Fragments of Thought

Review: Learn to Write Badly, Michael Billig

It is no secret that academics can come across as lofty, eccentric and difficult to understand. Given this, I got hold of a copy of Learn to Write Badly, by Michael Billig, with some enthusiasm. Billig’s thesis is extremely insightful into the world of academic writing, and the fetish some scholars have for technical jargon. With this in mind, however, I also felt a twinge of disappointment in some parts of the book. What follows are personal reflections on what is, in general, a thought-provoking book.

The opening chapter makes for a depressing read on the current state of higher education. The universities of old have been turned into mass-producing businesses, hoping to extract as many ‘high quality’ articles from scholars that will be published in ‘high impact’ journals. Citation analysis has become a science of its own, and the adage ‘publish or perish’ is a daunting truth for the modern academic. I would term this the ‘commercialisation’ of the HE sector (but, having read the book, perhaps that is unwise). The chapter paints a very bleak picture. But it is painted with a broad brush, consequently ignoring some of the nuances of the debate about the future of education. For instance, whilst I would agree with Billig that the trend of ESRC-led ‘impact’ is worrying, the initial concept or idea behind it actually serves a liberating purpose (see this debate, for instance). The opening chapter hints at some past golden age of cross-disciplinary research, which patently never existed. Universities have always perpetuated specific kinds of knowledge for a small elite. Universities do not produce knowledge for the sake of knowledge; but, as Michel Foucault once put it, ‘knowledge is for cutting’. [1] Knowledge has always been imbued with power, and, whilst we must reject the present trend towards ‘commercialisation’, we also cannot return to a past ‘golden age’ for universities.

In general, Billig seems to have little interest in the purpose of knowledge. His disdain for the term ‘epistemology’ itself (p.37) seems to offer a clue. I agree the term is technical, but it refers to a largely accepted branch of philosophy on theories of knowledge. The reluctance to see any use for this means that Billig goes on to seemingly mock those social scientists that have engaged with this and committed themselves to a specific ‘approach’ to knowledge (p.59). For Billig, academics zealously promote their approach at the expense of others, and try to persuade others that their chosen approach is most useful, which represents shameless self-promotion. I am not so sure. Academics must defend their views; or am I wrong to believe that higher education and university research is about the exchange and debate of different ideas? That we must contest the forms of knowledge we put forward in our published research? That, ultimately, approaches to knowledge matter? [2]

The previous two paragraphs are easily small fish to fry in comparison to the central argument proposed by Billig, which unfolds in chapters five and six. Here, Learn to Write Badly is at its most persuasive. The way in which academics use language has had two effects: first, they have reified people and turned them into ‘things’ – processes, ideas, concepts, and materials; second, they are able to conceal the value of theoretical and empirical research, which, when stripped of their technical language, end up making quite simple, self-evident or at times contradictory points. Specifically, our preferred use of the passive voice in academic writing means that we can avoid attributing actions to agents. Additionally, when we use nouns as opposed to verbs, our language becomes more distant and vague. As a result, people have been turned into abstract processes, without sufficient explanation from the researcher. The insights from Billig, which he makes far more eloquently than this review could ever do justice (and in far more detail), challenge us to be more explicit in our language, more specific in our arguments, and ultimately more analytical.

I am worried that Billig may have – although I’m willing to be convinced otherwise – over-analysed his otherwise excellent discussion, for three reasons. First, the emphasis placed on verbs marginalises nouns which are still crucial to generalising events. Very often, active sentences and profuse use of verbs are helpful in case studies and practical examples. However, if and when an author wishes to generalise his or her account, i.e., to make the action more applicable to a wider set of phenomena, we must use nouns, concepts and, ultimately, approaches and theories. Second, the passive voice is a symptom of a wider problem with the status of knowledge in the social sciences. Billig mentions, more than once (see p.102, pp.124-9, pp.176-8), that the passive voice is used to make accounts appear impartial, authoritative and scientific. Rather frustratingly, Billig does not link this explicitly to how modern societies emphasise ‘scientific’, ‘rational’ and ‘objective’ explanations for phenomena. Billig gets lost in his discussion of verbs and nouns. This goes back to something I raised earlier about the lack of interest or attention Billig ostensibly has for epistemology. Third, in ignoring the status of epistemology, Billig also marginalises crucial debates with a distinctively ontological flavour (perhaps intentionally). Learn to Write Badly ignores completely the fact that some academics intentionally remove actors from their analysis because of their position to the ontological debate between ‘structure’ and ‘agency’, some of whom do not believe that ‘agents’ are the cause of any social phenomena. As a result, they devote their attention intentionally to structures, processes and materials – not people.

For me, this book is not a holy grail. [3] Indeed, if the recommendations are anything to go by, then it is clear that a lot of the suggestions are about common sense. A glaring omission by Billig is the failure to connect any of the recommendations to the conditions that contributed to the rise of poor language. The sixth recommendation implicitly argues that self-promotion is bad; but there is nothing in Billig’s conclusion that returns to the profound issue of commercialisation raised in chapter one. Having said that, the book remains incredibly incisive to anyone interested in the current state of academic prose. Without a shadow of a doubt, too, some academics have become too technical. Words such as ‘disciplinarity’, ‘specificity’, ‘trajectories of participation’ and ‘opportunity spaces’ fail to make academia accessible. However, the biggest lesson I have taken away from reading this book is that I will continually question the balance of nouns and verbs in my own writing. [4]



[1] Michel Foucault, The Foucault Reader

[2] Billig also shuns the word ‘methodology’, which overcomplicates the simpler ‘method’ (pp.74-5). I would argue that this is too simplistic, for you can have multiple methods that, taken together, form a methodology (such as interviews, observation and textual analysis). Methodology is therefore linked back to theories that help to explain events, without which social scientific enquiry would be reduced to little more than a description of events.

[3] I have other issues with Billig’s book. First, for example, he has a prolonged section on statistics (pp.190-205) to make the point that statistics are not what they are cracked up to be. This, surely, is nothing new (see M. Blastland and A. Dilnot, The Tiger That Isn’t)? Second, his concern for acronyms is vastly overstated (see pp.85-90). Third, Billig argues that academics use the same concept in different ways, making analysis vague (pp.75-7, pp.132-7). I agree this is a problem, but I do not believe this is something new – almost all concepts are ‘essentially contested’, whether they are simple or complex.

[4] …I just didn’t need a 220 page book to demonstrate that.

Breaking Ranks: The primacy of epistemology

Within the Politics Department at Sheffield University, questions about ontology and epistemology can almost always be traced back to the post-positivist research ethic of Professor Colin Hay. Although he has written authoritatively on the subject, his word has become – in some quarters, at least – irrefutable. [1] This account of ontology and epistemology is taught as though it is fact, rather than contention, which has possibly limited the reflexivity within our Department, and perhaps even affected the discipline more widely. Whilst the account may well be true, this is not certain – and to preclude other options would do a disservice to the teaching of political analysis. So, what exactly is the point of contention?

It is usually assumed that ontology comes first, and epistemology comes second; that the latter is dependent on the former. Ontology, conceived on its broadest level, is ‘a branch of philosophy that is concerned with the nature of what exists’, and in the social sciences concerns the central question of ‘what is the nature of social reality?’. Epistemology ‘is a theory of how human beings come to have knowledge of the world around them’, or ‘a philosophical grounding for establishing what kinds of knowledge are possible – what can be known – and criteria for deciding how knowledge can be judged as being both adequate and legitimate’. [2] In this sense, then, ontology is about ‘what exists’ and epistemology is about ‘how we can know what exists’. [3] From those definitions, it is clear that we must acknowledge the difficulty in discussing ontological and epistemological assumptions separately – they are necessarily entwined. At this point, a number of scholars make the presumption that ontological principles precede those of epistemology. To make the argument that ‘reality’ exists without us knowing about it is not necessarily problematic. ‘Reality’ – whatever this is – does exist, regardless of our knowledge of it. However, many scholars then go on to argue that we can make ‘ontological assumptions’, which precede our ‘epistemological principles’. To do this is to conflate the nature of reality with our knowledge of reality; it is to argue that we can know about something without principles about knowledge. It is, essentially, putting the cart before the horse. Scholars, Hay included, often underestimate the linkage between the two domains of philosophy. To go one step further, however, one might ask how far these two realms of thought are linked, or: is it possible to separate existence from what we believe existence entails?

The consequences for how we answer this question determines much of our relationship with social reality. Indeed, the ultimate consequence would be to question ‘reality’ in its entirety, and collapse ontology within the field of epistemology. [4] If we accept that humans are ‘self-interpreting’ animals (an obvious point), then epistemological principles arguably become as important (if not more so) than ontological assumptions. This has crucial implications for how we study politics in particular, and ‘the social’ more widely: it suggests that we have to explore the ‘perceived’ reality of groups and that we cannot study an ‘objective’ reality. Thomas Kuhn – to this day controversial – has made a similar case for the natural sciences. He argues that science is conducted within competing (and mutually exclusive) ‘paradigms’. When paradigms change (usually through ‘revolutionary’ processes), the world itself changes:

Led by a new paradigm, scientists adopt new instruments and look in new places. Even more important, during revolutions scientists see new and different things when looking with familiar instruments in places they have looked before. [5]

Kuhn’s thesis is that theories or ideas (i.e., paradigms) lead to particular observations, which inverts the positivist understanding that observations lead to general theories. One evident example is the shift from Newtonian mechanics to quantum mechanics in physics. Taken together, the Kuhnian analysis of the natural sciences, in addition to the primacy of epistemology in social sciences, both indicate a preference for a hermeneutic understanding of social existence located in an ‘idealist’ framework.

Some political scholars are apprehensive about this analysis because it could lead to a relativist view of the world. Furthermore, they argue that if this were the case, then ‘relative knowledge’ has little to no practical value to making policy-relevant knowledge. If we can’t say anything that’s ‘objectively true’, then can we say anything at all? This is a damning verdict. However, the problem with this argument is that it defines ‘objective truth’ as ‘absolute certainty’. This is not the case in the social sciences and, as demonstrated by Kuhn’s analysis, the same even applies in the natural sciences. Knowledge claims, truths and facts are usually accepted following some sort of social negotiation: peer review, inter-subjective reasoning, and so on. Knowledge, then, is dependent on the idea of ‘shared facts’ rather than ‘given facts’. This position, although radical, does not inhibit socially valuable knowledge; it merely asserts that our claims to it must be based on a hermeneutic understanding of reality. This departs from our traditional understanding of ‘objectivity’ towards one where ‘[o]bjectivity arises from using agreed facts to criticise and compare rival interpretations. A fact is a statement, typically about a piece of evidence, which nearly everyone in a given community would accept as true’. [6] It is possible to make the case that an anti-foundationalist epistemology can still make policy-relevant knowledge – by denying ‘absolute certainty’, we hope to eliminate dogma, not the pursuit of knowledge nor the belief that you could be ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. In other words, this epistemology asks us to be more humble about our claims, and to accept the possibility that you (or I) might very well be wrong about something.

Where does this leave us? Most importantly, it suggests that the study of political phenomena must be grounded in an analysis of truth claims and shared facts of the actors’ that are being studied, and less attention ought to be paid on the ontological commitment of the author of the study. As Mark Bevir and R.A.W. Rhodes point out: ‘[W]hen people disagree, they disagree precisely about what they think they know is real, and so their various statements about being [ontology] are all ones that can be analysed as ones about what we know [epistemology]’. [7] This anti-foundationalist framework is at odds with an analysis that believes in the separation between perception and reality. Perhaps there is the case that a real world of objects does exist; however, these are only realised once we have a framework for understanding that world. In this way, ontology and epistemology do not precede one another. There is no ‘line’ of dependence. Rather, it is better to understand the two domains as inextricably inter-dependent. On an abstract philosophical level, they both depend on each other. When it comes to the study of the political, the primacy of epistemology is clear to understand the actions, beliefs and behaviour of political actors (as the Bevir/Rhodes quote has sought to show). For that reason, it is perhaps a little perilous that so many students (and, indeed, some scholars) usually accept an epistemological dependence on ontology as fact rather than contention; but it is even more dangerous that so many students fail to understand the consequences that flow from making such an assumption.



This analysis forms part of my enquiry on theories of knowledge in the social sciences, which constitutes the foundation of my approach towards the study of parliament in the UK.  

[1] See, among others, C. Hay (2002) Political Analysis: A critical introduction, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

[2] N. Blaikie (2007) Approaches to Social Enquiry, second edition, Cambridge: Polity, p.13 and p.18.

[3] Hay (2006) ‘Political Ontology’, in R. Goodin and C. Tilly (eds.) The Oxford Handbook of Contextual Political Analysis, Oxford: OUP, p.80 and p.83.

[4] R. Trigg (2001) Understanding Social Science, Oxford: Blackwell, p.22.

[5] T. Kuhn (1962) The Structure of Scientific Revolution, Chicago: Chicago University Press, p.110.

[6] M. Bevir and R.A.W. Rhodes (2005) ‘Interpretation and its Others’, Australian Journal of Political Science 40:2, p.183.

[7] M. Bevir and R.A.W. Rhodes (2006) ‘Disaggregating Structures as an Agenda for Critical Realism: A reply to McAnulla’ British Politics 1:1, pp.398-9. The methodological implications are, of course, quite complex as a result. That’s a matter for another time though.


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