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.
Hmmm, perhaps it is not a question of ‘jargon’ but of language. Jargon is part and parcel of every discipline and integral to its functioning. Good or bad language, to convey what a discipline or interdisciplinary work is about, discovers, finds etc., is a different kettle of fish. See quote in Greg’s old post on jargon by John Ray: https://blogs.nottingham.ac.uk/makingsciencepublic/2012/08/01/making-science-public-the-issue-of-language-jargon/
Do you mean the difference between word selection and sentence construction?
Sorry jargon seems to have two meanings…. I meant ‘scientific terminology’ rather than incomprehensible gibberish in my comment.For my meaning see here
http://twp.duke.edu/uploads/media_items/scientific-jargon.original.pdf. For the other one, see OED: “Unintelligible or meaningless talk or writing; nonsense, gibberish. (Often a term of contempt for something the speaker does not understand.)”
So what I am saying is: scientific jargon/terminology is necessary in any discipline, while bad language, and especially gibberish/jargon is not.
[…] Warren has just published a post on jargon and language that has provoked some lively email exchanges between participants! […]
It’s not jargon, it’s just a different way of framing the epistemological paradigm for postmodern publics.
Seriously though, it’s very easy for an academic in one field to look across into another research area and say “your area is full of unnecessary jargon”. I’ve seen this happen between different areas of science.
But having said that, it does strike me as odd and ironic that many long and unfamiliar words seem to be used in the academic field of how science is communicated to the public.
Thanks for posting this, Warren.
My point about the language of sociology is exactly as Brigitte suggests — it’s not a question of jargon, it’s a matter of willfully obscure and impenetrable writing. (Paul, your comment appeared as I was writing this comment.)
Michael Billig, to whom I referred yesterday, is, as you know, a sociologist. He’s not a physical/life scientist with an axe to grind about the value of the social sciences. And yet his book, “Learn to write badly: How to succeed in the social sciences” is not only a damning critique of the quality of communication in sociology, it’s a model of clear and punchy writing to which any academic, in any field, should aspire.
I am not for one second suggesting that physicists/natural scientists always write well, or at least better than sociologists! (Admittedly, this didn’t come across so well yesterday during the panel discussion, and Dave Farmer – a physicist, no less! – rightly took me to task about it). I always remember the following sentence, described by Leon Lederman in his “God Particle” book as “written by one of my best students”:
There’s something almost laudable about piling that number of mixed metaphors on top of each other!
So, physicists certainly are capable of writing awful sentences (and I’m certainly not blameless in that regard!).
But what struck me about Billig’s book – and the point I was trying, clumsily, to make yesterday – is that the ability to write impenetrable, over-complicated, and verbose papers is apparently seen as a rite of passage in some areas of sociology. I find it immensely difficult to read many papers in sociology, not because of the jargon, but because of the style of writing.
If it were a question of jargon then I would also encounter the same difficulties reading papers from other disciplines (nanoscience is inherently multi-disciplinary). But I don’t. I certainly find myself struggling with the vocabulary/acronyms at times but I don’t get the same sense that the papers are deliberately written to be difficult to read.
Neuroskeptic makes the same point, but rather more pithiliy than me, in this blog post: Why don’t social scientists want to be read? .
Maybe start by requiring social science undergraduates to produce papers containing insightful analysis of any length rather than of X length? With the latter, filler inevitably ensues and after a while become an ingrained habit. The clever student can also use the filler to obscure the lack of insightful analysis.
This syndrome gets carried on into professional writing within the filed, as can be seen with any of Pielke Jr.s’s books. Not only could all of them have been reduced to chapter-length with any loss of useful content, doing so would have made their central ideas much easier to criticize.
And so blah-blah-blah is rewarded at every level.
with s/b without
Unfortunately bad writing styles are pervasive, not only in the (social) sciences. Are writers wilfully obscuring? Difficult to prove. Certainly every research speciality has a conceptual framework which develops its own language (I could say ‘lingo’ or ‘language game if I wanted to refer to specific frameworks of talking about this phenomenon). Much of that is impenetrable to outsiders. But English language competence counts for little in the context of our educational system (you can opt out at an early stage). Ironically, this underlines the importance of the humanities.
And nobody cares much unless there are efforts to do interdisciplinary work, or to reach out to non-specialists. The fact that Philip tries to read Sociology literature is a sign that he is interested in the stuff, and is engaging with the material he wants to understand. This is a very positive sign!
In the conversation we started within the STS group over the past years, at the recent Circling the Square conference, and now in the social media, we have the opportunity to clarify the ideas which interest us. The motivation and the opportunity are there, let’s make the most of it (sorry, another example of bad sentence construction ;-).
I just remembered this article on hard and soft obscurantism which is quite thought-provoking 😉
“This item requires a subscription to Diogenes.” I like built-in irony.
Oh sorry I tried to find a readily accessible copy of this but failed! But liked your built-in irony comment 😉
can you access this?
Yes, thanks. Looks very interesting, although I lack some of the context.
Yes, Jon Elster always is. Here is a video from a talk on the subject in which he expands on the issue: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9JYGrjBCoog
Phil asked me earlier today to pitch in my tuppence, so I’ll do my best. Caveat: I’ve scanned Billig’s book before passing it out for review in Public Understanding of Science, but not as yet read it closely. That said, the first chapter is online and gives a pretty good idea of his arguments: https://www.academia.edu/2543797/Bad_Writing_in_the_Social_Sciences Brigitte – I’d *really* like to hear your opinion of the book if/when you get the chance to look at it.
There are several layers going on here, which I’m going to have a go at picking apart. To start with, Billig is specifically talking about how social scientists communicate internally: he’s also talking about ‘jargon’ in the negative sense, as in unnecessarily long words without precise meanings (and seems to avoid talking about technical terminology, which is telling!…), as well as overly complicated writing styles. His book is a polemic, and in order for it to work it kind of *has* to be written with extreme clarity!
As to whether ‘the social sciences’ have a particular problem with this, it’s hard to say on the basis of his analysis, which picks case examples and then generalises. My experience/opinion is that some fields and writers seem to be much more prone to this than others, but I do recognise some of what Billig is saying about being trained to write ‘badly’ (certainly in a particular style) in order to get on in these areas – and that there is a lot of it going on across the social sciences and humanities. I’ve seen examples where the language is horrible and you drill down to find the underlying argument is pretty simple, but others where the language is horrible and it really is because the ideas being expressed are just brain-meltingly complex and difficult. I rather suspect that in physics this is the kind of stage where you start talking in maths?
Phil – it’s also possibly worth pointing out that there is a fair bit of STS research on how areas of cross-disciplinary collaboration (such as nanoscience) tend to develop various linguistic tricks to help them communicate across disciplinary divides, so there are reasons why you might not have this trouble in your day-to-day work, but do when diving into unrelated social science papers.
I think you are totally right about Billig’s book (although, like you, I have only dipped into it). It is a polemic and as such it does a good job. I have meandered through lots of fields and disciplines over time and had to adapt to writing within the stylistic norms of various research communities. This meant first trying to read what people within these communities of writing had written before. In this process it became clear to me that there are pockets of disciplines or fields that have developed styles of writing which I did not want to adapt to. I should also say that I only began to think about style when I started blogging, because you actually believe somebody will read your stuff (haha!). When writing academic journal articles you sort of know that you won’t be read and sometimes you only churn them out because you have to churn them out for various reasons. This sort of academic churnalism may tempt people who don’t have a lot to say, but have to say something, to say the little they have to say with a lot of words….
Comment the second: on popular and cross-disciplinary communication, which is what we’ve been struggling with this week.
As I said at the meeting, public comms of social science is something I’ve written a fair bit about: here’s a review I wrote a few years back: https://www.academia.edu/218134/Communicating_the_Social_Sciences
In my opinion, socscis on the whole have been pretty rubbish at (and actively avoided) public comms until very recently, whereas at least some natural scientists have been doing it (and been pressured to do it) for many many decades now – this makes a big difference. There are also difficulties to do with the overlap between our subject matter and everyday experience, which affects both how we can be, and how we’re expected to be experts in public. However, we don’t do ourselves any favours when talking with e.g. natural scientists or policymakers without properly considering how those audiences are likely to interpret what we’re saying!
Finally, just to punt it out there – I just came across this post talking about the adoption of SS/hums academic jargon by activists (specifically anarchists), http://www.crimethinc.com/texts/recentfeatures/language.php It argues that in these domains this jargon often ends up doing exactly the kinds of work that Billig says it does, which is kind of interesting..
Angela, I am not sure there is enough evidence for your claim
“In my opinion, socscis on the whole have been pretty rubbish at (and actively avoided) public comms until very recently, whereas at least some natural scientists have been doing it (and been pressured to do it) for many many decades now – this makes a big difference.”
Maybe this is true for the UK in recent decades. But if you look across different regions in the world, and earlier times, you will find many social scientists and public intellectuals who have not only communicated with the public but left a trace. Think about the legacy of Marx (we all talk about classes and capitalism, take the concepts for granted, & think the phenomenon these concepts describe actually exist). Think about Merton’s coinage of the terms ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’, ‘focus group’, ‘role model’, ‘unanticipated consequences’, or ‘opportunity structures’. He also wrote about the scientific ethos and the norms of science, a concept which has largely been forgotten.
Public intellectuals have played a much greater role in the US (Susan Sontag, Noam Chomsky, Paul Krugman — to name a few), in France (Sartre, Bourdieu, Lévy, and now Pickety — to name a few), in Germany (Heidegger, Habermas, Luhmann, Beck — to name a few), and in several other countries. Is the UK peculiar since scientists are much more prominent in public than social scientists and philosophers (Dawkins, Winston and Cox are the superstars)? Neo-Darwinism and big bang theory seem to be the big issues. Maybe historians are the exception, given the emphasis on nationalism and war in the UK.
The public intellectuals you quote might be talking about social issues, but do they communicate ‘social sciences’? And while some have talked about social and political issues in engaging ways, others have become influential in the social sciences in part through creating whole new (sometimes quite impenetrable) types of jargon. What’s missing I think is what one may call clear and engaging ‘social science communication’, in the sense of talking publicly about how the social sciences work, what they do, how and why they matter, why one should be interested in what they do and so on….
Fair point, Reiner – that was something of an over-generalisation, borne in part of my own frustration! The literature on this, such as it is, can be pretty contradictory and do suggest some cross-cultural differences – some of the studies in Germany and Scandinavian countries point towards socscis sometimes doing more public comms (at least in terms of commentary on social issues) than natural scientists. But more recently and locally I still think that there’s a lot more work to do from social scientists and humanities scholars.
And yes, public intellectual traditions in different countries also affect this – in both good and bad ways, as Brigitte points out (that second link I posted is relevant here – spread of language is not the same as spread of ideas!). And on top of that in the UK in particular I think we tend to value ‘plain speaking’ and are more likely to listen to (and like) people who can do that well. Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing is quite another debate!
[…] for impenetrable writing is worn as a badge of honour in some areas of sociology — see here; and here; and, for examples spanning the truly awful to the actually rather quite good, here – […]
[…] Phil Moriarty fired a shot at the use of jargon and obtuse language by social scientists, and his comments have sparked online debate. Of course, technical jargon develops in any technical field, nor is poor writing or communication […]
[…] made quite different and valid counter-points about academic jargon in the social sciences, one by Warren Pearce and another by Greg Hollin (both co-organisers of the […]
[…] Warren Pearce, Academic jargon in the social sciences: self-indulgence or necessary evil? on MSciP […]