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Social science’s noun of thorns

Michael Billig on the weaknesses of a discipline’s usage

Jamie Jones opinion illustration (4 July 2013)

Source: Jamie Jones

We all know that academics, under constant pressure to publish, are writing too fast, with little time and even less inclination to craft their prose as scholars of old might have done. Consequently, it is easy to complain about declining aesthetic standards, but this does not get to the heart of what is going wrong, particularly with academic writing in the social sciences.

Much academic writing is highly technical, but jargon in itself need not be a problem. Natural scientists have long realised that when they discover new entities – whether genes, planets or micro-organisms – they have to invent labels for their discoveries. So inevitably, scientific researchers communicating with fellow specialists will be linguistic innovators.

We might assume that the same is true for social scientists: the more we find out about the social world, the more we must coin fresh terminology to describe it. Nevertheless, there are important differences between the natural and social sciences, such that language appropriate for the one might be inappropriate for the other.

The problem for social scientists is that our jargon, like that of the natural scientists, is heavily biased towards nouns and noun phrases. Our big words are nearly always nouns, such as “re-ethnification”, “mediatisation”, “deindividuation” and all the other “isations” and “ifications” that dominate so much empirical and theoretical writing.

Then there is the habit of using phrases composed entirely of nouns – a habit that academics share with top-level executives and administrators: we need only think of the term “research excellence framework” (which combines three nouns with politically motivated boasting). Similarly, academic social scientists use noun-only phrases, often to describe their own approaches and favoured theories.

The preference for nouns is found across the social sciences, affecting the writings of both postmodernists and old-style empiricists. We can see it in the current fashion for using the definite article to transform adjectives into nouns, thereby creating a seemingly endless supply of new things to study: “the comic”, “the homely”, “the pastoral” and so on. What next? The grumpy, the drizzly, the pretentious?

Linguists have a specialist word to describe the creating of nouns from other parts of speech: “nominalisation”. Naturally enough, this is a noun. Very rarely do linguists use the verb “to nominalise”, preferring to write about the so-called thing, “nominalisation”, rather than the people doing the nominalising.

This preference for high-status nouns over verbs matters for two reasons. First, it is easy to assume that the big nouns are precise, technical terms, but actually social scientists use them in vague, inconsistent ways. For instance, linguists use “nominalisation” to describe particular types of word, as well as the very varied and different processes by which these words come to be used. The technical word – “nominalisation” – misleadingly reassures us that there is a specific thing that the linguists have identified.

Second, by using big nouns, analysts can avoid describing people. If we assume that there is something called “nominalisation”, then we need not specify what exactly people might be doing if they are said to “nominalise”. In fact, statements, with active verbs and small ordinary words, generally contain much more information about actions than do the big nouns, which supposedly describe such acts. According to critical linguists, that is precisely why those in power like to use big nouns: they can transform the uncertain world of human acts into a world of necessary things.

It does not matter if natural scientists linguistically treat the natural world as a world of things, but it matters if social scientists do so. The latter have a word for treating humans as if they were things – “reification”, another noun. Despite their good intentions, critical social scientists, such as the German social philosopher Axel Honneth in his 2008 book Reification: A New Look at an Old Idea, tend to write about the thing “reification” rather than describing people “reifying”, thereby displaying precisely what they are warning against.

In consequence, the writings of social scientists are often densely packed with fictional, theoretical things rather than depictions of people and how they live. We might learn about “nominalisation” producing “reification”, or about “mediatisation” producing other “isations”, without seeing the messy world of people acting and reacting. Worst of all, grand theorists typically do not describe the world of powerful groups and powerful people.

We are teaching our postgraduate students to use the accepted nouns and noun phrases of their chosen approach. The students will not be using specialist terminology because they have discovered the inadequacy of ordinary words, but because the big nouns are the entry ticket into the academic world of the social sciences. We will reward them if they reach for convenient big nouns rather than trying to look directly at the social world.

As Dolly Parton jokes when discussing her appearance, “It takes a lot of money to look this cheap.” Similarly, it takes a lot of education to write this badly.

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