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Sunday, April 3, 2011

On Writing

I am at present reading an ethnography, Real Country. Music and Language in Working-Class Culture” by Aaron A. Fox. I love ethnographies. It is a great genre – you write a book in which you try to make the life of other people understandable. “A plausible story” – that is what an ethnographer tries to write. It also is what I try to write when I’m writing, and actually I think it is the only goal a social scientist honestly can pursue. Of course, we are looking for The Truth, but only in so far as that we know The Truth does not exist but is only called into life when we write a plausible story. And that The Truth changes when someone else writes a more plausible story.

Writing in social science therefore is not just a thing – it is almost everything. Read Clifford Geertz’ book on the ways ethnographers render plausibility to their texts – you learn a lot, not only from what he tells about other authors but also from his own style. Reading one page of Geertz a week is enough to keep an ideal in writing. And read Howard Becker’s Writing for Social Scientists – not only because of what he says, but again also because of the way he expresses himself. Crisp and clear.

Now back to Fox’ book.
It happens to be the case that I am studying music as a social phenomenon in western society (something dubbed “ethnomusicology at home” by some), so I am interested in musical ethnographies on western society – in Fox’ case, an ethnography of Texas’ “blue-collar working class” and the way they use country music (or, in their own words, “real country music”) to express their culture. I have my doubts about the usefulness of the word “culture” when it comes to describing the role of music in late-modern societies (a doubt Fox seems to share up to a point), but in comes the second point why Fox’ book interests me: I like country music.

The first pages of the book are promising. Well-written, down-to-earth, descriptive, interpretive – I sometimes think I am reading a novel. But then I enter the theoretical framework and read sentences like these on page 29: “In this book, I explore along the voiced paths that connect song and speech to identity and experience…” and “… music and language, song and speech, and singing and talking are configured in this particular cultural world through a network of interrelated tropes…”. Voiced paths? A network of interrelated tropes configuring music and language? If I wasn’t already very aware of how little I know, I am sure of that by now.

“The arcane vocabulary and syntax of stereotypical academic prose clearly distinguishes lay people from professional intellectuals, just as the ability of professional ballet dancers to stand on their toes distinguishes them from ordinary folks”, Howard Becker writes on. p. 30 of his book on writing. What a fitting image. Sentences like the ones above demonstrate the ability to stand on one’s toes. But why should one want to demonstrate that? Beats me. If you want to tell a plausible story about our world and the people inhabiting it, please make it as understandable as possible for the people inhabiting it.

Hardly anyone, I would think, is interested in figuring out what in the world is meant by voiced paths and interrelated tropes. If these words are necessary, explain them first. Define them. Sometimes it is good  to come up with difficult words or neologisms (there you go) because it creates a certain distance to immediate reality, a distance which enables us to look sharper. And sometimes matters are simple very complicated. But most of the times, in my experience, it is not a question of wanting to look sharper or explaining complicated matters, but of securing a place in the academic world – and with that, of keeping a distance from “ordinary folks”.

Soon I will – again – follow a workshop on “academic writing”. I hope the teacher will not teach us which kind of language makes one look smart. I hope she will show us how we can write prose that is understandable - and plausible - for as many people as possible while at the same time it makes sense also to those colleagues who work in the same, often highly specialized field.

I’ll keep you posted.

And I’ll keep reading Fox. Because although I sometimes wonder why on earth he expresses himself as he does, I also know that The Truth lies not (only) in how something is expressed, but (mainly) in what is expressed. And I am convinced that what he has to say is definitely worth reading!

Howard S. Becker. Writing for Social Scientists. How to Start and Finish your Thesis, Book or Article. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986.

Aaron A. Fox. Real Country. Music and Language in Working-Class Culture. Durham: Duke University Press, 2004.

Clifford Geertz. Works and Lives. The Anthropologist as Author. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1988.

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