During the course of my research on trust I came to read an academic paper on social capital that was nearing a hundred years old (Hanifan, 1916). It was by the educationalist Lyra Hanifan who became interested in how people learn for the benefit of themselves and others. It struck me how well written it was, albeit with a few terms we would now seem dated. The quality of the paper was markedly different from many of today’s papers I have to trawl through. What was different, here are a few thoughts:
- It was written by someone who was interested in the subject and was eager to communicate his enthusiasm. I could imagine Hanifan thinking to himself that what he had to say would be of interest to many people and he wrote with those people in mind.
- He probably did not feel as constrained as we are today to make a tightly formed argument that would address a focused academic point that had been rumbling on for years.
- The life had not been mangled out by one re-work after another following reviewers’ comments.
I am not calling for a ‘return’ to a non-existent golden age, but we can be more thoughtful of the habits we have all fallen into. By habits I do not just mean us authors, but the conventions we have all adopted in deciding what ‘good’ is and its usefulness. Perhaps if we did we might become a little more relevant. In other words to address some of the concerns that Michael Billig pointed to in his book How to Write Badly and Succeed in Social Sciences (Billig, 2013).
Billig M (2013) How to write badly: How to succeed in social sciences. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Hanifan L (1916) The Rural School Community Centre. American Academy of Political and Social Science, 67(May), 130–138.