social sciences & writing

Subject: social sciences & writing
From: scot <scot -at- HCI -dot- COM -dot- AU>
Date: Thu, 6 Jun 1996 15:53:27 +1000

Well i am an ex-engineering type and I'm -currently- completing my first
Humanities degree (not social science though, but close enough I guess).

>Quick observations (2 @ $0.02, = $0.04):

>* When I was an undergrad, I remember trying to plow through a textbook
>written by someone who was considered a leading light in the sociology biz.
>Absolutely unreadable! Couldn't get through any of it. At the time, I
>thought it was my deficiency, but I've come to realize that the fellow just
>couldn't write clearly.

>* Regardless of the profession, there are many scholars and practitioners
>who can't write, and there are some who can. I *do* have to wonder if the
>ones who can't write also have similar difficulty in _thinking_ clearly. It
>seems to me that the two are inextricably linked.....

I'd say, yes, this is true, GENERALLY however, some "unclear writing" in the
Humanities comes about due to the author not properly considering their
audience -- ie writing for specialists and not at some "entry-level".
Sometimes this mistake is made by the lecturer putting an unsuitable book
onto the reading list, rather than the authors themselves.

Also in the Humanities, certainly, much of the "jargon" are in fact
"everyday words", often used by scholars without proper definition ("art"
and "culture" and the best two examples here), or written with the
assumption that the audience knows what they mean or are talking about
(French theorists going on at length using examples purely from French film
and literature is an excellent example, and one that threw me until I
started to read Balzac, for example).

Even so, there are some basic difficulties. I remember in my first year that
a lot of students fresh out of high school where unable to grasp the basic
points of even Roland Barthes, who is to my mind, an excellent and clear
writer (as long as you can navigate the mostly French examples). I think
this is a cultural knowledge gap -- you require some basic knowledge that is
often just not provided in the first few weeks of the course.

My theory about this runs along the basic lines that, when discussing
culture, nearly everyone just assumes that it is just "there" quite
naturally. Certainly that is what the institution of Television and most
other modern media will have you believe (so that it appears "natural" to
its audience). Faced with this life-long barrage of media input, most people
are resistant to the idea that "culture" is "built" by humans and can this
"building" can be studied in that context, or that there is some
"meta-process" going on which can give insights into the way culture is
built, and consequently, "read". From this basic position stems people's
usual reaction to (ie rejection of) "cultural studies". Writers in the
field often start out by assuming their audience "knows" the basic premise
(that culture is indeed constructed) when in fact, the audience's
expectations are in fact diametrically opposed to this opening assumption.
What constituted failure in this area wasn't the writing or thinking per se
(although of course a lot of it IS suspect) but that in the first couple of
weeks, the "schoolies" were not given the first 5% of basic ideas in order
that they could "bridge the gap" between what they thought they knew about
culture, and Barthes was saying about it.

So it was a question of a failure in audience analysis!

On the other hand, people like me had already "self-taught" up to some level
and were comfortable with the introductory subjects (actually I found it all
a bit basic until they started on Spinoza, Neitzche and Deleuze & Guatarri
in second semester).

ciao, scot.
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