A few notes from Becker with Richards, Writing for Social Scientists: How to Start and Finish Your Thesis, Book, or Article

Becker HS and Richards P (2007) Writing for Social Scientists: How to Start and Finish Your Thesis, Book, or Article: Second Edition. Chicago: University Of Chicago Press.

  1. How do you write? What are the non function rituals and habits, that appear to having nothing to do with writing.
  2. When do you turn to magic? The Trobrianders produce finely crafted boats, ideal for their function. They speak of their craft with deep scientific knowledge (if not scientifically expressed). When they face storms, the one event they cannot control by their craft, they turn to magic. What in your PhD creates the same trepidation – the factor you cannot control? What rituals do you use to ward off the weather gods? He cites: ways of signalling your writing is not done, so can’t be subject to the full wrath of the supervisory death stare.
  3. Sociologists often imply strong cause but run away from saying it (my personal bugbear #1/9126)
  4. Scientific writing is a rhetoric (Gusfield, Rhetoric of Social Science). Meaning writers use conventions to make themselves appear scientific. Think about the contradiction there. Many sociologists rail against scientific positivism, reductionism etc while using writing conventions to make themselves seem like they have the qualities involved. Distance on the subject, objective standpoint etc. This is your theory of writing which everyone uses – you have it even if you don’t think you do. There’s always a hidden purpose to the way you write.
  5. So there are various research ‘rhetorics’ – styles with a purpose – and also ‘languages’ – organised meaning sets. They are a little independent of each other but not entirely. Anyway, the languages are usually more elaborated and dangerous to mix. Invoking feminist materialism having started on the path of Judith Butler is asking for problems but it might indicate a critical point in your quest where your path turns away from your intended goal.
  6. Undergraduate skills don’t prepare you for a PhD. ‘Meet deadline … reach word count limit … balance out argument’. Yes, this is the academy’s fault. New scholars learn that obfuscation=academic capital and status. The problem isn’t quite as bad as that, but there aren’t enough checks and balances in the system at an early stage. We don’t model good behaviour, which involves someone saying ‘Wait a minute, what you said doesn’t make sense’. The way Becker frames this is probably reflective of his specific time and place – low oxygen US academia. It’s less true of the UK system but we have developed other problems e.g. research writing infested with gov-speak and NGO-vocab. One problem is correction via avoidance. People have learnt that theory=tortuous prose and so just avoid theory altogether. You. Can’t. Do. That.
  7. Writing=risk of exposure.

Author: Angus Bancroft

I'm a lecturer at the University of Edinburgh department of Sociology, studying illicit drug use, illicit markets and various shades of cyber crime. Email angus.bancroft@ed.ac.uk Tweet @angusbancroft

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.