Latest posts by Christian Kipp (see all)
- Keeping Social Science Relevant: Society Needs Clear Prose - September 14, 2015
If somebody were to ask me what I do all day as a student of the social sciences, my answer would be plain: Most of the time, I work hard to decipher incomprehensible writing, and sometimes I produce some myself. After studying the subject for several years, I have now attained the precious ability to produce fluently complicated, impressively sounding sentences without having the slightest idea what I am saying. In this respect, sociology is quite similar to riding a bike or playing a musical instrument: you are good at it when you can do it without thinking consciously about what you’re doing. Academic social science is certainly not alone in this respect, though I have the impression that it is one of the leading branches of society with respect to the production of opaque, perplexing language. This might not be a problem if I only consider my future career perspectives. One only has to open a newspaper covering current politics or listen to the statements of leading people from trade and industry to see that the ability to speak formidable gobbledygook is a valuable asset in contemporary society. But from a societal viewpoint, it is a rather depressing situation. I think that the predominant tendency towards incomprehensible verbiage in the social sciences has a twofold pernicious impact: on the one hand, it tends to estrange outsiders from the insights of sociology, which prevents the discipline from providing remedies for the problems it analyzes. On the other hand, and here I am speaking directly from my own experience, the linguistic obscurantism destroys the discipline itself. Science is primarily a collective endeavor, and its most important feature is the exchange of ideas. Needless to say, this exchange of ideas presupposes that people understand what other people are saying. It seems to me that this is not the case in sociology.
The esoteric closure of science and the critical examination of ideas
When I started to study sociology, I naturally ascribed the difficulties I had with reading the assigned texts to my insufficient knowledge of the discipline. It is obvious that the complexity of the subject matter imposes a lower bound on the comprehensibility of a text dealing with it. Like in any other science, a novice has to get a grasp of the fundamental ideas of the scientific field before she can understand scientific literature which addresses members of the discipline. It would be completely pointless to criticize this necessary feature of research. If a science is to progress beyond the level of everyday knowledge, it has to develop its own concepts and will inevitably become to some extent inaccessible to outsiders. From a purely scientific viewpoint, however, this process of closure is a necessary evil, not a virtue. The fundamental activity of science is the critical examination of ideas, and this examination is better done by people who do not have an emotional attachment to the ideas in question. The esoteric closure of science, simply by reducing the number of people who are capable of understanding an idea, reduces the magnitude of critical resistance that a given idea has to face and consequently inhibits the correction or elimination of wrong ideas. Therefore, scientists should always try to write in a way which maximizes the number of people who can understand the text, subject to the constraint given by the complexity of the ideas which are to be conveyed.
My claim is that large parts of sociology are governed by a mode of writing which is directly opposed to the principle outlined above. Not only have I found that, after several years of studying, I can still get barely more out of the sociological literature than I could when I was a freshman, but I have also started to adopt the style of obfuscation myself. My mastery of sociological theory consists mainly of the knowledge when to use which combination of words, but the words do not correspond to any clear ideas in my head. I could not describe these ideas using other words than the vague formulations in which they are commonly couched. I think that this is a typical feature of becoming a sociologist: over the years, one learns to bypass the part of the brain which is responsible for the semantic interpretation of words, the cerebral module which forms a meaningful cognitive representation of what one is reading or saying, and passes on to a mode of thinking which consists mainly of using and manipulating words in a way that makes you sound a like a sociologist. I have often been in seminars where texts were discussed of which I could not make any sense. When I asked what a certain idea meant, people who claimed to understand it responded by reading aloud pertinent passages from the text. Interpreting this in a behaviorist manner, I have to conclude that many sociologists “understand” something if they know which words to utter.
Inflating the obvious
Generating a typical sociological debate is easy. Take an example from everyday life, like people going to the supermarket, having an argument or participating in an election. Abstract from the concrete features of the situation. For example, you could point out that going to a supermarket is an action, an example of agency. The supermarket is a system. People in the supermarket are consumers. They interact with each other. They have goals. They communicate, using symbols and drawing meaningful boundaries. You can then make up, or refer to existing schools of sociology which emphasize one or another of these aspects. Are the people in the supermarket communicating, or rather consuming? Is the supermarket “constituted” by interaction, or does it “structure” the interaction? I do not claim that these questions are necessarily completely meaningless, but without further specification they definitely are, and I made them up to illustrate what I regard as a pseudo-discussion. Forming abstract categories merely to generate classificatory schemes is an empty exercise. It is also no meaningful scientific controversy to discuss which aspect of a thing one could emphasize – though, according to my experience, this is one of the most popular modes of discussion in sociology. I was delighted when I read an anecdote by the physicist Richard Feynman which aptly describes this form of inflated talk about everyday phenomena (Feynman is talking about an interdisciplinary conference which he attended):
“There was a sociologist who had written a paper for us all to read – something he had written ahead of time. I started to read the damn thing, and my eyes were coming out: I couldn’t make head nor tail of it! I figured it was because I hadn’t read any of the books on that list. I had this uneasy feeling of ‘I’m not adequate,’ until finally I said to myself, ‘I’m gonna stop, and read one sentence slowly, so I can figure out what the hell it means.’
So I stopped – at random – and read the next sentence very carefully. I can’t remember it precisely, but it was very close to this: ‘The individual member of the social community often receives his information via visual, symbolic channels.’ I went back and forth over it, and translated. You know what it means? ‘People read.’
Then I went over the next sentence, and I realized that I could translate that one also. Then it became a kind of empty business: ‘Sometimes people read; sometimes people listen to the radio,’ and so on, but written in such a fancy way that I couldn’t understand it at first, and when I finally deciphered it, there was nothing to it.” [1, pp. 320-321]
This is a splendid example of how many sociological texts work: trivialities get wrapped up in such obscure language that the reader has to exert a lot of mental effort in order to get a vague understanding of what is going on. When he eventually gets a basic idea of what is being said, the satisfaction of having understood the sentence dampens the willingness to examine it critically. Even if the reader is willing to check it, his ability to do so is seriously inhibited because his brain is exhausted from the tedious work of deciphering. This way of writing is certainly not simply due to malign intentions of the author. It is rather the result of self-reinforcing group dynamics in the scientific community. In order to be recognized as a sociologist, and to get one’s writing accepted as properly sociological, one has to adopt the characteristic style of the discipline. Students who write in a different way will soon notice that their grades vary with their degree of adaption to these standards and behave accordingly. I myself have found that my grades are better when I use my mental capacities to generate authentic sociological jargon than when I use my time to refine my arguments and to state them in a clear way. I have learned to depict sociological debates in fluent prose even when I have no idea what the people are talking about. And, perhaps most crucially, I have learned to obscure my thought in such a way that makes it difficult to spot the holes in my argument or to disagree with me, simply because it is hardly possible to figure out what I am trying to say. I suspect that other sociologists do the same, and that this is the reason why I cannot read their texts.
Obscurity, the cult of the author and the illusion of interesting truth
The opaqueness of much sociological writing is directly associated with the disproportionate attention given to the author of a text. It may be interesting to discuss who said what and why, but one should not confuse this with a discussion about the subject matter of the text. The truth-value of a statement or the validity of an argument are completely independent of the person who produces them. But you cannot tell whether the statements in a given text are true when you don’t know what these statements are. In the words of Martha Nussbaum: “When ideas are stated clearly, after all, they may be detached from their author: one can take them away and pursue them on one’s own. When they remain mysterious (indeed, when they are not quite asserted), one remains dependent on the originating authority.”  Much too often, it is impossible to detach sociological ideas from their authors, to rephrase them in different, but equivalent terms. As a result, many schools of thought are formed around names of authors, not around meaningful ideas about reality. People use the same words, but they mean different things.
Another problem of ambiguous statements is that the truth of one of their trivial interpretations is fallaciously ascribed to another, more far-reaching interpretation. What is capable of being true – of corresponding to the facts – are not the words we use, but rather the ideas we express with our words. But the more ambiguous our words, the more numerous are the possible interpretations of our sentences. Each interpretation may yield a different proposition, and some of them might be true, others false. Apart from annoying the reader, who has to figure out which interpretation was intended by the author, verbal ambiguity can be a source of serious intellectual errors. When different interpretations get blended like shades on a blurred watercolor painting, trivial interpretations can confer their plausibility on other interpretations. As a result, wrong ideas look convincing. This has been incisively pointed out by G. A. Cohen, describing his turning away from Althusserian Marxism: “those theses seemed capable of just two interpretations: on one of them they were true but uninteresting, and, on the other, they were interesting, but quite obviously false. (Failure to distinguish those opposed interpretations produces an illusory impression of interesting truth.)” [3, p. 95] It seems to me that this phenomenon is widespread in sociology. Often, when you criticize an idea which in its interesting form is certainly false, defendants of the theory retreat to a completely trivial interpretation whose truth is uncontestable. Discussions continuously oscillate between the two types of interpretation, creating the illusion of profound insights while actually alternating between trivial truth and non-trivial falsehood.
My account of sociology in this text has so far been quite negative. I have tried to criticize the frictional loss internal to the discipline, generated by incomprehensible language and inhibiting epistemic progress. This negative account does not reflect my overall opinion on the discipline adequately. I do think that sociology has its valuable insights. But as long as it is impossible to communicate sociological knowledge, or at least its core insights, in a language which is accessible to people who have not spent years studying the discipline, sociology is condemned to societal irrelevance. The social sciences should certainly not restrict themselves to the production of immediately useful, universally comprehensible knowledge. They should retain a critical distance towards the existing social institutions and prevalent opinions. But they should at the same time strive for the popular dissemination of their central insights. After all, scientific knowledge should enable all people to understand the world they live in, and to transform it according to their needs. The natural sciences have tremendously changed the world we live in. I do not know how a society would look like that accordingly utilized sociological knowledge for the amelioration of life, but I am sure that there is a lot of potential yet unutilized. In order to achieve progress in this respect, the social sciences have to become more accessible and less obscure. This, as I have remarked at the beginning of this text, does not mean that their language should resemble the language of everyday life more closely than it does now. But to transform the social sciences from a stronghold of jargon, which is already so prevalent in society, to a source of clear thinking and writing sounds like a worthwhile project to me.
 Feynman, Richard P. 1997. Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman: Adventures of a Curious Character. W. W. Norton.
 Nussbaum, Martha C. 1999. “The Professor of Parody. The Hip Defeatism of Judith Butler”, The New Republic 22 (February), 37-45.
 Cohen, G.A. (2013): “Complete Bullshit”. In: Finding Oneself in the Other, Princeton University Press