George Orwell and the language of social research

I once saw it as mark of intellectual distinction to use foreign words, words such as Weltanschauung, Verstehen, Habitus or more familiar loan words such as zeitgeist and telos in social research. What put paid to this was an essay by George Orwell on politics and English language – this can be found in many locations including  Orwell set the standard for good writing for many English speakers and argued for a straightforward style, including the use of the active rather than passive tense and of ‘living’ rather than lazy or ‘worn out’ metaphors. He also warned:

Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent. Adjectives like epoch-making, epic, historic, unforgettable, triumphant, age-old, inevitable, inexorable, veritable, are used to dignify the sordid process of international politics, while writing that aims at glorifying war usually takes on an archaic color, its characteristic words being: realm, throne, chariot, mailed fist, trident, sword, shield, buckler, banner, jackboot, clarion. Foreign words and expressions such as cul de sac, ancien regime, deus ex machina, mutatis mutandis, status quo, gleichschaltung, weltanschauung, are used to give an air of culture and elegance. Except for the useful abbreviations i.e., e.g., and etc., there is no real need for any of the hundreds of foreign phrases now current in the English language. Bad writers, and especially scientific, political, and sociological writers, are nearly always haunted by the notion that Latin or Greek words are grander than Saxon ones, and unnecessary words like expedite, ameliorate, predict, extraneous, deracinated, clandestine, subaqueous, and hundreds of others constantly gain ground from their Anglo-Saxon numbers.

Is Orwell right here? In part yes for as he makes clear in this essay it is not just a service to the reader to write clearly but it also essential to the thought process itself that we:

choose — not simply accept — the phrases that will best cover the meaning, and then switch round and decide what impressions one’s words are likely to make on another person.

Some of what Orwell recommended is embedded in style guidelines for many journals today, though bad scholarly writing, as here in Slaker writing about post modernism and mathematics, is not unusual:

In addition to redefining the content of science, it is imperative to restructure and redefine the institutional loci in which scientific labor takes place — universities, government labs, and corporations — and reframe the reward system that pushes scientists to become, often against their own better instincts, the hired guns of capitalists and the military. As Aronowitz has noted, “One third of the 11,000 physics graduate students in the United States are in the single subfield of solid state physics, and all of them will be able to get jobs in that subfield.”93 By contrast, there are few jobs available in either quantum gravity or environmental physics.

As it happens this is a parody article, one which has been much discussed, [read more at but most of us can supply unintentional examples of bad writing.

However Orwell is only half right and even if committed to using ‘plain English’ social research cannot be written entirely in ‘everyday’ language. The inescapable fact is that any community has its own specialised vocabulary which will be seen as difficult and often pretentious by those unfamiliar with it. For example in becoming a cook it is not enough to know that you need to heat food you need to get your head around many specialized terms such as blanche, broile, fry, grill, roast, parboil, scald, sear and so on, to know each has particular meanings and signify different things in the kitchen. Learning the vocabulary is part of learning the craft. Likewise social research offers new and difficult vocabulary as well as distinctive ways to use everyday terms such as learn, know, act, behave, motivate, believe and so on. Foreign words may have a place, for example Weltanschauung might, as Orwell suggested, be avoided but it can take on a niche meaning for particular writers, say, to refer to how a group of people instinctively feel not just about the world but their place in the order of things. Indeed some foreign words have become so widespread that they lose their foreignness and have become ‘loan’ words, at least for social researchers, just as cappuccino has become integrated into everyday English. For example Gemeinschaft and Gessellschaft are often used in writing about community without a translation*.

So what seems to be important is to use words with a precise purpose in mind, which was Orwell’s point in the first place, rather than worry too much where they come from. This is incidentally why I do not accept that English speakers are necessarily advantaged by the ever growing use of English as an international language. Of course there is an obvious advantage but there is drawback in that as mother language speakers we do not naturally stop and ask ourselves what this or that word means and we do tend to assume we have understood a concept simply because the word used to signify that concept appears familiar to us.

We further need to distinguish between writing that is difficult because it is expressed in an inaccessible manner and writing which is difficult because it is expressing difficult and unfamiliar ideas. In England we have a healthy distrust of pretention but this can and does slip into a crude, ‘schoolboy’ anti-intellectualism, as in ‘Pseuds Corner’ in the satirical magazine Private Eye (**.

With the year ending I have been thinking about papers I have read over the last twelve months which in my view were well written. The first thing an exercise like this does is to remind you that if you are not interested in the topic then no matter how it is written it is not going to appeal to you and that there were many well written articles that I could not or did not enjoy reading. You also need to have sympathy with the voice of the writer – and the voice does come through even if writing in a fairly tight ‘genre’ as social research. In this respect Orwell’s writing is revered by many commentators but he does have a consistent tendency to overstate his argument which riles some commentators. For example the essay Politics and the English Language begins:

Most people who bother with the matter at all would admit that the English language is in a bad way, but it is generally assumed that we cannot by conscious action do anything about it. Our civilization is decadent and our language — so the argument runs — must inevitably share in the general collapse.

I do not know a lot about 1940’s intellectual life but did most people really believe this? And here and throughout his work Orwell tends to set himself up as a lone voice, the one person who can see through the distortion of public debate. This is undeniably his strength for it gave him an independent outlook and a moral purpose, but Orwell can be dogmatic and frankly arrogant.

When looking for good writing you notice that it is much easier to find examples of bad writing and make them appear especially so by taking section out of context (as Orwell did in his essay). So what did I find well written? I read one paper on community activism and community health*** (this is not my field, so will leave it to others to offer a critique) which for the most part I felt explained some difficult ideas clearly and left me feeling wiser than when I had started reading. I liked the author’s stance as it was a committed piece of writing but was balanced and offered no easy answers. My favourite piece of writing in 2014 however was not social research at all but a literary essay on the idea of ‘homelooseness’****. It was reflective and introspective piece about the competing advantages of belonging and not belonging to a wider community and linked the author’s sense of nostalgia to a wider discourse about the exile and loss.

In 2015 I will resolve to pay greater attention  to how academics express ideas and to think about my own writing. I don’t know if there are many awards for good academic writing in social research though there is aptly enough an Orwell prize
with the aim ‘to encourage writing in good English – while giving equal value to style and content, politics or public policy, whether political, economic, social or cultural – of a kind aimed at or accessible to the reading public, not to specialist or academic audiences’. Perhaps there should be more.

*Runciman (in Social Science and Political Theory, Cambridge University Press, 1963) saw the two terms as embodying ‘a distinction which in one form or another goes back can be traced back to Plato and Aristotle. The English translation of time as work is community and association but these words are so hopelessly ambiguous without a good deal of further qualification that it is undoubtedly better to take German as it stands. The distinction expressed is intuitively a fairly obvious one. There is on one hand the small, organic, pre-industrial, close-knit status society on the other’ there is the big impersonal, industrialised, bureaucratic contract society. Of course not all the elements of each ideal type need ever to go together. But the distinction though both commonplace and imprecise is exceedingly important both to the sociology into the philosophy of politics. (p90).

**on this subject Cameron discusses the importance of stating the obvious in social research even if this will be critiqued as ‘pseudo’ (pseudish?) in Private Eye (Cameron, D. Working with Spoken Discourse (2001), London, Sage p89).

*** Campbell C. (2014) Community mobilisation in the 21st century: Updating our theory of social change? Journal of Health Psychology, 19: 46-59.

**** Wood J. (2014) On not going home, London Review of Books, 36: 3-8.

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