Writing wrongs: its time for a sociology for the people

How the academic sociology genre loses friends and alienates people……

Recently, when I tried to write a journal article on children and clothing, I felt that what I wanted to write was being restricted by how I was meant to write. In other words, I was boxed in by the genre of academic writing and particularly of writing for journals: by what Bourdieu (1990) says are ‘illusio’, or the rules of the game. Other writers such as Becker (1986) and Hamilton and Pitt (2009) have also taken the academic genre of writing to task. For Wolff (2007), academic writing is often boring for the reader, not least because of the rules about the structure of an academic argument, and especially the rule that the whole of the argument is summarised at the start. In other words, the structure of academic writing all too often means that, for the reader, there is no developing engagement, no exciting suspense. Readers do not get ‘hooked’ in, because they don’t need to work out what is going on: they’ve been told the crime novel equivalent of who did it at the start.

There are other things about the academic genre of writing (particularly for journals) that make both writing and reading it so often a chore and rarely a joy, to quote Wolff. The language and grammar used in the academic genre has to be quite formal and technical in order to give the appearance of authority and support the purpose of academic writing (which is to make and display knowledge), and arguably, protect the exclusivity of that knowledge as a means of professional defence. As Hamilton and Pitt (2009: 68) point out, these rules of the game mean that ‘those trying to be creative with [the academic] genre are likely to experience protest from those who see changes to the collective authoritative academic voice as an attack on established ideas and practices, and indeed an attack on the purposes of the genre’.

Hey, Journals! The problem is with YOU!

In the academic line of work, journal articles (which all too often represent the worst kind of the academic genre of writing that even academics find dull) are the key to professional reputation and advancement. It’s a shame, then, that with the bulk of academic writing time given over to writing them, most journal articles are only likely to be read by a handful of people, and most of these readers will be fellow academics rather than members of the general public. Perhaps if sociology journal articles could be written in a more engaging and relaxed style then sociology would have a much wider readership and its contribution to everyday life would be recognised and valued. Perhaps if other forms of academic output (text books, magazine and newspaper articles, blogs) were valued more highly in terms of professional reputation and career progression, then sociology would stop being a subject about or ‘of the people’ and start being a subject of interest and relevance ‘for the people’ .

The problem of academic sociology: its of the people but not for the people…..

You might not agree that there is a problem with the way sociological knowledge claims are made, in what publications they are made or to whom they are made. Yet, sociology, like other academic, publicly-funded disciplines, faces increasing demands to show ‘impact’, to engage with the general public and to demonstrate relevance and outcomes beyond the ‘ivory towers’ of higher education. One route to this goal is to write sociology in a style that is more ‘user friendly’.

I am not saying that sociology needs to dumb down; just that rigorous and important sociological ideas do not have to be presented (even to fellow academics) within the straitjacket formalism of the academic convention. Sociology can be written in a way that is both pleasurable and intellectually meaningful – for both writer and reader.


Becker, H. (1986) Writing for Social Scientists,Chicago:ChicagoUniversity Press.

Bourdieu, P. (1990) Homo Adademicus,Cambridge: Polity.

Hamilton, M. and Pitt, K. (2009) ‘Creativity in Academic Writing’ in Carter, A., Ivanic, R., Lillis, T., and Parkin, S. (eds.) Why Writing Matters,London: John Benjamin Publishing Company.

Wolff, J. (1997) ‘Literary boredom’ The Guardian 4th September. http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2007/sep/04/highereducation.news