Learn to Write Badly: How to Succeed in the Social Sciences, by Michael Billig

Sandra Leaton Gray on a must-read for academics and their students

I have fond memories of spending a couple of days in Paris with a former colleague as we presented a paper on higher education at a conference at the Sorbonne. My goodness, we enjoyed that trip. Not only did our French counterparts ply us with numbered bottles of Bordeaux at the lunchtime buffet (something you never see in the UK), but there was also ample time for chewing the cud about current research trends and tendencies, as we had sensed a shift in the higher education research field and were trying to work out which areas might receive the most attention next.

At dinner one evening (and I imagine also after a bit more Bordeaux), I commented on the delicious lexicon of new words that had sprung up in the field, and how extraordinarily well they lent themselves to being used in a rap context. Our subsequent efforts went rather like this: “We are seein’ da massification/Of higher education/For da nation/And da reification/Of nominalisation/And credentialisation…”

At that point we ran out of steam and decided to stick to the day job.

In an uncanny turn of events, I sit here a couple of years later, reviewing a book that not only identifies these social science words and their use as problematic, but also holds their existence up as some kind of totemic symbol of academic incest and ultimate decline. Imagine!

I am glad that Billig has written this book. It positions him as the Lynne Truss of the academic writing world

Michael Billig admittedly makes many good points in his book. He argues that we train our postgraduates to use ever-lengthier words and ever-clunkier concepts as a means of promoting their work and, more importantly, to make ourselves look clever and erudite. We hide sloppy research designs and reporting behind the use of the passive tense. We strip out the presence of actual people from our research and turn them into objects and commodities for our own selfish purposes. I suppose to a greater or lesser extent we are all guilty of these academic writing/thought crimes from time to time, as we try to get on with our research in an expedient and pragmatic way.

However, I disagree that this can all be labelled as self-promoting, pseudo-intellectual posturing. Academe is part of a wider world in which the use of highly technical, specialised language is endemic and possibly even necessary. Billig touches on this in his book, but perhaps isn’t analytical enough in the way that he links developments in academic writing techniques to the needs of a complex modern society with highly differentiated roles and identities.

I’d like to pull him up on another point as well. He twice uses the word “knobhead” in this book. Now if he is arguing that people should not be brutally categorised and labelled accordingly using opaque umbrella terms, this should in my view apply to purported knobheads as well. What do you mean, Michael? What exactly is a knobhead, for the purposes of your analysis? I presume you mean someone who is “up themselves”, as my kids might put it, and if so I am sure I would agree with your analysis in this particular context. But if you are arguing for clarity, then you need to apply this rigour to your own catch-all, cliché-ridden terms.

That being said, I am glad that Billig has written this book. It positions him as the Lynne Truss of the academic writing world, and reminds us all that when we put pen to paper we are supposed to be explaining things, not hiding them. For that I can forgive him everything else. We should all read it and insist that our students do so as well.

Learn to Write Badly: How to Succeed in the Social Sciences

By Michael Billig
Cambridge University Press, 234pp, £14.99
ISBN 9781107676985
Published 11 June 2013

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