Technical Terminology is Necessary

Neuroskeptic argues that social science papers are badly written, largely due to their use of technical terms, which he argues might not be needed at all. I have argued that seeing the use of technical language as bad writing would apply to all academic work, including natural science. I suggested that although it can be done without too much damage in some cases, there is a limit to substituting everyday terms for technical terms in social science. I argued that the demand for such substitution was connected to a privileged position of the natural sciences in knowledge production. Since the debate is a worthy one and since neuroskeptic has been nothing less than reasonable and open to discussion I wish to respond to his most recent article. In the spirit of the subject matter, I want to take this as an opportunity to communicate and the following shouldn’t be read as an antagonistic response in the slightest.  Rather, it will be an attempt to communicate about technical terminology largely without the use of it, perhaps proving neuroskeptic right even as I seek to disagree. Though I’ve focussed on a few points and have avoided talking about a great many things I wanted to, it is still a long response, so apologies in advance (I’m still getting used to blog style). Here goes…

First, it is important that we narrow down the field of concern. The term ‘social science’ is a generic one, much like ‘natural science’. There are a great many disciplines that could be housed under the term social science, such as law, economics, philosophy, politics, anthropology and sociology. Each of these would, because of their quite significant differences in their ways of making knowledge, require a different response to the challenge posed regarding technical terminology and everyday English. Law, for instance, clearly deals with terms available to us in everyday English, like ‘guilt’ or ‘expert’. However, the law is a rule and precedent based system, and these terms have very specific meanings within those rules and precedents that do not equate to their everyday English use. This is because the law is not just the everyday life of everyday people but an expert discipline based on its own phenomena. This points me towards an important first point. There are plenty of English words that are already used in the day-to-day research of social scientists but they take on different meanings when they are used in technical argument. This in itself poses a challenge for communication of social science information.

A good example of this would be the word ‘truth’ which is used in philosophy, law and practically every other discipline one cares to name. However, even in the context of philosophy the meaning of ‘truth’ varies according to different philosophical systems in ways that do not necessarily reflect our everyday understanding of the term. For the correspondence theory of truth, for example, the meaning of ‘truth’ shares much in common with our everyday notion, since in this theory the ‘truth’ of a proposition is that it has some relation to reality and to some factual state of affairs. By comparison, a coherence theory of truth posits that the truth of a proposition lies in its coherence with other propositions as part of a set of propositions.  This points us towards a more important point. Natural scientists are, in general, committed to a correspondence theory of truth. This is true of a number of social scientists who would posit that their propositions relate directly to real objects in the world. However, there are great many social scientists who take a different position because of their philosophical and methodological disposition. I will return to this later, but it should be noted at the outset that this might be an underlying misunderstanding of which this debate over technical terminology is only a symptom.

In light of this demand that we be more specific I will focus on sociology and anthropology, since this is my primary area of expertise but also because I believe they are the disciplines to which Neuroskeptic was mostly referring. His contention is that these fields deal with explanations for everyday life and since everyday life is understood and enacted using a subset of the available English words then we should be able to use that same subset to describe and explain everyday life as professional sociologists and anthropologists.

Now, applying my first point I think it is clear that we already do use a number of English words for technical meanings. Take the term ‘culture’, which has a variety of uses in English language and has a wide variety of specific definitions in anthropology and sociology. The everyday use of this term might be to do with the beliefs and values of the community, but it might also be used to refer to the various activities associated with a certain notion of ‘high’ culture, such as the theatre, opera or classical music. I note in passing that biologists have adopted the term culture to refer to the media in which microrganisms are grown and as a noun to mean the process of growing such microorganisms using such media. Anthropologists have also adopted the term culture but have provided different definitions of it, depending on what they saw as the best methodology to be adopted for anthropological work. This, then, is my second point: the use of terms in everyday life is not set in stone, changes over time and across different spaces. This is also true of sociology and anthropology because they are not homogenous and so cannot always use the terms of everyday life to mean the same things as they do in everyday life since different groups of anthropologists might disagree over the methods to be used and the nature of the phenomena that such methods could address.

This is linked to my third point in that sociologists and anthropologists are seeking to develop sociology and anthropology and not simply to get on with the daily business of everyday living. Take E. B. Tylor’s general definition of culture as the “complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society.” Now contrast this with Geertz’s concept of culture which has to do with the “historically transmitted pattern of meanings embodied in symbols, a system of inherited conceptions expressed in symbolic forms by means of which men communicate, perpetuate, and develop their knowledge about and their attitudes toward life.” Geertz’ definition was intended to contrast with Tylor’s since he was arguing for a shift in the epistemology (the ways of making knowledge) of anthropology. Geertz wanted us to move away from a tradition that emphasised the ideal of being able to objectively observe culture from the outside, as it were, known as positivism, and towards a practice that emphasised the impossibility of objectively studying culture and thus focussed on its more subjective interpretation, known as interpretivism.

This latter movement of interpretivism has sought to explain human life through attention to the symbolic and conceptual schemes that are used to organise and explain everyday life by the people themselves. In this respect, some sociologists and anthropologists do pay a great deal of attention to everyday use of English or German or Balinese, whatever the case may be. They do make use of these words and explanations that are used in everyday life in their analyses. However, they also perform operations on these observations of cultural symbols. Such operations have to do with methodology and the development of theories. This is because words and explanations are used in specific contexts for specific purposes and their meaning, according to this more interpretivist strand of work, is thus defined in local spaces. Part of the work of professional sociological interpretation, then, is to connect with these localities and try to understand the ways in which English words are being used in those particular contexts.  A sociologist, for instance, might study a tattooist’s studio, a forensic morgue and a men’s health magazine and find that the use of the word ‘body’ was significantly different in these spaces, precisely because of the activities enacted in those spaces upon the body and in relation to it. In the first the body might be understood as a work of art, and thus as the ‘aesthetic body’, in the second as a source of evidence and thus as the ‘evidentiary body’, and in the third as an object of embarrassment (the ‘stigmatised body’) or idealisation (the ‘ideal body’). Because the researcher wants to understand the implications of these specific contextual uses they might invent these specific terms to refer to those specific uses in order to help discuss these different uses without having to always refer back to the context. Imagine how frustrating it would be to always have to write “the body as understood in the tattooist’s studio in which an emphasis is placed on the body as a work of art,” in order to make your point when “the aesthetic body,” would do just as nicely since you’ve previously defined it and the term ‘aesthetic’ is already established in various social science traditions.

My third point is thus that sociologists and anthropologists do not deal only with the commonly used words in everyday life because they also wish to create novel concepts in order to build theories. Over time other researchers may find that the meaning of the body is similar in the gym as it is in men’s health magazines; that its meaning in the forensic morgue is similar to that of an operating theatre, or a courtroom, etc. Many different analyses of the body might emerge from across a broad range of spaces and sociologists interested in the body would keep up with these research outputs as a new field of inquiry, the ‘sociology of the body’, gradually emerged. The body could be connected up with large social meaning systems like capitalism or gender and thus the sociology of the body would begin to need new ways of articulating these connections and thus may develop new terms that emerged from the observation of patterns across ostensibly different spaces. What might become clear is that corporations have become more focussed on selling identities using marketing than on selling the products themselves. Products designed to help change the body then have to make sense in the contexts in which the body is understood and given meaning, and so this product-oriented identity might be connected up with the meanings of the body in some of those spaces, such as the gym, the magazine, etc. Such a shift in economics coupled with changes in gender politics (feminist revolutions, LGBT movements, etc.) might mean that the notion of ‘male’ and ‘masculine’ was changing too.

These changes might connect up with the capitalist emphasis on products designed to sell masculine identities to men and all of a sudden we find that the notion of the male body is importantly tied to local, national and global shifts in the meanings of the body that can be partly articulated using everyday language and are partly understood by those men who are studied in these contexts. However, the understanding of the connections emerged from the search for patterns across different contexts, facilitated by the invention of novel terms to track changes and convergences. Such levels of observation and research work are not available to the everyday male working in a salon or trying to lose weight. He might be able to talk about the way in which he buys products because they are manly or the way in which he feels he has to live up to images in magazines in order to feel confident about his body, but he is unlikely to be able to connect this up to decades-long social transformations in capitalism and gender politics in any substantive way. This doesn’t make him a dupe and it doesn’t mean, as neurocritic argues we would have to believe, that everyday people do not understand their behaviours. In fact, it is from the everyday talk of everyday people talking about and explaining their behaviours that interpretivist sociologists built a picture of the body in what is called late-modern or postmodern capitalist society.

In this respect, sociology creates terms in order to name phenomena that do not cohere with the meaning in any individual everyday space as used by an everyday person. Such general phenomena would be discoveries, if they were material objects found in the brain that could then be named and categorised. However, because the pattern is not an object, as such, it remains in contention and new observations, new methods and new theories might replace our previous understanding of the patterns and require new terms.

Such technical terminology, then, is used to describe phenomena that are importantly tied to methodological practices and theoretical dispositions. This is the work of professional sociology. The work of public sociology is to try to bring these phenomena to life in such a way that they are interpretable for people without the requisite expertise to have conducted such a theoretically-informed piece of work. Such translation might require substituting some terms with less precise but good enough for the purpose, everyday terms. It might involve explaining the technical terms or differentiating between the everyday use of a word and its technical use. Indeed, over time, technical terms from sociology move into everyday understandings, like the term ‘social class’, for example. Policy sociology is there to ensure that professional sociological work can be translated into political spaces and used as evidence for policy-making.

Sociologists and the work of sociologists comes with commitments to particular theoretical dispositions and technical terminologies, just like physicists differ in their dispositions and terminologies according to their commitment to string theory, the holographic theory or whatever mind-boggling theory they find most convincing. Technical terms are necessary because sociologists engage in explanations for phenomena not immediately available to everyday experience.


Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Culture

Edward Burnett Tylor, Primitive Culture




6 thoughts on “Technical Terminology is Necessary

  1. The distinction between public and professional sociology is hugely important here, and I’m a bit surprised that the conversation got this far without someone trying to clarify who the different audiences are. As you say, professional sociology needs a technical language so that peers can communicate with one another with precision. More public sociology requires a different skillset, a different language, a different emphasis, has a different purpose and the communicator has to accept some sacrifice of precision in order to be understood. This is exactly the same as science communication, and our general skills in communicating science have grown not by chance but because of significant manipulation and investment in HE.
    I’ve worked in manufacturing (full of jargon), applied physics (full of jargon), business (full of jargon) and sociology (full of jargon). What is interesting is where the *expectation* that sociology will be understandable by everyone comes from and what it means. Unlike these other areas, opacity in sociology is seen as a laughable, a result of concealment or incompetence. In the others, the same thing seems to make its people special, intelligent, gifted.

    1. Thanks for the comment, I’m aware of the distinction, and my argument is that it’s a false distinction because, in a nutshell, all sociology ought to be public sociology because it’s about the public.

      It might be a stupid argument, I am open to that possibility 🙂 But that’s my line.

      1. (a) you leave sociologists unable to talk to one another in analytical terms so we might as well give up
        (b) your argument is asymmetrical – you think studies of society should be communicable by default to members of society but do not seem to acknowledge that studies of humans (whether biology,medicine,neuroscience) should be communicable by default to humans.

  2. Andy: Thanks for a very detailed reply which has certainly clarified some issues my mind. I’m still thinking about a response but here’s what worries me:

    “Sociology creates terms in order to name phenomena that do not cohere with the meaning in any individual everyday space as used by an everyday person. Such general phenomena would be discoveries, if they were material objects found in the brain that could then be named and categorised. However, because the pattern is not an object, as such, it remains in contention and new observations, new methods and new theories might replace our previous understanding of the patterns and require new terms.”

    Identifying new patterns in society is certainly an important and valuable thing. I think this is a form of discovery and certainly a legitimate source of new terminology. But it seems to me that lots of people do this, not just sociologists. Journalists are forever coining phrases and terms for new patterns or trends or whatever. And politicians – Nixon’s “silent majority” – whether or not it really exists is another question – was an example of this, surely?

    And even David Cameron with his “broken britain” and “big society”; well, those are crap concepts if you ask me, but they were supposed to be new identifications of patterns at a larger scale than any individual.

    And yet, journalists and politicians and everyone else who does this, are a part of the society they are trying to describe.

    That’s what I mean when I say that everyday language already contains plenty of terminology about society.

    I suppose one response to that would be – “yes it does, but that terminiology is (at least largely) misleading, precisely because it was invented by people with a social agenda, e.g. the “silent majority” was never intended to be a cool-headed analysis, it was an election slogan. So the job of social science is to arrive at something disinterested, and to do that, it needs new words. Sociologists are not trying to do something that no-one else ever does – but they are trying to do better (or at least, scientifically)”…?

    Would you agree?

    1. Yes, I think I agree. There are terms developed by other kinds of researchers or groups in society, including politicians and journalists. Terms developed by these groups are sometimes put under scrutiny by sociologists. Take the ‘big society’ for example, which has been criticised by social scientists. At other times they might actually be terms developed in sociology that are then adopted (sometimes with changes in their meaning or critical capacity) by journalists and politicians and whatnot. I do think that these are particular instances, in that journalists and politicians often have plenty of resources at their disposal and may have training in research. Sociologists try to do something that, as you say, is conducted by publics and by other professions as well, but in ways that are – in some sense – ‘scientific’. Different sociologists might consider themselves to be doing science (thinking about quantitative sociologists who conduct survey analysis or social network analysis, for example) whereas others might be more comfortable with other terms. Ultimately, it comes back to the definition of sociology (which I included in a comment to your earlier article) provided by Zygmunt Bauman of sociology being ‘responsible speech’. Everyone, as he says, is a lay sociologist, in one way or another, but to do it professionally means taking on additional responsibilities to methods, ethics, truth-claims, and the publics with which you engage, etc. This definition might not be to everyone’s liking but I think it captures something of the difficulty we’ve been struggling through.

      1. OK, that’s helpful. Yet I can’t help but feel that this brings us back to the start where I asked: given that social science is about matters of importance and given that social scientists (very laudably) aim to arrive at the truth of these matters not just add to the noise (‘responsibly’)… isn’t it a shame that so much of social science is so cloistered?

        I wasn’t just saying that to “soften the blow” of my criticism. I really do think it’s a shame.

        And while I do appreciate that there’s a time and a place for academics talking to academics using jargon amongst themselves – I’m not trying to erase the word “interpellation” from the world! – it does seem to me that social scientists too often ‘default’ to that mode of communication and get too comfortable in the role of ‘mere’ academics in the worst sense of that very ambiguous word….

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