Is it a good thing to be dense and complex? Greg Thompson makes a spirited defence of sociological writing in this recent blog post and it has made me think about the value of different kinds of scholarship.
There are several currents in modern sociological (and hence, educational) thought. Although you should never accuse a critical theorist of being a poststructuralist and so on, these theories share certain outlooks. In particular, there is a scepticism about objective truth and a disdain for using scientific methods in the social sciences. This is given the signifier of ‘positivism’.
Thompson suggests that we don’t tend to take sociological theory as seriously as maths and science:
“…there seems to be a popular view expressed on social media that dense and complex writing necessarily indicates that the work is not worthwhile. This is nonsense, I am in awe of my science and mathematics friends for the complexity of the work that they do and for the years of toil that enable them to do this complex work. I expect to have to study hard to be able to understand this, and I don’t blame them when it takes a long time for me to understand this. Expecting philosophy to be different seems stupid to me.”
Indeed, postmodernism has been quite viciously lampooned. From The Sokal Affair to ‘how to speak and write postmodern‘, there are intelligent scholars lining up to take a swipe at it. Is this unfair? Is it a double standard?
Maths and science can certainly be complex, although rarely needlessly so because scientists tend use the heuristic of Occam’s razor and seek the simplest explanations possible. And science has done a good job of communicating with the tax-paying public. I may not understand the equations of string theory but I can pick up a copy of New Scientist and read a pretty straightforward explanation of what it is; enough to get a sense of the debate around whether string theory is science or maths.
The achievements of science are also quite manifest: space probes, vaccines, new materials and so on. Even scholarship in history or the arts has a popular arm of documentaries and performances in order to build bridges to the public. By contrast, social theory is quite ineffectual.
When I ask questions about social theory, I tend to be told to go away and read a book and then I’ll be ready to discuss it. This doesn’t seem good enough to me. Given that taxpayers are funding thousands of academics to research this stuff, it needs to do a much better job of explaining itself.
Otherwise, a cynic might conclude that it is all just an elaborate peacock’s tail: “Look at me, I’m clever, I use long words.”