what you get here

This is not a blog which expresses instant opinions on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers as jumping-off points for some reflections about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!

Friday, December 3, 2010

writing for inspiration and conspiracy

As someone trained in the social sciences - and keen to know what its various disciplines had to contribute to social improvements - I have done my best to keep up with thinking and writing in relevant fields. At least insofar as I can penetrate the dreadful language in which so many social scientists write! Regular readers will know that I am dubious whether the various disciplines in fact deserve to be called “sciences” at all – most of the time they are a collection of hypotheses, opinions and downright ideologies. And the jargon and obfuscated style of writing is simply a stratagem to hide that basic fact. I find it significant that Stanislaw Andreski’s 1972 book Social Sciences as Sorcery has not been allowed a reprint! Here's one quotation which perhaps helps us explain its disappearance!
"The attraction of jargon and obfuscating convolutions can be fully explained by the normal striving of humans for emoluments and prestige at the least cost to themselves, the cost in question consisting of the mental effort and danger of 'sticking one's neck out' or 'putting one's foot in it'. In addition to eliminating such risks, as well as the need to learn much, nebulous verbosity opens a road to the most prestigious academic posts to people of small intelligence whose limitations would stand naked if they had to state what they have to say clearly and succinctly."
The years that students spend in these disciplines may teach them a particular jargon and way of looking at the world; but the more important thing it teaches them is the strange mixture of obedience and arrogance required of those who wish to join the elites of their society. I sometimes think that if we really wanted to change society for the better, we first need to teach people – academics, bureaucrats and citizens alike - certain simple skills of thinking, writing and communicating. I’ve admitted several times here that one of the reasons I do this blog is because the discipline of writing helps me identify questions I would otherwise not be aware of.
And I’m composing this particular post because, in the last couple of days, I’ve come across both good and bad examples of writing. First an example of the sort of writing I encountered a lot in post-Soviet countries – piling voluminous fact upon interminable statistic to subjugate the reader into unquestioning silence. It purports to be a study (more than 500 pages) of corruption in the public sector of EU member countries (funded by the EU) but seems rather to be a (very detailed) description of the relevant sections of the various laws which govern corruption. I say “seems” since I do not have the patience to persevere with it after looking at the conclusions on Austria – widely known as one of the most corrupt members – which are so facile and badly written they would not have been allowed into even a newspaper. They did, however, survive the editing process of the EU!
An example of good report writing – at least in terms of the structure of the report – is the Review of Impact and Effectiveness of Transparency and Accountability Initiatives published recently by the Institute of development Studies. I haven't had time to read it yet - but I like the way each section has a basic question as its heading. This gives me a lot of confidence - since everyone (writer, editor and reader) has a reference point by which to judge the text!
Thirty years ago I wrote a short book to try to explain in simple terms for the general public why some major changes being experienced by local government were necessary and trying to demystify the way the system worked. That made me realise how few books were in fact written for this purpose! Most books are written to make a profit or an academic reputation. The first requires you to take a few simple and generally well-known ideas but parcel them in a new way – the second to choose a very tiny area of experience and write about it in a very complicated way.
After that experience, I realised how true is the saying that “If you want to understand a subject, write a book about it”!! Failing that, at least an article – this will certainly help you identify the gaps in your knowledge – and give you the specific questions which then make sure you get the most out of your reading.
My first real publications were chapters in other people’s books and national journals – which described the experiences in community development and more open policy-making processes some of us had introduced into Europe’s largest municipality. I was “sunk”, however, when one journal then asked me to write one page every 4 weeks. I just couldn’t compress my thoughts that way. Although I was reading a lot, I couldn’t write in abstract terms – only about my own experiences, trying to relate them to the more general ideas. I did four pretty good pieces – but then had to pull out. The effort was just taking up too much of my nervous energy. How much I admired the talks of someone like Alaister Cooke – who each week would take a simple incident and weave around it an insightful essay on an aspect of the American political process! Julian Barnes is one of a few who seems to have this gift these days – although my October 2009 blog recognised what Malcolm Gladwell does.
George Orwell’s 1946 essay Politics and the English Language, however, remains my bible.
A rare blog on this issue of the construction of coherent writing can be found here
By the way - "inspire" is the breathe in (life) and "conspire" is to breath with (others). We need a lot more of the oxygen of clear expositions and collective action to achieve the decent life (which some of us have had the luck to experience from time to time).

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