It is my pleasure to announce that Rashawn Ray and I will join Contexts as the new editors in Winter 2018. Contexts: Understanding People in Their Social worlds is the ASA’s magazine which brings the cutting edge of sociology to the public. Rashawn and I are humbled by the appointment. A lot of top notch people have edited this journal and we hope to live up to their legacy.
Let me tell you a little bit about Rashawn. I first met Rashawn when he was a graduate student at Indiana University. Immediately, he struck me as a highly intelligent and outgoing person. He begins a conversation with a smile. He is interested in what you have to say and really wants to learn from you. But more than that, he had a real interest in linking sociology to the concerns of everyday life. As time passed, this became clear to me. His research focuses on how social inequality affects health and well being and he is extremely active in getting the sociological vision out there through Facebook, Twitter and public speaking. The right guy for the right job – and associate professors can’t say “no!”
So what do we have in mind? First, we want to build on a decade and a half of excellence. Contexts is a magazine that pleases the mind and the eye. It is also an intellectual magazine that offers the public well-grounded but accessible accounts of academic research. Second, we want to really start engaging with the audiences that might enjoy sociological work, whether it be people in the policy world, business, or the arts. Rashawn and I are excited about the possibilities.
In Sociological Research and Methods, Colin Jerolmack and Alexandra K. Murphy ask if we should use people’s names in quantitative research. We’ve discussed this idea before and now you can read the final article. The abstract:
Masking, the practice of hiding or distorting identifying information about people, places, and organizations, is usually considered a requisite feature of ethnographic research and writing. This is justified both as an ethical obligation to one’s subjects and as a scientifically neutral position (as readers are enjoined to treat a case’s idiosyncrasies as sociologically insignificant). We question both justifications, highlighting potential ethical dilemmas and obstacles to constructing cumulative social science that can arise through masking. Regarding ethics, we show, on the one hand, how masking may give subjects a false sense of security because it implies a promise of confidentiality that it often cannot guarantee and, on the other hand, how naming may sometimes be what subjects want and expect. Regarding scientific tradeoffs, we argue that masking can reify ethnographic authority, exaggerate the universality of the case (e.g., “Middletown”), and inhibit replicability (or“revisits”) and sociological comparison. While some degree of masking is ethically and practically warranted in many cases and the value of disclosure varies across ethnographies, we conclude that masking should no longer be the default option that ethnographers unquestioningly choose.
Check it out!!!
In light of Matt Desmond winning a Pulitzer for Evicted, I think it’s worth thinking about why sociologists don’t get this kind of recognition more often. Well, you might say, we just don’t write for a mass audience like that. That’s not the point. We’re developing science. Okay, sure. It’s a fair point that Desmond’s book is not really a theoretical argument and even it’s public policy/social problems angle isn’t necessarily revelatory. According to Henry Grabar, a Staff writer at Slate:
It’s not that Desmond pioneered the idea that, as the Pulitzer foundation puts it, evictions “were less a consequence than a cause of poverty.” But he does give it pathos. And that makes a difference.
Others describe similar reactions to the book, moved by its empathy, moral commitment, and sense of character and place. There are people who should know about evictions, and they learn about them through Desmond’s book. But those who already know this literature aren’t necessarily learning anything new.
So then that’s not real sociology, I can hear people saying, which can sometimes be a silly kind of boundary-making, especially for books, especially for a book written by a sociologist, using tools and data developed by sociologists, and even more so for a sociologist’s book that’s really trying to make the world a better place. That’s why a lot of us got into this game in the first place.
But what’s the mechanism? What’s the causal story? What’s the counter-intuitive finding? Well, book folks will often say something like “that’s for the articles.” A lot of sociologists—especially qualitative types—write articles for each other and books for the world. Except it’s usually not the world. Usually it’s a very small section of the world, a mystical land full of people forced to buy our wares, good or not. Those people are called by a word with an English prefix and a Latinate root, a people, via a small ritual twice or thrice a year with a mystical power: they are named undergraduates.
So better put: articles are for each other, books are (often) for undergrads. If people put you on their syllabus, it’s a guaranteed sale, or possibly 150 sales. That means you might make a good 30 bucks or so! Clearly it’s not for the money, but most of us spend a lot of time with undergrads, we get used to thinking about how to talk to them, and we care about writing books they’ll relate to and that our colleagues will enjoy teaching.
But here’s the question. Why stop at undergrads? Why not, you know, the public? I think part of this is simply a function of understanding your audience. We know how to write to academics (and I’m including grad students in that group) and we also know how to write to undergraduates. Most of us aren’t really sure what it means to write to a broader audience.
But more importantly—and this gets to the point of this piece—good writing is hard. In different ways, both academics and undergrads are captive audiences, and so writing for them requires less attention to the quality of the prose. It’s the ideas that matter, and while undergrads might require some level of simplicity, they don’t require elegance or grace. Popular books tend to have better sentences and paragraphs. The non-fiction reads with the smoothness and verve of captivating journalism, often with characters and scenes that feel novelistic.
There are good recent examples of such excellent writing by sociologists about sociology: among others, there are Nicole Gonzalez Van Cleve’s Crook County, Tressie McMillan Cottom’s Lower Ed, Lisa Wade’s American Hookup, and Sara Goldrick-Rab’s Paying the Price. Note these are a mixture of university and trade presses, and that each advances a description of a social mechanism even as it also gives a broad lay-of-the-land for interested general readers.
Now sometimes that focus on quality prose can distract from meaningful ideas. This is a criticism within fiction as well, with various critics lambasting the “sentence fetish” (see especially debate about whether Updike was actually a good writer rather than simply a brilliant stylist). But ideas and good prose don’t have to conflict, even if people sometimes think they do. Look at the philosophy of Charles Taylor, the cultural criticism of Matthew Crawford, the essays of James Baldwin or literally anything by Rebecca Solnit. Within sociology, I think a lot about how Habits of the Heart is often underrated for its theoretical contributions: if it reads well, it’s gotta be too simple, right? There’s no necessary reason we couldn’t all be much better writers. And then possibly win a few more Pulitzers. There’s just no institutional incentive for us to write well (except inasmuch as we have to make our ideas relatively clear).
I’m not sure there’s a clean way out of this. I don’t want to start rejecting papers from ASR and AJS because their sentences are clunky. That really isn’t the point. But especially for those of us who write and evaluate books, it’s worth thinking about the role of prose itself within our criteria. An institutionalized norm of high quality writing will have spillover effects beyond any one book. It might even mean we win a few more prizes for our writing and don’t have to apologize that we’re still sociologists despite writing well.
At Degenerate State, there was an interesting post where someone applied natural language processing models to heavy metal lyrics. From the article:
To get the lyrics, I scraped www.darklyrics.com. While darklyrics doesn’t have a robots.txt file, I tried to be gentle with my requests. After cleaning the data up, identifying the languages and splitting albums into songs, we are left with a dataset containing lyrics to 222,623 songs from 7,364 bands spread over 22,314 albums.
Before anyone asks, I have no intention of releasing either the raw lyric files or the code used to scrape the website. I collected the lyrics for my own entertainment, and it would be too easy for someone to use this data to copy darklyrics. If people are interested I may release some n-gram data of the corpus.
So what do you find? A few tidbits – the heavy metal word cloud:
Then, the most “metal words:”
And the least metal words:
The bottom line? Academia, the law and administration are the least metal topics of all time. Who knew?
In academic writing, we often get the sense that the author is playing a game. They aren’t really trying to address an important problem. Rather, they are trying to impress some audience. All academic disciplines have a version of this. The economist tries to impress the audience by the level of math they use. A sociologist tries to impress the reader with citations to obscure European social theorists.
It is interesting to ask, who are academics trying to impress? Here are some possibilities:
- Themselves – Very often, academics fall in love with a theory or a concept of rigor and they try to become as pure as possible. Their work becomes a way to enhance their self-image. This probably at work when writing is bulky and cryptic.
- A promotion committee – Like all people who work in organizations, we are trying to impress the people that promote us. The way we do that it is to show excellence within the mainstream. This is what probably motivates very polished, but very narrow research. It is also the emotion that pushes technique over substance.
- Journal editors – In my view, this probably results in the most confusing writing because journal editing is often chaotic process. Manuscripts routinely generate conflicting reviews and authors often play a game of “what have I got in my pocket?” Editors too often just say “try to address all reviewers” instead of choosing an angle for the author to work on. So many times, I feel as if journal articles abruptly shift focus, have short mini-sections crammed in, and so forth.
- Non-academics – Think TED talk. When we try to impress outsiders, we shift to interesting stories and ideas that play on sympathy. Important details get dropped.
Academia is an area with big egos and people are trying to build their careers. So writing that tries to an impress an audience is normal. But we do have another option, especially the lucky folks who have job security. We can attempt to write in simple and direct ways, and be patient, so we can get to enough of the details. In a way, we have a moral obligation to write clearly and without ego because our ultimate allegiance is to the truth, even if we live in a world of other people we need to impress.