anything
important at all, insists that deviance results when someone calls someone
else a bad name (the bad names generalized under the heading of "deviance").
How often have I read "the offender is then labeled" when surely
the author should say, to be true to the ideas that language invokes,
"X then labeled Y," naming the parties involved or at least their
professions or positions ("the judge declared Jones guilty of theft
and so labeled him as a thief and a criminal"). This practice, so
common in sociology that we barely register it when we read it, robs
labeling theory of its core and the argument in which it is so invoked
of any claim to be actually using that theory.
As I've argued elsewhere, sociologists
don't write badly because they don't know how to do better, they
do it (just as we all do all sorts of things) because they want the
rewards the profession makes available. They get those largely by publishing,
and the journals (for a variety of reasons, some of them explained in
Andrew Abbott's book on the history of the American Journal of
Sociology and the University of Chicago Sociology Department) insist
on the most academic prose, for no reason that anyone can explain very
well. So all the suggestions implied above will almost surely not produce
the results any reasonable young sociologist would like and are therefore
perhaps best disregarded.
Don't I have anything else to say about getting our writing work done? Well, yes, I do, but once I start I don't stop and I was only asked for a short contribution here. You can easily find some of my other rantings on the subject.
Howard S. Becker got his Ph.D. in sociology at the University of
Chicago in 1951. He taught for many years at Northwestern University
and for fewer at the University of Washington. Over a period of thirty-
five years, he supervised too many dissertations and M.A. theses to
count (at least, he never counted them, but it came to quite a few). He
continues to consult with authors about their dissertations and about
turning those documents into publishable documents. He is the author of
Writing for Social Scientists, Outsiders, Art Worlds, and several other
books, including the forthcoming (with Robert R. Faulkner) Do You Know
. . . ? The Jazz Repertoire in Action.
Home page: http://home.earthlink.net/~hsbecker/