Experiencing a nasty turn

I’d like you to read the following passage, but I feel I should warn you that it may be a distressing experience:

‘Based on constructivist epistemology, the linguistic turn puts forward a conception of history as a constructivist enterprise based on a textualist conception of the relation between language and reality (White, 1987). Textualism presumes that whatever is taken as the real is constituted by representation rather than pre-exists any effort to grasp it in thought, imagination, or writing.’

The passage is taken from an article by an American social scientist, entitled ‘Introducing the “linguistic turn” to history education’. But what does it mean? I am not querying the academic prowess of the author; indeed I am deliberately not naming him or her because I am not trying to make an ad personam point; countless other academics write in similar style.

I came across this passage recently when I was referred to it by another scholar. I could not make out what the author was intending to say; I couldn’t even work out what ‘turn’ meant in this context. Indeed much of the article was, to me at least, completely impenetrable. But when I asked a former colleague what he thought of it, he assured me that you could not hope to be published unless you used this kind of style; anything easily accessible would be considered an example of dumbing down.

It is not just that the extract is hard to understand, it also displays a penchant for Romance verbiage. This includes ‘constructivist’, ‘epistemology’, ‘conception’, ‘textualist’, ‘reality’, ‘constituted’ and so forth. One of the  five rules suggested by Henry Watson Fowler in his classic book The King’s English was that writers should prefer Saxon to Romance words, and that their style should be ‘direct, simple, brief, vigorous, and lucid’. Much of today’s academic output, particularly in some disciplines, has turned all of that on its head and has gone all out for inaccessibility and complexity. Too much writing leans heavily on jargon and on the apparent belief that knowledge is the property of a cult.

Nobody is suggesting that you can publish a worthwhile academic treatise on quantum mechanics in text that anyone could understand. But history education does not need to be presented as a form of quantum mechanics. There is no need to create and deploy a secret language that uses complex codes. Accessibility does not betray an aversion to critical thought. It is time to bust the jargon.

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28 Comments on “Experiencing a nasty turn”

  1. V.H Says:

    It was attempt to shift history, or at least how we think it back to basics. You can track the linguistic and philosophical yourself. But at its simplest, it goes to ‘did the tree falling make a sound if none heard it’. You may argue ici non pipe was part if the school. And I suppose lots of Irish history of the last 50 years has had something of a fixation on texts.
    Where profound difficulties arise would be with the 1840 famine on these islands. Where the only data is from those not directly affected.
    You didn’t read the treaties of the EU ?.:-)

  2. Mike Lyons Says:

    This is a perfect example of the meaningless post-modern babble which still inhabits some areas of the humanities and passes for serious academic output. You have to read it to believe it. Fowler would turn in his grave. If it’s history, then I will stick with Trevelyan for style if not veracity, but then, I am only a scientist and tried to study Fowler before I began to write papers.

    • V.H Says:

      It isn’t history, but the philosophy of history. It’s core is from the same source of 1s and 0s that’s running the thing you’re publishing your comment.

  3. Mike Lyons Says:

    I am always wary when I read material that states Philosophy of X. It’s not Philosophy and it’s not X. Having said that, I appreciate your first comment which very reasonably translated the meaningless text quoted in the blog post into coherent language. Why were ‘plain words’ not used in the first place to convey clear meaning in good English?

    • V.H Says:

      Yes, undoubtedly a lot of it is turgid nonscience.
      However,it did answer a question in historical writing and thought. And shifted away from fairy tales to something more evidenced. Where it fails, and fails profoundly is with situations like the holocaust (and as I mentioned the potato famine of the 1840s). If you aren’t a writer or haven’t been written about you don’t exist in this system.
      Civil servant training and education in Dublin and to a lesser extent Whitehall draws heavily from this system too.

  4. PhD student RGU Says:

    Personally, I have no difficulty with this text. In fact many of the terms used here are difficult to express in any other way. I see learning this language in similar terms to learning medical terminology or the language of physics. I would urge anyone who struggles with texts such as these to persevere as once you have grappled with the terms and the concepts you will be able to articulate your understanding of complex concepts.


    • I understand your point, but I suppose my question is whether it is appropriate to build (not construct) a unique form of words for particular branches of knowledge where that isn’t necessary. This isn’t anyone’s fault, it’s something we’ve slipped into. Almost all the words in the quoted passage could be changed into something that everyone could understand.

      I’ve used this example in part because the theme of the article requires it to be understood (and applied) by people other than experts in the academic field in question.

  5. colinscott Says:

    What we all need is a dose of Helen Sword’s Stylish Academic Writing. There is a preview at http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/impactofsocialsciences/2012/05/14/stylish-academic-writing/

  6. elainecanham Says:

    I feel your pain! As an editor I deal with this kind of stuff all the time. Scholars don’t want to write plain English; they want to impress their peers. Whenever you come across bilge like this you have to remember what Einstein said: If you can’t explain something clearly, then you don’t understand it well enough.’

    • Mary Taylor Says:

      Yes. It is an exploration and understanding if the ideas clearly to allow progressive thinking. Not academic jargon that may obscure the thesis.

  7. cormac Says:

    I’m inclined to agree with RGU. While there is a certain amount of verbiage, a lot of the terms in the first sentence are simply subject specific. A similar sentence in organic chemistry would be completely unreadable to a lay reader – it is the sociologist’s tragedy that the text looks nearly like English!

    For example , the sentence “a constructivist enterprise based on a textualist conception of the relation between language and reality” does actually make sense. As the author explains in the next sentence, this is the old ‘constructivist’ view of epistemology, that, far from measuring an objective reality, we simply construct that reality with language and imagery. This is an old but important debate, even in science – does the quark exist or is it just a useful mathematical representation?
    it would be quite difficult to state the first sentence without using technical jargon, but that is essentially what the author tries to do in the second sentence…

  8. Eugene Gath Says:

    It was this kind of drivel that lead the physicist Alan Sokal to create his spoof article that cause such a stir. See Sokal A. (1996). “Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity”. Social Text. 46/47 (46/47): 217–252. doi:10.2307/466856. JSTOR 466856. or http://www.physics.nyu.edu/faculty/sokal/transgress_v2/transgress_v2_singlefile.html

  9. dim.tim Says:

    This is my language, and you denigrating it is (every so mildly) offensive. You should try to stick to the idiom of university presidents and not the daily mail. Some ideas are expressed in overly complex ways first, before some smart person translates them into easily understandable language. Which is why we have obtuse journals for our little discussions.


    • I should say I am not denigrating anyone at all, or certainly not intending to. I fully accept that this is current and common usage. I am wondering whether it has to be. There is nothing in this passage that could not be expressed in terms that would be understood by a wider audience. So what I am challenging is the assumption that you have to use a secret language for insiders, particularly when your main theme needs to be considered and perhaps adopted by those not in the magic circle.


  10. Alas, this is what must make Derrida spin in his grave. Very strange how the historians only discovered D late on, when most other disciplines had come to some accommodation with him.
    History, they say, is what a text records. What actually happened we can have no knowledge of. Recorded material is therefore open to all the vagueries of text and all that analysis can throw at it. Artefacts, similarly, are the cores of webs of interpretations.

    There seems to be an attempt to restate/re-examine in contemporary terms all that has been done before. It is unfortunate but a degree of unexceptional work gets accepted simply by utilising this increasingly rarefied language system. Meanings are becoming reinterpreted, and recourse to ordinary definitions of little to no use. It is becoming a private language. And with all the dangers that go with that.
    .


    • As a computer scientist who has proofread many critical theory and post-modernist literary analysis essays for friends and family, I have to agree with this. Most of the material I’ve read that has ever cited Derrida have been largely impenetrable and requires what feels like unnecessary work to comprehend the arguments presented.
      Apart from this, there seems to be an implicit requirement to draw the most arbitrary metaphors and ascribe them to the author’s intent…

  11. Ernie Ball Says:

    Where’s Anna Notaro to tell us that this is all eminently sensible stuff?

    The problem with this text is not the way it is expressed, however unpleasant that may be to read. The problem is that the philosophy it expresses is complete horseshit that the author hasn’t thought through for even a minute. The firmness of their commitment to the view expressed (and the emphatic way it is proclaimed) is directly proportional to their inability to see or consider any alternatives.

    Anyway, it’s standard-issue social-constructivist blather.

    P. S. “Education” is a bogus academic discipline that is full of people regurgitating decades-old “cutting edge” ideas from elsewhere.

  12. Anna Notaro Says:

    I think that it is always very difficult, and a bit unfair on the author, to extrapolate only one passage from an entire article and present it as exemplary, even though no denigration is intended, of course. As it happens, the text quoted makes sense to me, as I might be the *right audience* for it, and I can understand the objection that the use of jargon is not appropriate in this case because the *intended audience* is not one of experts, on the other hand though I am not convinced that this is a *nasty turn*.
    First of all, the term ‘turn’ has gained interdisciplinary acceptance across the humanities and social sciences (see http://spatial.scholarslab.org/spatial-turn/what-is-the-spatial-turn/) it is by no mean an obscure trope, secondly, I cannot accept the conservative dictate of The King’s English with its condemnation of “Romance verbiage”, I might be a stickler for grammar sometimes but I am also very aware that some of the most interesting words in the English language started out as jargon, shall we then ban the use of Latinisms as well, after all the point discussed in this post was not an *ad personam* one?
    Also, I don’t believe that we just ‘slipped into’ jargon, its use is linked to the history of academia and academic disciplines and, most recently (since the various Rae and Ref) to the ‘publish or perish’ dictum, i.e. the obsession with targets and impacts. There is certainly a dark side to jargon which is necessary to examine in order to understand how academia maintain its power and status. Academic disciplines (and their jargon) are central in this process. This also explains why research is considered to be more prestigious than teaching – on jargon and (academic) power see “Why Academic Jargon Thrives” http://www.bmartin.cc/pubs/92aust09.html
    Before we condemn all unconventional talk with opprobrium though I would invite you all to read the excellent “In Defense of Jargon” I for one agree that while “We need to be mindful of jargon’s negative social impact”, yet “we also need to make sure that we don’t lose sight of the ways in which highly effective, specialized meanings benefit us all”. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/colleen-glenney-boggs/jargon_b_2200413.html


    • Thanks, Anna – and these are points worth contemplating.

      There is of course nothing wrong with expert language. If you are servicing a car, you will talk about spark plugs, and it would be silly to find a longer descriptive term that uses only general words that have no specific relationship with motor mechanics. However, there is a difference between expert terms that appropriately label an item or a concept, and language that introduces recherché terms for things that have perfectly understandable and concise popular labels. When we do that, it’s not the application of expertise, but of mystification. In my view, that’s what some academic language has become. It reserves knowledge for members of a cult that ‘protects’ knowledge and discovery from a more general public by using a coded language. I don’t think that this is what the academy should be doing.

  13. James Says:

    “In France 10% must be incomprehensible.”


  14. Now I am not sure if this says more about me, the author, or the text, but I understood the passage perfectly fine. Then, this should not be a surprise, as after 10 years of formal education and over 3 working full-time in academia, I would hope to be sufficiently trained to understand such material. I would suggest however, that the author’s reaction to it is not so much about the words on the page, but instead is a cultural artefact.

    At this point I should try to explain myself. You see the UK, and in particular Scotland, has at least two distinct cultures when it comes to education and academia (obviously it’s many more, but for the sake of simplicity…). The first, is one in which education is both celebrated and used as a weapon in arrogant and degrading class distinctions; and the second is a culture which does promote education, but does not always like to be judged for it.

    Of course I am aware that the author himself comes from a richly diverse background, but what he is displaying in his revulsion to the passage in question is a clear example of the prevalence of this second culture in his mindset. I know this because I recognise it in myself. My father an electrician, my mother a job centre administrator, academia was never a focus in their lives. This reflects the majority of the UK. Where the UK differs slightly from others though, is that this section of society have been historically put down upon by the more highly educated classes (it may be a reality, it may be a perception, either way it exists!).

    Such a delimiting situation has caused a reaction from its victims, which manifests itself in a violent reaction against anyone or anything seen to be using education as a barrier to their world. This is the same reaction that makes me embarrassed for admitting that I completely understood the excerpt; I feel like I am somehow ‘betraying my roots’ if I either look, or try to look clever. It is understood that the author may not have been brought up in such a culture, but I would suggest his time and work here have influenced his perception in some way.

    In short, I would say that the passage is perfectly fine. It’s not designed for everyone, so everyone need not understand it. Revulsion against it though, is a sad reflection of our UK society. Other cultures do not have this problem. The French love a little romantic word play; the Germans, I’ve seen sentences run to over 10 lines and still be perfectly acceptable. Only Britain would invent the phrase “too clever by half”. It really is an inverse snobbery we can do without.

    • Mike Lyons Says:

      I fail to see why one should like to look clever. The use of artificial obtuse language to exclude the general reader, with a content that is not earthshakingly novel is a device increasingly used by some of my humanities colleagues. This trend is unfortunate and smacks of shall we say, Physics envy. I am not sufficiently trained after 30 years working in Trinity College to understand the discussed text. What I do understand is clearly written prose. This perspective has nothing to do with class or family background.

    • Anna Notaro Says:

      Hi Alexander, very good of you to be able to make sense of the text on the basis of “10 years of formal education and over 3 working full-time in academia” I am guessing though that your field is akin to the one(s) the text refers to, being trained into and thus sharing the specific conceptual tools is essential to understanding..
      I am not sure I agree with your description of Scottish culture when it comes to education and academia, but I appreciate the fact that you have introduced in the discussion about academic jargon the anti-intellectualist perspective in both its articulations: class (particularly valid with regards to the British context) and the complex relationship between ‘Anglo-Saxon’ philosophical traditions (represented for example by Searle in the clip above) and Continental ones. Such traditions have been on opposing sides of the philosophical fence for quite a long time, one of the most recent (and entertaining) spat has been the one between Žižek and Chomsky (if anyone is interested: http://roarmag.org/2013/07/zizek-replies-to-chomsky-debate/)


      • I appreciate the points noted by both of you. From my own personal perspective I found the language used to be both functional and appropriate considering the topic addressed. To add to the discussion, I believe the ability to communicate such social science theory in a generally accessible manner it a very unique skill, and one which few academics in the field possess. Thinking and writing in order to further theory requires many (myself included) to use the vocabulary and language of the discipline, without this vocabulary many of us would be lost in our thoughts. Only the supremely talented (and I am definitely not included here) are able to make such advances sufficiently understandable to a general audience. I would argue that the original article, from which the excerpt is taken, is not designed for general consumption, and therefore exempt from calls that it should be generally accessible.

        That said, I do concede that the ‘class argument’ is at best questionable and open to debate. It does however add an interesting dynamic and I believe one which is worthy of attention here.

  15. Bob Says:

    Insulting to social scientists. If it don’t make big bucks…


  16. One risk here is – ok, I admit, I can understand the text given – is the loss of the general reader. That would indeed be an inestimable loss, especially in the dawning world of crowd-sourcing. Communication to a wide range of readers must be paramount.

  17. ronnie munck Says:

    I suppose ‘epistemology’ was not a common ‘Saxon’ term Ferdinand but clear enough to me. Maybe you can enlighten me on this Essex (aka DCU?) strategy piece:
    http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/comment/the-poppletonian/the-only-way-is-essex/2013643.article


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