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Learn to Write Badly
How to Succeed in the Social Sciences


  • Date Published: June 2013
  • availability: Available
  • format: Paperback
  • isbn: 9781107676985

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About the Authors
  • Modern academia is increasingly competitive yet the writing style of social scientists is routinely poor and continues to deteriorate. Are social science postgraduates being taught to write poorly? What conditions adversely affect the way they write? And which linguistic features contribute towards this bad writing? Michael Billig's witty and entertaining book analyses these questions in a quest to pinpoint exactly what is going wrong with the way social scientists write. Using examples from diverse fields such as linguistics, sociology and experimental social psychology, Billig shows how technical terminology is regularly less precise than simpler language. He demonstrates that there are linguistic problems with the noun-based terminology that social scientists habitually use - 'reification' or 'nominalization' rather than the corresponding verbs 'reify' or 'nominalize'. According to Billig, social scientists not only use their terminology to exaggerate and to conceal, but also to promote themselves and their work.

    • Written in a clear, humorous and entertaining style, avoiding the sort of heavy yet imprecise technical terminology that disfigures so much social scientific writing
    • Identifies the linguistic features of poor social scientific writing - such as the use of technical nouns over verbs and writing unpopulated texts - and shows how social scientists can write in clearer and more populated ways
    • Examines how the current competitive 'capitalist' culture is affecting the way that social scientists write and encourages young academics to resist the 'promotional' culture that is so widespread
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    Reviews & endorsements

    'Michael Billig makes important and novel arguments about the state of writing - and therefore the state of thinking - in the social sciences. This book presents detailed critiques of writings by a wide range of social scientists. Billig uses vivid examples to demonstrate the conditions in which bad writing is nurtured and to show its wider significance for academia and beyond. This is a highly entertaining read which had me laughing out loud at times.' Christine Griffin, University of Bath

    'A wonderful look at the academic world and the kind of writing it encourages. I especially enjoyed the chapters on mass publication, sociology, and experimental social psychology.' Tom Scheff, Professor Emeritus, University of California, Santa Barbara

    'If you are put off by the highly specialized, closed and boring technical prose that increasingly characterizes a good deal of contemporary social science, then Michael Billig shares your annoyance! A wise, informed and well-written account, showing just why so many social scientists write badly.' John Van Maanen, Erwin H. Schell Professor of Organization Studies, MIT Sloan School of Management

    'Once again, Michael Billig has succeeded in challenging one of the characteristics of scholars' writing in the social sciences which is usually taken for granted: the use of too much abstract jargon which mystifies and obfuscates the interpretation, reflection and explanation of our findings. In his brilliant, typically humorous but also cynical and accurate analysis of scholars' narcissism, the author points to alternative ways of combining complex research with fundamental and necessary scholarly standards - while simultaneously making our work accessible to a broader public, in the spirit of true critical science.' Ruth Wodak, Distinguished Professor and Chair in Discourse Studies, Lancaster University

    'The Lynne Truss of the academic writing world … [Billig] reminds us all that when we put pen to paper we are supposed to be explaining things not hiding them … We should all read it and insist that our students do so as well.' The Times Higher Education Supplement

    'My short review of this book would simply say, 'Buy it!' … The author presents his evidence effectively and with a great deal of humour … I could go on at length and produce some marvellous quotations from this book … I would like every budding author in the social sciences, every journal editor, and every referee, to read this book and take some action against the ills of academic writing.' Tom Wilson, Information Research

    'Michael Billig is writing from the inside as a professor of social sciences at Loughborough University: he knows all the tricks and poses, and examines them with a mix of cool detachment, warm humour and suitably dense footnoting.' Gideon Haigh, 'Books of the Year', Spectator (Australia)

    '[A] splendid book, which I'm going to make compulsory reading for anyone who crosses my path.' Martin Parker, Organization

    '[Billig's] argument will interest most academics, not merely those in the social sciences … any self-reflective academic or writer will benefit from reading his accomplished study.' Luke Brunning, The Cambridge Humanities Review

    'A highly respected researcher, Billig is well positioned to offer his critique … The book's apt, somewhat tongue-in-cheek illustrations cleverly prove Billig's claims … Essential. Graduate students, researchers, faculty.' C. E. O'Neill, Choice

    '… a thought-provoking manifesto for good writing.' Helen Jones, Sociology

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    Product details

    • Date Published: June 2013
    • format: Paperback
    • isbn: 9781107676985
    • length: 240 pages
    • dimensions: 226 x 150 x 10 mm
    • weight: 0.36kg
    • availability: Available
  • Table of Contents

    1. Introduction
    2. Mass publication and academic life
    3. Learning to write badly
    4. Jargon, nouns and acronyms
    5. Turning people into things
    6. How to avoid saying who did it
    7. Some sociological things: governmentality, cosmopolitanization and conversation analysis
    8. Experimental social psychology: concealing and exaggerating
    9. Conclusion and recommendations.

  • Author

    Michael Billig, Loughborough University
    Michael Billig has been Professor of Social Sciences at Loughborough University for more than 25 years. In 2011 he received the Distinguished Contribution to Social Psychology Award from the Social Section of the British Psychological Society. He is the author of Freudian Repression (Cambridge University Press, 2009) and Arguing and Thinking (Cambridge University Press, 1987, 1996).

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