C Wright Mills suggested that to avoid the ‘academic pose’ sociologists needed to get rid of the ‘academic prose’. Mills was an ardent advocate of clarity in writing and warned against the obfuscation of both grand theory and abstract empiricism. Mills sought criticism for his work with a view to making his writing as accessible and as incisive as it could possibly be. Yet despite his advice we appear, as a discipline, to have not heeded the warnings – with all of us (me included) writing in a way that is often self-serving or in a ‘style’ than can only service the needs of other ‘fellow travelers’. I was prompted to think more about the advice offered by Mills after picking and reading up a copy of Jackson and Marsden’s Education and the Working Class from 1961 (reprinted in 1966). This is a book I had only glanced at previously. However, a recent trip to the University of Huddersfield, and a brief discussion with colleagues there about it having been set in Huddersfield, promoted me to return to the book and a much closer reading of what Jackson and Marsden had to say. This book ‘is about working-class children turning into middle-class citizens. It’s a tangled picture, and the voices weave their own pattern of delight, snobbery, frustration and love‘ (Jackson and Marsden 1966: 15). It is a compelling book worthy of a great deal more attention. However, only a few pages in Mills came to mind not only because of what Jackson and Marsden were writing but how they wrote it. They wrote in a way that not only conveyed the rich tapestry of their respondent’s lives – the ‘delights, snobberies, frustrations and loves’ as they said – but do so in a way that is accessible and engaging whilst revealing a complex set of relationships. The analysis is accessible and rigorous. This richly detailed combination of narrative and analysis is a form of writing that can only come from a deep immersion into a subject undergirded by a clear passion for the subject matter. Returning to the Millsean critique of academic prose, and the accessibility of this book, prompted my own lament ‘I wish I could write book like this’. Moreover, a questioning as to why we as sociologists don’t write more books like this. There some who do this – William Helmreich’s (2013) The New York Nobody Knows: Walking 600 Miles in the City or Alice Goffman’s (2014) On The Run: Fugitive Life in an American City being notable exceptions – but in the main the promise of post war sociology and the vein of richly detailed studies that emerged have been substituted for more turgid, drier, less passionate accounts of social life. Or as Jason Hughes suggested in a discussion of these issues ‘writing becomes divested of all its colour’. We are often left with drab, colourless technical accounts. Why is this ? There are many possible reasons such as the dominance of short form writing demanded by journals, the increased pressure of publishers to go for textbooks at the expense of monographs but we are the poorer for it.
The clarity of writing is not the only link to Mills. Jackson and Marsden make a clear link to the Millsean links between history and biography. They write ‘in this survey we are deliberately mapping to a stretch of life, an initiatory experience, through which we have lived ourselves. And with this survey we took our bearing’ (Jackson and Marsden 1966: 16). In other words they were casting their own lens on public issues and private troubles as Mills suggests ‘Writing, if you are at it long enough, is of course a set of habits and of sensibilities that shape almost all your experience. Writing is, among other things, always a way of trying to understand yourself. You understand your own feelings and your own ideas by writing them out.’ (Mills to Tovarich, 1959 in Mills and Mills 2000: 280).
We have much to learn from ‘classic’ books from the past – not least how to write good sociology. If we disregard these classic texts we compound the effects of ignoring Mills’ advice and consign so much good sociology to the dustbin simply because it is not from the last five years or, worse still ‘fashionable’.
Goffman, A. (2014) On The Run: Fugitive Life in an American City. Chicago: Univeristy of Chicago Press.
Helmreich, W.B. (2013) The New York Nobody Knows: Walking 600 Miles in the City. Princeton: Princeton Univeristy Press.
Jackson, B. and Marsden, D. (1966) Education and the Working Class. Hamrondsworth: Penguin.
Mills, K. and Mills, P. (2000) C. Wright Mills: Letters and Autobiographical Writings. LA: University of California Press