Researching Race and Racism

By Martin Bulmer; John Solomos | Go to book overview

14

Writing in and against time

Les Back

It is easy to forget that sociologists are writers and that we need to think about our craft from this point of view. As our discipline has become ever more elaborate and theoretically complex, the impulse to communicate has been eclipsed by the desire for epistemological sophistication and theoretical elegance. Sociologist C. Wright Mills wrote in the late 1950s 'to overcome academic prose you have first to overcome the academic pose' (1959:219). Mills's career was committed to challenging the academic status quo and is worth revisiting in the current climate. He died in 1962 at the young age of 45. He was a prolific writer but wordcraft did not come easily to him. His daughters have edited a collection of his letters. In them we find a desperate pursuit of the right language. In a communiqué to his friend William Miller he expresses his dissatisfaction with the early drafts of what was to become his classic book White Collar. 'I can't write it right. I can't get what I want to say about America in it. What I want to say is what you say to an intimate friend when you are discouraged about how it all is' (Mills 2000:136). His aspiration is noble and extraordinary given the state of academic writing today. Could you imagine anything worse than reading a sample of turgid academic prose - I am thinking particularly of my own - to a desperate friend?

The reason why I am drawn to these questions is connected to a similar kind of moment of truth. When the reader's comments came back for my last book entitled Out of Whiteness (with Vron Ware, University of Chicago Press, 2002), my father was mortally ill. Like many men of his class and generation, he had a terrible fear of hospitals. George Orwell (1970c) once wrote that the working-class fear of hospitals can be traced to their disciplinary nature. In the mind of a worker, hospitals were little more than a medical version of the Poor House. I didn't want him to die amongst strangers so I stayed with him through long nights. I took my manuscript with me and read it at his bedside. It was a haunting experience. As I read my attempts to write, I heard the sound of his rattling chest and diminishing breaths. In those moments and through the many nights I spent in Mayday Hospital, Croydon - the same hospital that I was born in - I changed my view about the value and importance of the kinds of work we do.

-203-

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