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Language and communication, Qualitative Methods, Work and occupational

‘I’ve just followed what interested me at the time’

Ian Florance meets Mick Billig, Professor of Social Science at Loughborough University.

03 March 2013

‘The interview was held. The findings were that the interviewee (let’s call him/her ‘X’) could be described as an academic social scientist (though an in-person replication of the interview is advised to confirm this finding). It was observed that a number of books were authored, though original authorship is an unusually imprecise conceptualisation given the ubiquity of influence and citation in academic writing and the insights of post modern conceptions of authorship. More work is necessary.’

Or to put it another way, I’ve just interviewed Mick Billig, Professor of Social Science at Loughborough University, and I’m trying to avoid writing in the style of that first paragraph. I believe George Orwell’s great essay Politics and the English Language is the best available guide to writing clear precise language. I’d heard that Mick shared this view and was even writing a book on bad writing in the social sciences. This would put any interviewer on his or her mettle.

The first area of psychology I enjoyed studying

Given that questions of identity loom large in Mick’s fascinating book Banal Nationalism I started by asking him whether he described himself as a social psychologist. ‘I’m an academic and a social scientist.

I have a background in social psychology and describe myself as a social psychologist in certain contexts, but I don’t tend to think about what I am or how my work should be classified – I prefer just to do it.’

Mick grew up in Wandsworth and Putney (‘It was a fairly ordinary upbringing’), then went to Bristol to study psychology and philosophy. What fascinated him about psychology? ‘Nothing at first. I didn’t want to follow up any of my A-level subjects and it was philosophy that changed my life. We studied it historically and concentrated on thinkers like Locke, Hume, Berkeley and Descartes. Philosophy and psychology asked similar questions but philosophy gave richer answers, so my psychology undergraduate work always had a philosophical bias, which didn’t go down that well.’ Half way through his third year his life changed. ‘Henri Tajfel, one of the greatest social psychologists, joined as professor. I wrote an essay on cognitive dissonance and his comment was “You should study social psychology”. I found that that was the first area of psychology I enjoyed studying. I must pay tribute to Henri, who helped and encouraged me in so many ways. He organised a part-time assistant research post for me and I acted as his research assistant.’

‘During the summer after I graduated, Henri asked me to design an experiment based around the question “If you put a person in a meaningless group would they come to identify with it?” It was the first minimal group experiment and I enjoyed designing and running it. Extending it was the basis for my PhD.’ Even at this stage Mick was still taking a philosophical approach. ‘One of the chapters in my PhD looked at Locke’s and Wittgenstein’s approach to classification. Before the viva Henri asked me “What would you say if the external examiner asked what was the point of that chapter?” I said that I’d reply by asking what was the point of the other chapters. Henri laughed and said that would be a good answer.’ 

I’ve never really understood academic language

Mick thought about working as a schoolteacher after finishing his PhD, but the idea of becoming an academic grew on him, though not a standard experimental and academic psychologist. ‘It took me years to admit this, but I’ve never really understood academic language. Other people seem to be able to read technical papers easily – I have to translate them into simpler language to grasp what is being said. The process sometimes shows that the author isn’t actually saying very much! This led to some rather embarrassing job interviews.’

Mick worked for 12 years as a Lecturer in Psychology at Birmingham. ‘I had very good friends in the department and it was a great place, but I felt intellectually isolated. I didn’t go to conferences and had few connections outside the university. I couldn’t structure my thoughts or express them in the specific way academic journals require. So, to put it positively, I did my teaching work and was then free to do the things I wanted. I wrote a couple of books, and that has been a continuing theme in my life – getting fascinated by a topic and writing books about them.’

I suggest Mick’s writing also emerges certain themes, most particularly nationalism and language. His early books included studies of the National Front and the way families talk about the Royal Family and then his award winning Banal Nationalism. He’s also written on how rhetoric shapes thinking and also on rhetoric’s influence on the unconscious. ‘Yes, ideology and language are continuing threads in what I’ve written but I’ve not had a conscious plan – I’ve just followed what interested me at the time.’

Mick describes the Social Science Department at Loughborough as ‘a home for me. There’s less of that insecurity and pressure that you feel sometimes in psychology departments. I feel freer in the Social Science Department, which doesn’t force you to think about what you are and what your discipline is. It encourages you to follow your thoughts.’

Crossing boundaries

According to a web description The Discourse and Rhetoric Group (DARG) started meeting in Mick’s office in 1987,  not as a ‘formal research centre… (but) primarily as a vehicle for generating discussion at the intersection of a number of interests in discourse, rhetoric, activity and conversation’. Mick gives a fuller explanation. ‘The idea for DARG came initially from Derek Edwards, another social psychologist. He was interested in social interaction and he knew that I was interested in classical rhetoric. It was originally very informal but it’s changed. We’ve got much better facilities and have had some academic success, especially in attracting postgraduates, but this has inevitably changed the nature of the group. Informal groups like this often develop more formal structures as they grow.’ DARG seems to me to be an example of the type of thing that develops when people from different disciplines get together and seek to cross conventional academic structures. I’ve just read Andrew Pickering’s The Cybernetic Brain, which describes how early British pioneers of robotics and AI developed similar informal groupings, outside academic structures, to advance their thinking.

In recent years, Mick has returned to the subject of language in the social sciences. ‘Much academic language really is a foreign language to me, so I’m like an English person abroad – I use my own language but speak louder!’ His recently completed book, Bad Writing and the Social Sciences: Big Words in Small Circles, opens with a description of Mick reading authors as diverse as Orwell, Hannah Arendt, CLR James and Freud. To quote from the first chapter: ‘Despite their intellectual differences, Arendt, James and Freud share one thing in common: none was a professional academic, writing primarily for other academics. The academic terminology, which I could not master or take into myself as my own, seemed paltry by comparison to their words.’ ‘I expect when it gets published a lot of my academic colleagues won’t speak to me again, but I’m making serious points here. Conventional social science writing loses information. It uses bureaucratic language. Maybe it’s fine to use passive verbs and to ‘nominalise’ verbs by turning them into long words ending in ‘ification’ or ‘isation’ in the natural sciences but in social sciences that style discards information. If you say “This was done” you’re ignoring who did what to whom, which is pretty important in the social sciences. I argue that the customary noun-based writing used by academic social scientists and psychologists is imprecise. This has huge implications for universities and academics who have to publish in a certain form and style, through certain channels, to keep their jobs, to promote their discipline, their approach and their own careers. The line between writing to discover new insights and writing to market a person, a department or an approach is getting blurred. We should all be concerned about that.’

At a time when there is conversation and disagreement about psychologists’ roles, focus and status, and about how academic performance is judged, it is important to pay attention to people who question received opinions in what they do, who go about their role as academic or psychologist in a different way. Mick constantly stresses his focus on following his thoughts. He gets interested in issues and then concentrates on doing something abut this interest – researching, reading and writing.

Let me sum up what proved to be a fascinating interview by quoting again from the opening chapter of Mick’s recently completed book:

I am not a young scholar, rebelling against the establishment, but I am approaching the end of my working life, having spent almost forty years in continuous employment as a university teacher. It has, for the most part, been a wonderful job. Not only has the work been relatively well remunerated, but it has been a privilege to be paid for reading and writing; and it has not been a hardship to teach bright, young people, some of whom have even been interested in the topics that I have taught. I cannot imagine a better way to earn a salary; but that may say more about my lack of imagination than it does about working as a modern academic in the social sciences.

Discuss, as an exam paper might say.