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Bad Sociological Writing



It's a pitiful truth that most prose from the court of sociology reads as if it were the transcript of a forlorn jester - unenthused, serious, opaque - or worse yet, like a document from the judge's desk in the supreme court! Filled with political, legalistic jargon that is "too sophisticated" for the normal man or woman to understand, the document was to never leave the judge's locked drawer. But alas, a key has been found, provided by libraries who spend too much on the indulgent nonsense of the intelligentsia (no more Foucault references, please!).


Condescending remarks aside, sociology articles certainly can differ in their prose style. Some articles read like quantitative research papers, others like personal stories - or, "people sharing their narrative" as postmodernists might put it, and still others may utilize ethnographic fieldwork and interviews, which are explicitly on the qualitative side of social science town. What is interesting about these stylistic differences is that all of these articles share the quality of being proper scholarly sources; and yet, they use different means to achieve the same end.

One such reason for this includes the audience for whom these collections of knowledge were produced. For instance, the description for the American Sociological Review mentions that an emphasis is placed on quality and general interest with regard to the works they publish. Another journal, Perspectives in Biology and Medicine, has quite a different aim: “…editors encourage an informal style that has literary merit." In addition, Science and Culture has a different aim as well, as it publishes articles that are “…readable, attractive, lively, often humorous, and always jargon free." In short, guidelines, even at a linguistic level, can affect knowledge production and distribution.

Now, upon considering the standards of these journals, it seems like their communicative compasses are pointed in the right direction. However, I still contend that the guidelines for sociological writing don't generally tend to be that innovative, especially compared to, say, a subject like philosophy which brims with fun arguments, beautiful prose, and razor sharp thought. I suppose if sociology, for instance, wants to fit the mould of being a "hard science" it will want to maintain an identity of seriousness, for that seems to be a perceived attribute of science. But how true is this notion that science has to be serious? When Armstrong and Aldrin landed on the moon in 1969, I highly doubt that they were maintaining stoic faces and pondering the serious terms in which they could later explain their experience to outsiders. Moreover, there are a plethora of fun scientific activities for laypersons, such as experimenting with slinkys.

A lot of sociological work can come across as being quite impersonal, as if the sociologist is somehow, almost supernaturally, watching over the world instead of being within it. I patiently wait for the day when the ivory tower prose stylists discover slinkys. I propose that it is time to drop the ego, and instead, pick up the pen.

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