Sunday, 14 February 2010

2: Becker on Social Science Writing

It was a great privilege to be in the audience at Goldsmiths last November when Howard Becker discussed 'The Craft of Sociology' with Les Back. Becker talked of the value of seeing what sociologists do as 'craft'. There are a number of dimensions to this; craft means 'getting the job done' to a high standard and often requires or benefits from working with others; a craft also implies particular ways of learning 'on the job' by doing and by imitation of other craftspeople. Like a cabinet maker, a sociologist has to have the skills to make a specific object, with specific materials in specific circumstances.

Becker talked about the importance of knowing how to make a problem out of anything: a good sociologist did not need to search for an intrinsically interesting topic but should instead be able to find interest in any topic. 'Getting interested' required paying close attention to what you observe, being diverted by what you actually find and being prepared to have your expectations confounded (in Becker's phrase 'loving the moment of confusion').

Writing is central to Becker's discussion of sociological craft. His mantra for fieldwork is that researchers should spend as much time as possible at their research site and write everything down in copious detail before it all becomes 'too obvious' to note. Becker's stance on academic writing is equally straight-forward: sociology 'should not be an apology for high class notions'. Becker values clarity above all else, asserting during his conversation with Back that his attitude to writing was that ‘it is always my fault if they don’t understand’.

All this came to mind when I revisited Becker's Writing For Social Scientists (2nd Ed 2007, originally 1986) while preparing a teaching session for students stressing about their undergraduate dissertations. Becker's book is much more than a 'how to' guide to writing. It is rooted in a deep psychological and sociological understanding of the writing process and the barriers to good writing. As Becker suggests:
Bad sociological writing …can’t be separated from the theoretical problems of the discipline. .... the way people write grows out of the social situations they write in. (pxiii)
Writers 'routinely use meaningless expressions' to cover up conceptual problems such as the attribution of agency or to follow what they (mis)understand as the conventions of academic discourse. On this issue Becker is with C Wright Mills who in the 1950s argued that unintelligible writing was a symptom of (individual/group) status anxiety amongst sociology academics. Becker quotes Mills' plea that 'to overcome the academic prose you have first to overcome the academic pose'. Initiates to sociology embrace a form of magical thinking -believing that 'if I write impenetratively like a sociologist then I will become one'. In contrast, clear writing is often wrongly dismissed as simplistic or superficial. Becker draws parallels with the analysis in his book Artworlds of contemporary dance. Cutting-edge choreographers who reject classical conventions in favour of the use of everyday actions and movements in their works risk the accusation that 'anyone can do that' or that the end result is 'not proper dance'.

Students rarely see or experience the long process of academic writing and rewriting. Consequently, Becker argues, novice writers are often hamstrung by two dangerous myths : firstly that good writers get it right first time and secondly that you need to have it all thought out before you write. In practice good writers produce many drafts and refine their thinking through this process. Becker states in the first (pre-word processor era) edition of the book that his writing usually goes through eight or nine versions. Becker argues that knowing there will be many drafts frees you up to get something down on paper or screen. Even more importantly drafting is an acknowledgement that the analysis will emerge, is refined and will be tested through writing. A crucial element of this process is the sharing of drafts with academic friends.

Becker's emphasis on analysis through writing explains in part his preoccupation with clear, simple prose. Editing and re-editing is not merely about clarity of expression but also about clarity of thought. For example sociologists frequent reliance on the passive tense reflects uncertainty about social processes; the active tense (making it clear who does what to whom) is not just better style but results is stronger stronger, testable statements. In a chapter on redrafting Becker writes of the importance of editing by ear.
The main lesson is not the specifics of what I have said but the Zen lesson of paying attention. Writers need to pay close attention to what they have written as they revise, looking at every word as if they meant it to be taken seriously. You can write first drafts quickly and carelessly exactly because you know that you will be critical later. When you pay close attention the problems start taking care of themselves. (p89)
'Paying close attention' might sum up Becker's thoughts not just on writing but on every aspect of social research. I'll return to this theme in later posts.

No comments:

Post a Comment