Friday, September 11, 2009

Janet Abu-Lughod: sociologist maybe, writer no

Before European Hegemony

I'll be honest: this is my first (and probably will be my only) sociology class. This is my last semester and I needed the International Studies/Global Requirement to graduate. And after the first few pages of Before European Hegemony it became immediately apparent to me that this is one of those disciplines where scholars of the field tend to use terminology and modes of discussion that are not necessarily accessible to a wider audience. I probably would've been better off first taking Intro to Sociology or something along those lines, but alas, such are the ways of the University of Pittsburgh's haphazard systems of scheduling and graduation requirements.

Me? I am a Psychology/English Nonfiction Writing major, and if this text is any indication, I am not a sociology person. These are just not the sort problems my brain likes to solve. I like sociology in what it does for Psychology, but I can not really comfortably deal in these sorts of abstract pattern-relationships. Maybe I can lend an outsider's perspective: who knows.

What I'm getting at is that as Janet Abu-Lughod's book is serving the unique honor of being the first ever Sociology text I have ever begun to read, I am not finding it very accessible to me, the layperson. Her thesis is relatively clear, but in general her writing style is not. She suffers from the roundabout, repetitive style of written argumentation/persuasive writing that seems to be so pervasive in academia. She doesn't make points, she circles around them endlessly like a cat playing with a mouse, with only a lazy intention to maybe, someday attack.

You may well be inclined to defend her, and say that this text was not meant to be accessible to the layperson, that it was written to be read by Sociologists and sociology students. That's all very well, and it is obvious to me that she is intelligent and well-read and passionate about her subject, but that is no excuse for unclear, unorganized, unfocused writing. The new, modern Orwellian school of thought behind writing about anything, anything at all, postulates that if you can't write about your subject so that anyone can understand it, then you do not deserve to write about your subject at all. This still-held high-and-mighty idea that laypeople can't be expected to understand writings about relatively non-mainstream academic disciplines is what is contributing to an overall mistrust of academia as a whole in these modern, fast-paced, changing times.

Yes, if I were really interested in the subject I would find her dry, unorganized writing style more bearable. Many a psychology text I have given the writers more benefit of the doubt because I really wanted to hear what they had to say on the subject. But as someone majoring in Writing I take this sort of thing personally. Reading anything to learn about it shouldn't be boring, and it shouldn't be a chore. You can't hide behind academic buzzwords and jargon and fancy sounding conjunctions. You need to explain and you need to be clear and you need to respect the reader's intelligence, not talk down to them from a pedestal of higher learning.

So humor me, please. Maybe you can explain it better than her. What is this book about, exactly? What is she getting at, and why should I care? I get the historical-patterns, cross-societal relations, birth of globalization and a global economy thing. I understand, since she says it about twenty different times in twenty different ways, that she is "examining the processes by which international connections were forged, expanded, and strengthened during the course of the thirteenth century" and "describing the roles--cooperative, conflictual, or symbiotic--the varied participants played in the ongoing commercial exchanges." (p 37). But for what? And what does this mean for the human experience as a whole?

-Katie Dempsey


  1. (this is 3 minutes late because I guess a bunch of the procrastinators and me all tried to post at the same time so google told me told me it couldn't post this right away. off to a good start...)

  2. (I'm not saying that I'm not a procrastinator. I definitely am. I guess I should've said 'us procrastinators'.)

  3. Basically this book, or I guess the chapter we were assigned to read because I haven't read the entire book yet, is about what led to the rise of the banking system, money chargers, and using credit in the Middle East, Europe, and even China. It gave an understanding of how the world systems developed from their economic systems, and how those economic systems declined. I do agree with you in that Abu-Lughod's writing is dry and she repeats herself a lot, as she is trying to drill this information into our heads. I am a political science major and I find this book to be confusing at times, however Abu-Lughod described how the economic system really got started from all the trade that was taking place. Merchants started giving and taking credit, the need for bankers surfaced itself to ensure a safe and fair community, and even further, the systems led to down payments and mortgages which we still have today. I hope this helped a little more than just reading what Abu-Lughod writes in the book!

  4. I agree with your arguement, I myself am a Psychology major (as well as a Sociology) and find that this book seemed like a chore to read. Certain parts of the book were interesting and the general idea seems to draw me into wanting to read this book, but I can't seem to get through the pages without wanting to put it down or having to read the pages again. I do however enjoy the topics that Abu-Lughod discusses...I find globalization a very interesting topic and to learn about the global trade in the Mongol Empire sparks my interest. Hopefully the book picks up for you as well me! Enjoy reading.

  5. Thank goodness I am not alone. I was just venting to a friend of mine that if Janet Abu-Lughod got down to the point her 464 page text could have been written in 100. Regardless of her intentions, I agree that she is focused on peers rather than the public. Without my historical background, I would have found myself constantly referring to maps and rereading some of her more lazy cat passages.

    Oh, p.s. Please don't review my blog. I fear I may fall into the dry and unbearable writing style. =@)

  6. I agree the book is very repetitive, but I can see where she is coming from in analyzing the past. Abu-Lughod's writing is very dry, but the some of the points she makes and attempts to get across are important. Many have said that understanding history and the way systems worked is important to the future. Abu-Lughod does bring up many things that I, as a girl who grew up in the United States, did not know. Developing an understanding of how the world system changes and develops is necessary to figure out a strong system for the future.

  7. As a freshman taking my first sociology class I found the first part of this book to be quite repetitive and a few of the passages were unclear. I agree that she could have easily gotten her point across in fewer pages if she stopped telling us everything she found to be misrepresented and just told us what is. I can understand the book being about the start of international trade and global system however I feel she could have put the ideas into an easier format to read.

  8. First off--- Wow. You are amazing and I love that I can comment on this instead of all the other commentaries. Anyways, I am taking this for my Global Studies Certificate and my Sociology major and this is definitely not Sociology. This is European history. [Side note to the Peitre- you are doing great, but you have the wrong audience and should switch this class to the History department.]
    Abu-Lughod is seemingly intellectual but I am not looking for this type of knowledge during my last year at Pitt. Maybe the author will get more cultural/sociological by the end, but probably not. Your wording is brilliant; "She doesn't make points, she circles around them endlessly like a cat playing with a mouse, with only a lazy intention to maybe, someday attack."

    Peitre--- Will she soon attack because her writing style is tedious?!

  9. Not that this is a particularly relevant question, but does that Orwellian take on writing apply to scientific research and its related articles?

  10. I am a senior and I have my degree in History, so I’ve read my share of longwinded history books. But I think Janet Abu-Lughod’s takes the cake. I agree with Sarah, Abu-Lughod could easily have shaved a few hundred pages and still reach her point. For me, readings like this are extremely difficult. I agree with the point that this book is a chore to read.

    Dan Loheyde