Tips for professional academic writing in the humanities and social sciences

Writing your dissertation © Pixabay 2020

Is academic writing in the humanities and social science so different?

The humanities and social sciences tell the story of the human experience. Although there remains an interesting discourse about the exact boundary conditions and corresponding style elements between these two categories, they share a large middle ground. To their one side, though, sits literary writing, and to the other, the natural sciences, each with a distinct method specific to those disciplines.

In common with natural sciences, social sciences and humanities academics research and write about problems that are described by Professor Susan MacDonald as publicly discernible, of a finite number, communally worked upon, and generalisable.

To the other extreme, literary problems are not distinguished by any of those traits. In explaining what he called  “oppositional” criticism, Edward Said explains that the result of literary writing is often “that individualism of rhetoric in criticism and in the texts studied by the critic, are cultivated for their own sake, with the further result that writing is seen as deliberately aiming for alienation – the critic from other critics, from his readers, from the work he studies.”

A cursory consideration of the professionalisation of academia shows how the individualistic interpretation of text in literature has professional merit, while both the social sciences and humanities rely on the communal. To succeed requires working on problems that are interesting to the group as a whole.


Tip 1: Write for the communal

The humanities and social sciences create and shape knowledge. Yet, these social constructions, like in the sciences, work in a zone that Stanley Fish called “interpretive communities”. This concept refers to academics who collectively work on a hierarchy of theories linked to central problems and questions.

As such, the individual researcher plays but a cameo, the portside ice-cream hawker in a Fellini movie. In focusing on adding their pebble of knowledge to the pile of rock that constitutes current theory, they collectively contribute to the overarching objective of improving the generality of theory in their field. Theory building is to focus on similarities, reducing observations to the general rather than the unique or special case.

To publish in the humanities and social sciences then, the closer the research and writing output moves towards knowledge production that is perceived as interesting, special, or dealing with controversial contemporary questions, the likelier it will attract the right attention. It should be noted, though, that being controversial just for the sake of being controversial is hardly a sustainable strategy. Collegiality and rigorous research have a much better shelf-life.


Tip 2: Use the public definitions and internal axioms of the rhetoric of inquiry

There is a style and tone that tend to emerge within communities of researchers and authors. Formal elements may be the result of explicit style guides set by influential journal editors, such as the use of the third person and passive voice. Less formal elements may emerge due to influential academics in the community being more willing to show their personality or sense of humour.

More difficult to get right for authors still trying to find their feet, is dealing with the implicit public definitions and internal axioms within the field. Due to the collective work and understanding that is forged within a specific interpretive community in the humanities and social sciences, problems and definitions are generally settled and often used implicitly, i.e., without further explication. Authors need not seek a new problem definition, nor explain their acceptance of the public definition.

Successful academic careers have been built by throwing a cat amongst the pigeons – namely challenging what appears to be settled definitions and axioms within a discipline. But, there is the danger of alienation, especially by those who wield power and influence in the community and were likely the creators of these definitions.

Even worse, though, is relying on the public definitions and axioms in a manner that shows limited understanding or ignorance of the status of the conversation in the field. The best tip to guard against this danger is to manage all definitional elements of academic writing in a very circumspect manner. Take the time for a detour to research what specific definitions or descriptions of the problem have been published or discussed within the targeted journal. What work has the editor of this publication produced to settle implicit understanding in the field?


Tip 3: There is room for creativity

Everything shared above may sound rather restrictive – please the audience and speak their language. The good news is that there are plenty of examples of established academics having developed successful careers with the use of catchy linguistic manoeuvres and extra-family affairs. This is where a seasoned editor at an established publishing house could be of immense value – helping the author find the acceptable balance between formality and personality.

In the world of Economics and Business, for example, there is a thought leader who constructed the intriguing phrase: “The Ethics of Business and the Business of Ethics.” This phrase caught the attention well enough to subsequently headline journal papers, textbook chapters, workshops and warrant a lucrative corporate consulting career, despite tenuous substance hidden below what comes across as the tip of an impressive iceberg.

As for extra-family affairs, one of the most cited authors on Stakeholder Theory borrowed the concept from almost 30 years of discourse in the social sciences and applied it to the world of Management. Today, the term has become commonplace around conference tables in most institutions.

A good acronym will help people remember your ideas. Same with remarkably mundane alliterations or oxymorons.  As much as what the field of literature strikes out on its own in terms of individualism, authors in the humanities and social sciences can definitely draw on their creative techniques with success.

In sum, the rhetoric of inquiry and its resolution in academic writing is particular to each discipline, which means there are unwritten rules and standards that need to be followed. However, there is no reason not to inject some creativity and add some personal flair, once you have developed enough confidence.


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