Monday, August 26, 2013

Social Sciences and the Noun Problem

Dictionary definition of jargon
Photograph: The Guardian

The issue for social scientists is not just that we use jargon, but the nature of the jargon we favour, suggests Michael Billig.

More than 40 years ago, Stanislav Andreski, a professor of sociology at Reading University, published an ill-tempered book, complaining how poorly his fellow social scientists wrote.

He accused them of lacking talent, of 'cretinisation'. Andreski did not make many friends.

Today, academic life is yet harsher, with the pressures to publish far stronger than they ever were. We lack time to craft the elegant phrase as we churn out paper after paper.

If present conditions are producing bad, hasty writing across the campus, then today's linguistic habits are particularly harmful for the social sciences.

Part of the trouble lies in the jargon that social scientists feel we must use. As teachers, we frequently find ourselves acting conservatively, teaching our postgraduates to use the most opportune terminology in order to place their articles in journals.

Unless they write in the ways that editors like, our students' papers will remain unpublished and their academic careers will be over before they have started.

We will also encourage postgraduates not to examine the social world directly, but to take an 'approach', preferably the same one that we espouse.

An approach comprises more than a methodology or even what social scientists loosely call a theory. It provides a special vocabulary, or what the great French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, quoting Pascal, called puffed-up words.

Bourdieu himself did not live to see the extent to which universities - their managers and senior academics - have embraced the spirit of commercial enterprise. Today, social scientists are expected to use the linguistic symbols of their approach as if they are advertising a brand.

Accordingly, the apprentice academic puts aside the possibility that you can analyse the social world by using ordinary words: to be a proper social scientist, you must promote the words of your approach.

Sometimes this means using long words purely for the sake of impressing others. In my book Learn to Write Badly I give the example of a social scientist analysing the differences between good and bad undergraduate essays.

The author argued that good essays fulfil "the ideational metafunction". The phrase suggests technical insight, but when you trace back the author's quoted sources, you find that, in this context, the ideational metafunction only means content.

You wouldn't impress anyone by saying that good essays have more content than poor essays. But by referring to the ideational metafunction, the author is able to flatter the dignity of readers and editors, while promoting his or her approach.

The problem for social scientists is not just that we use jargon, but the nature of the jargon that we favour. Whatever our theoretical approaches might be - whether we are empiricists or post-modern theorists - our technical phrases will consist overwhelmingly of nouns and noun phrases.

Sometimes, we use noun phrases, which entirely comprise of nouns, such as "leadership categorization theory" or "transition relevance place", just as our managers use noun-only terms like Research Excellence Framework.

To the contemporary ear, these clumps of nouns sound official. Rarely do we use technical verbs, although such verbs are possible, but by our use of nouns we transform people and their doings into things.

It does not matter if natural scientists use a language that is suitable for depicting things, but it is a problem if social scientists do likewise.

We might say that social scientists are "reifying" people by their excessive use of nouns, but those social scientists, who study these matters, will prefer to talk of reification, rather than people reifying.

In this way, their language ceases to describe what people are doing but constructs a world of fictional things, with reification taking its place alongside hundreds of other favourite things such re-ethnicification, mediatisation, depersonalisation and, of course, the ideational metafunction.

Young postgraduates, in copying the linguistic habits of their elders, will assume that 'proper' social analysts do not use ordinary verbs to describe people doing things. Instead, they must transform ordinary actions into theoretical things.

The problem is not that the resulting language tends to be inelegant, but that it is typically less precise than ordinary language when it comes to describing what people are actually doing.

Even those, who claim to be taking a critical perspective, will often produce curiously uncritical writings. By giving pride of place to their nouns, they will be depicting a world which seems to be peopled by objects, rather than by people.

A world composed of big, impersonal things will appear unmoveable, as compared with people who can be identified, praised, blamed and even changed.

As George Orwell realised many years ago, sloppy writing means sloppy thinking and if we routinely reach for big nouns, we can avoid looking too directly, and even too critically, at the people, both powerful and powerless, with whom we share this world.

Michael Billig is professor of social sciences at Loughborough University - follow it on Twitter @lborouniversity

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