May 22, 2014, by Warren Pearce
Academic jargon in the social sciences: self-indulgence or necessary evil?
The highly ambitious Circling the Square conference has just finished here at the Institute for Science and Society. It successfully brought together people from a wide range of disciplines around what we often describe as the science-policy interface. To get a flavour, why not check out the very active Twitter hashtag. My main impression from the conference was that when talking across disciplinary boundaries, the gap can be surprisingly large, and that even establishing first principles can be tricky. However, the coffee break chat suggested that this is no bad thing, and that we *did* spark some very fruitful conversations with the potential to flourish into something longer term.
Advanced research leads to technical language
In the final panel, our own Philip Moriarty returned to some of the inter-discipline differences that emerged during the conference; in particular, arguing that the social sciences don’t do themselves any favours when it comes to promoting interdisciplinarity as much of their academic output is so hard to digest. In short, there is too much jargon.
On the other hand, Philip argued that in his own field of physics special efforts are made to reduce the amount of jargon that is found in academic papers, and that there is an effort to communicate ideas as simply as possible.
The social sciences are technical too
I’m not sure this is entirely fair. In general, one can expect high level academic research to be complex, using advanced and/or novel concepts or approaches. This often requires complicated, technical language to communicate ideas, especially to fellow professionals in the field who read academic journals. This is *not* to preclude separate academic ‘products’ which explain things in less technical language, as I did here to digest this academic paper about Twitter.
However, if one presumes that social science jargon is a sign of some kind of deficiency, then one what is really doing is presuming that social science is not a technical set of academic disciplines. I strongly disagree with this notion. Just as Sylvia McLain rightly highlighted the way we sometimes talk about ‘scientists’ as a homogeneous group, then I would also challenge the same presumption about ‘social scientists’. The photo above (taken from this book) shows a long list of established interpretive research methods, all of which come with their own technical language. These might not be as well known as a comparable list of quantitative techniques, but they provide us with invaluable alternative routes to knowledge.
Jargon and the public
So, technical language/jargon may, in fact, be the hallmark of academic research. However, there is another argument re jargon made by my colleague Alex Smith: that social scientists have a *particular* responsibility to communicate their findings in plain language, as their work is of great societal relevance. This is an argument I have more sympathy with, although I would not restrict this to the social sciences. If one thinks that the physical sciences are of importance to society – as I’m sure the vast majority of people probably do – then it makes sense for public discussion of that research to take place in a way that is accessible to the many, rather than the few. However, it may that one of the ‘ingredients’ of all academic research being publicly intelligible is the degree of relevance that such research holds for the public. That might be something for us all to reflect on.