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Writing Sociology or Toward an Artful Realism

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  2. Writing Sociology or Toward an Artful Realism

You look at the blank screen. Soon it will be filled with words. You’ll move words around, adding some, deleting others. In the end, if you are like me, you’ll think aloud, “Surely I will escape punishment in the hereafter for the penance paid writing these pages.” Perhaps you are one of the lucky ones. Maybe writing comes easily to you. For many of us, however, writing is akin to wearing a hair shirt.

An argument could be made that writing sociology is a particularly onerous task. I suspect some of the difficulty we experience as writers is related to what we write about. After all, who among us has ever seen a “role,” a “status,” or a “society” for that matter? Our task in writing sociology is to convey abstractions in words that make them real, tangible, knowable. Science fiction writers also struggle to make abstract, imaginary worlds probable and believable. But our challenges in writing sociology are more complex than those faced by fiction writers.

Unlike the writer of fiction, the writer of sociology cannot—in good conscience—confabulate. Chained to the wheel of realism, we must write in a manner that accurately resembles real social things. So, we must represent something that is hidden from most people and do it in a manner that convinces them it is, albeit unseen, nevertheless real. How do we accomplish this artful yet realist goal?

Some of us retreat to the safe house of science. Here, we temporarily impound our imaginations and write as if we are members of a secret society whose manuscripts are intelligible only to fellow followers of social science esoterica. Some of us, in short, abandon the artful side of writing. But there are others amongst us who eschew the caged prose of science and seek some balance between the literary and the concrete.

Gathered in this collection of short essays are some of the best examples of what we might call artful realism in sociology. Read them and you will encounter writers who struggle to find ways to join clever, subtle, and tasteful prose on the one hand, to life-like representations of real people and their lived experiences on the other.

This Special Section on Writing Sociology is special in several ways, not the least of which is the list of contributors. Included among them are Kai Erikson, Howard Becker, Dorothy Smith, Ben Agger, and Hana Brown. I suspect most of you have heard of the first four contributors. Each one has made an indelible contribution to our discipline. Hana is a doctoral student in sociology at the University of California, Berkeley. We are likely to hear much from her in the near future.

Kai Erikson provides the lead essay. Read this and you might find yourself thinking anew the way you write sociology. Kai's essay conveys the idea of artful realism in two ways: in his prose and in the topics he addresses. Following Kai's article are four response essays. Read them carefully, they too address the topic of writing sociology. Moreover, like Kai's essay, they are good examples of how artful prose can make the abstractions at the heart of our discipline tangible, real, some might say, empirical.

Importantly, not one of our four response essays is anything close to an “ode to Erikson.” Howard Becker, Dorothy Smith, Ben Agger, and Hana Brown each offer a different critique of Kai's assumptions about writing sociology. Read together, these varying evaluations of Erikson's article disclose a simple truth: there is no one trick to artfully writing society into existence. We can and do learn from others, surely; but our quest, some might say ordeal, is to find our own writing voice.

Following this exchange, Kai provides a response to his four interlocutors. This is no shrill rebuttal, but a patient and thoughtful reply. It both sharpens points made in his lead essay while allowing for the real possibility that not everyone will write sociology as he does. A summary essay is written by Bill Knox, an Emeritus Professor of Sociology at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro. I asked Bill to bring this exchange to a close for two reasons. He writes in the genre of artful realism and he cares deeply about teaching good writing to students of sociology.

There is one thing common to these several essays. To paraphrase Chekov, each refrains from telling us the moon is shining, preferring instead to describe the glint of light on broken glass.

Welcome to writing sociology.