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Philip N. Cohen, University of Maryland-College Park
I recently heard a fellow sociologist advise first-year sociology graduate students that they should all blog and tweet.
I blog to read the sound of my own sociological voice, to contribute to the community of social scientists thinking about the questions that move me, to provide information and ideas to the public and hear their responses, and to organize my own thoughts on research and writing. This project may have reduced my peer-reviewed scholarly output in the last several years. But it has enriched my sociological thinking, enhanced my intellectual environment, improved my writing, and made my job more fun.
But every sociologist blogging might seem like overkill. Who is going to read all those blogs, and how would we have time for anything else if we all wrote and read blogs all day? The wired cacophony we endure already competes with academic reading and writing, as we struggle to wade through a growing stream of random chit-chat (or, as the comedian Andy Borowitz put it, “Twitter would be a great way of telling people what we’re doing if we were doing something instead of being on Twitter”).
And yet we all know there is no better general advice for young intellectuals than to read and write a lot. Blogging can be an important part of your process.
Like many sociologists of my generation, I came to see myself practicing a craft when I read the appendix to C. Wright Mills’ 1959 book The Sociological Imagination, titled “On Intellectual Craftsmanship.” Applying some of his ideas has made me a more productive and satisfied sociologist, and my blog is a big part of that—playing the role of “the file” in his model.
“By keeping an adequate file and thus developing self-reflective habits,” he wrote, “you learn how to keep your inner world awake.”
Whenever you feel strongly about events or ideas you must try not to let them pass from your mind, but instead to formulate them for your files and in so doing draw out their implications, show yourself either how foolish these feelings or ideas are, or how they might be articulated into productive shape. The file also helps you build up the habit of writing. You cannot ‘keep your hand in’ if you do not write something at least every week. In developing the file, you can experiment as a writer and thus, as they say, develop your powers of expression.
In Mills’ practice, the file was a set of topical folders, the organization of which was itself an intellectual exploration (“the topics, of course, change, sometimes quite frequently”), and in my world these are the blog topic tags. As the file develops, the list of potential projects and research ideas outruns one’s ability to pursue them, providing the impetus to review and prioritize. If that review is part of a “widespread, informal interchange of such reviews … among working social scientists,” the result is collaborative agenda-setting.
Writing a blog—as well as reading and contributing to the blogs of others—seems the most practical and engaging means of achieving the intellectual ideal that Mills described, which requires “surrounding oneself by a circle of people who will listen and talk.”
There is a difference between Mills’s idea of “the file”—which is written and curated in private, punctuated by episodic exchange with select social scientists—and blogging a stream of notes and commentary, broadcast to anyone who will read it. The result is noisier than what he had in mind, but I think it’s an improvement, especially because it encourages one of the other practices he thought so important: developing a jargon-free intellectual voice and readable writing style.
This process surely is only enhanced when such work-product is shared with the community of readers, which the blog permits.
There are reasonable objections to the suggestion that all sociologists blog.
Some people are not intellectual extroverts. Not everyone wants to shout their every idea into the Internet tube. That’s fine. But, although academia may be kinder to introverts than are some other professions, developing a public voice is an important part of being a successful sociologist. Like speaking up in a graduate seminar, the only way to grow more comfortable is to do it. In fact, what’s good advice for seminars works here as well—speak up every time, early in the discussion, to break your ice and get it over with. For blogging, remember there is no need to write everything. You can selectively post your reading lists, discussion questions, minor observations, and annotated links to the writing of others.
Having few readers will be discouraging. It shouldn’t be. A few friendly readers such as fellow students or people in the same subfield might be all you need to motivate your writing habit. No need for a massive following to achieve your goals. Consider getting together with a few others and each posting to a group blog once per week. (Departments or graduate student associations would do well to facilitate this.)
Bad ideas or immature writing today is a job opportunity blown six years from now. If your potential future department Googles you and hates your blog, maybe they won’t hire you. But that risk has to be weighed against the benefit of having richer ideas and more mature writing later as a result of all that practice. Plus, anticipating the possible negative consequences of your writing is an important skill to develop.
Philip Cohen regularly blogs at FamilyInequality.com where he keeps a running account of the connections between families and inequality. The original version of this article appeared as a blog post that can be found in its entirety at familyinequality.wordpress.com/2012/03/29/should-every-sociologist-blog/.