on writing in sociology

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 CountyTressie McMillan Cottom’s Lower EdLisa Wade’s American Hookupand Sara Goldrick-Rab’s Paying the PriceNote 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.


Written by jeffguhin

April 19, 2017 at 4:13 pm

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4 Responses

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  1. Very interesting post. Like olderwoman said a few days ago, it is all about audience and what the goal of the research is. And of course, different audiences will read different items (e.g., academics read articles).

    One thing to remember is that, yes, there is a trade off but also there is a “Sweet spot” where you use more literary/journalistic writings style to convey a message that otherwise might be lost. For me that is real success.

    Finally, I wouldn’t jump to the conclusion that highly emotional prose is the only way. I can think of a handful of very strong academics, like Steven Pinker, who seem to be able to communicate well while still employing a more intellectual and scholarly style.

    Liked by 2 people


    April 19, 2017 at 4:22 pm

  2. Thanks for coming back to “Writing”, sometime back it was promised that we will have more posts on writing on this blog.

    I find it difficult to grasp “focus on quality prose can distract from meaningful ideas” and more tune into ” But ideas and good prose don’t have to conflict,”

    Essentially writing is about conveying your ideas to your audience. The way one present to undergraduate, graduate, or general population – is essentially how one “present” those ideas. For instance – we are talking about theory say, “Self-determination” in graduate class -we debate, argue journal articles. When same goes in the undergraduate we use cases, examples, to drive idea or it’s main point. When the same goes for general population – we still make it more palatable, accessible in story-format. Better you do it, more popular it will be. Isn’t Dan Pink brought the same ideas in his bestseller book?

    In fact It is excellent skill for academic to bring complex ideas in palatable and accessible form. Else our ideas will remain only in journal articles. This is one of the skill (presentation of ideas for diverse and popular audience) – that must be brought into academic training. Few like Adam Grant – who are able to write provocative journalistic articles, full length books, and top ranked journal articles shall be the role models in this.

    Looking forward to see more ideas, writings on this topic. Thanks.

    Liked by 2 people


    April 20, 2017 at 8:46 am

  3. Reblogged this on alexanderewers and commented:
    Very interesting and insightful read about writing as an academic.

    Liked by 1 person

    A.J.W. Ewers

    April 24, 2017 at 9:49 pm

  4. […] Guhin, “On Writing in Sociology” (April 19, 2017), provides a reflection on the accessibility of academic writing–for both […]

    Liked by 1 person

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