October 12, 2012, by Brigitte Nerlich

Making the invisible visible: On the meanings of transparency

One of the key themes of our ‘Making science public’ research programme is ‘Transparency, expertise and evidence in policymaking’. Recent encounters with various uses of the word ‘transparency’ made me put on my linguistic hat and ask: What does ‘transparency’ actually mean? In the sense of, how was it used in the past and how is it used now.

The light side of transparency

Transparency seems to have a deceptively transparent meaning. If you type the search terms ‘transparency’ and ‘meaning’ into a famous search engine, the first entry you get is this: “trans·par·en·cy/transˈpe(ə)rənsē/ Noun: The condition of being transparent”.

Looking into the Oxford English Dictionary for further guidance, you don’t find anything much more enlightening. The first and most important meaning of the word is given as ‘The quality or condition of being transparent; perviousness to light; diaphaneity, pellucidity.’ And the first attestation of this use is the following: “1615 H. Crooke Μικροκοσμογραϕια 556 It is like a thinne and pollished horne of a Lanthorn, not only in transparencie by which meanes it receiueth the light, but also in his substance.” One earlier quote is provided for a related meaning ‘That which is transparent; a transparent object or medium’, namely: “1591 J. Harington tr. L. Ariosto Orlando Furioso iii. xvi. 18 To make transparencies to meete in one, And so conuey the sunne beames where you will.” There are no indications of semantic change other than those related to technological advances, as for example different types ‘transparencies’.

And yet, if you keep your ear to the ground, you’ll hear the word transparency used in quite a wide range of ways and some of these uses tip, one could say, over into the dark side of transparency.

Let us first investigate a bit further how the word is currently used by dipping into Collins WordBanks which records current uses of words and phrases. Here we find indications of slight shifts in meaning or even, one may say, pejorisation of meaning. By pejorisation linguists understand the process by which the meaning of a word becomes negative or less elevated over a period of time, as silly, which formerly meant “deserving sympathy, helpless or simple,” has come to mean “showing a lack of good sense, frivolous.” The meaning of transparency has not fully changed to a more pejorative meaning, but current contexts in which it used might set it on the road to a semantic switch.

Looking first at some concordances (lists of words used in a body of work, with their immediate contexts), in this instance extracted from British Books (and these are just the first few), things seem to be still quite bright and light and diaphanous. Words used in the immediate context of the word transparency are colour and film, for example.

Darker shades of light

However, when digging deeper into frequent collocates (words that are habitually juxtaposed with others with a frequency greater than chance) of transparency, one can feel a change coming on.

There are collocates like accountability, governance, honesty, openness and trust. Transparency stands here as opposed to secrecy. On one discussion forum about the meaning of transparency in government, one contributor expressed this issue well by saying: “I think of transparency as allowing citizens to ‘see through’ the workings of government. In this way they can investigate whether or not their leaders and organizations have met their expectations. The public is empowered by being brought into governments inner circles.” So that’s all good. This sense of transparency has been wholeheartedly embraced by corporations and business, and advocated in books like The Naked Corporation: How the Age of Transparency Will Revolutionize Business or Radically Transparent: Monitoring and Managing Reputations Online.

In science, transparency, or ‘see through science’, has also been embraced as a public good, as it should be.

And yet, there are some collocates, such as demand, demonstrate, efficiency, corporate and so on which are a bit like clouds gathering on the horizon. Still transparent but somewhat menacing.

The dark side of transparency

One comment on another professional webforum discussing the meanings of transparency strikes a quite different note to the comment quoted above. After a lot of comments highlighting the positive effects of transparency, the commenter says: “It’s a lie. People just wanna know more about you.” This points to an issue that is increasingly being discussed in social science circles and best encapsulated in the title of an article by Marilyn Strathern, “The Tyranny of Transparency” (2000), which itself links back to an article by Gosh, Pal and Tsoukas entitled “The tyranny of light – The temptations and the paradoxes of the information society” (1997). As Strathern says, “there is nothing innocent about making the invisible visible”. Research into the flip side or dark side of transparency, namely, its use for surveillance, is now being carried out within a research programme called ‘the new transparency’.


As John Rupert Firth said in 1957: “You shall know a word by the company it keeps”. This very brief investigation of the uses of transparency seems to show that the company that the word transparency keeps has changed quite dramatically: from light, pellucidity, translucency, ‘lanthorns’, ‘sunne beames’, colour and film, to accountability, openness and trust, to audit, efficiency and (performance) measurement, to surveillance, security and threats to privacy. The semantic field in which transparency is embedded has shifted from the mainly positive to the potentially negative under pressure from technology and society, and therefore the meaning of transparency has changed as well. The word now has multiple and almost opposing meanings. This also has repercussions for science (and openness and participation etc.), but that topic has to wait for another time. In this blog post I have only just been able to highlight some linguistic and societyal paradoxes and have to leave it to others to explore their implications for science, politics and society.

As Hood and Heald have pointed out in their 2006 book Transparency: The Key to Better Governance?, “transparency is more often preached than practised, more often referred to than defined, and more often advocated than critically analysed”. So, more analysis please!

Image: Wikimedia Commons, Church window, Meiningen, Germany

PS more critical thoughts on transparency and openness by Morozov and Lee

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