03 May 2011

Review: Writing for Social Scientists by Howard Saul Becker and Pamela Richards

I am not normally interested in social sciences as a whole, and when I first saw the book I anticipated it would not interest me very much. To challenge this notion of mine, I decided to pick it up and see. Besides, I do have to write quite a bit in the natural sciences, and having encountered difficulties of my own there I was hoping some of what Mr. Becker and Mrs. Richards advised could be applied for my own ends. Lastly, being the curious fellow I am I was looking forward to comparing the challenges of writing for our respective disciplines.

Everything started out fine. There was quite a bit less mind-boggling, flabbergasting, paradigm-shifting amazing revelation than I'd have liked, but it would not be fair to blame the authors for the way things are. It's not their fault if there isn't any fascinating key insight to the matter, after all. Nevertheless, the discussion of defensive language much enjoyed by social scientists, and the function of language as intellectual credentials was interesting because it related to some of my own observations about scientific writers in general, as well as some of my own experiences.

Regarding clarity, the advice was sound, useful, interesting, and a little enlightening. I only wish the examples were more extensive (an understandable shortcoming, as Becker couldn't use his students' and colleague's work as samples without consent, as he explains) and the scope of the examination was wider.

I'm sure Becker would also have found a similar study of biomedical writing very interesting.

On the other hand, the premise of language as indicator and conferrer of intellectual status was not followed by a clear argument regarding its consequences nor ways to counteract it (I'm not even going to ask for reasons to counteract it).

Also, halfway through the book the author began the -for me all too tedious- chant of "there's more than one right way to do things! everything's just a-okay!". I lost interest at that point, I'm sure this idea is popular in the social sciences and all, but I don't buy it, I don't feel I have a reason to buy it, and Howie hasn't really convinced me to buy it. I understand that his aim was to undermine the idea that this right way is to write in a convoluted, defensive, artificially sesquipedalian manner but I don't think that is not the right way to write because there is no right way. I think that is not the right way to write simply because that is the wrong way, and the right way is something else. If Howie's so eager to promote diversity, I'm absolutely fine with multiple non-perfect approximations to the "right way", which can be as different as they want for all I care. However, to say that there is no right way is to say that there may exist styles A, B, C such that A is better than B, and B is better than C, and C is better than A, which I frankly find absolutely illogical.

If you're a student or academic with a paper or thesis to write, but find yourself too bored to get anywhere near it, this book will probably give you a few ideas on how to drag yourself back to work. If nothing else, it's at least a diversion. It doesn't, however, offer so much in terms of groundbreaking originality, if you're looking for that sort of thing.

Score: 2/5

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