In the end, it comes down to what a scholar is trying to achieve. If the goal is just narrow professional success -- getting tenure, earning a decent salary, etc. -- then bad writing isn't a huge handicap and may even confer some advantages. But if the goal is to have impact -- both within one's discipline and in the wider world -- then there's no substitute for clear and effective writing. The question is really pretty simple: do you want to communicate with others or not?Back in October I looked at Amazon's top 40 books in sociology. You had to get to number 43 (Alone Together by Sherry Turkle) before you came across a sociologist. Foucault came in at #61.
It's not to say there wasn't great sociology in the top 40. It's just that this sociology isn't being done by sociologists. Admittedly Amazon's classification of "sociology" leaves a bit to be desired, but in the top 40 are 7 journalists, 3 moms, 2 CEOs, 1 priest, 1 aspiring model, 1 rapper, 1 liberal TV talk-show guy, 1 survivor of child abuse, 1 public speaker, and 1 community organizer / President of the United States. There were 8 professors selling in the top 40 of sociology: three economists, and one each from political science, computer science, law, clinical psychology, and business administration. Where are the sociologists?
Here's what's weird. Sociologists assign many of these books in our classes. The outstanding work of Alex Kotlowitz comes to mind. He wrote There Are No Children Here and The Other Side of the River. Last weekend I heard him on This American Life discussing the horrible effect of gun violence in one Chicago high school (really worth listening to, especially for those who think the American playing field is level). I don't know a single sociologists who doesn't respect Kotlowitz's as sociology. And yet his work, as written, would be rejected from every top sociology journal (poor guy has probably never ran a regression in his life). The same could be said for Malcolm Gladwell, Michelle Alexander, Eric Schlosser, Jane Jacobs, and Robert Putnam. Sociologists rightfully claim such excellent research and writing as sociology, and yet we do not reward sociologists who follow in their footsteps.