The Language of Sociology
[ Issue 40 ]

Language of Sociology is a particular interest of Emily Bronto

It’s no wonder that Bikwil makes a song and dance about Language of Sociology

The Language of Sociology

Always on the lookout for any opportunity to jive with jargon, Harlish Goop today has a bit of fun at the expense of the language of sociology and lives to tell the tale.

Some people do seek meaning in it, you know. Or at least I presume that such people exist. They must, surely? I could be utterly wrong, of course; the whole thing could be one enormous university hoax, and somewhere there are groups of sociology lecturers sniggering into their pina coladas.

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A Word in Your Pink Shell-like — Harlish Goop


Back in Issue 32 (July 2002) I wrote briefly in this column about jargon, and I foreshadowed that I would ruminate in a later piece on a specific and most fertile field of gibberish — that of sociology.

To start with, I should confess that I used to wonder whether there had to be something intrinsic about academic sociology that begged expression in obscurative language.

Not that I’m the only person who’s ever been bewildered or exasperated by such writing. Here is a quote in the OED from the 1970s (Nature, 25 June 1971 538/1):

Why do social scientists, particularly American social scientists, murder the English language?

The Internet is full of comment on the matter, too — even to the extent of providing several “vocabulary translators”. (Type “sociology jargon” into your favourite search engine and you’ll see what I mean.)

Benighted the language of sociology may seem at first, but over time I have come to realise something extremely significant: at its best/worst, it can be the source of great fun. It's a bit like Woody Allen’s answer to the question “Is sex dirty?” — “Only if it's done right.”

Mind you, Bikwilians, if it’s fun you’re looking for in sociology’s language, be sure it’s a day you’re not actually trying to derive useful meaning from it.

Some people do seek meaning in it, you know. Or at least I presume that such people exist. They must, surely? I could be utterly wrong, of course; the whole thing could be one enormous university hoax, and somewhere there are groups of sociology lecturers sniggering into their pina coladas.

But working on the more naive assumption that there’s gold in them thar sociological hills, let’s return to the unconscious humour hidden in the earnest shrubbery. Before we do, though, let me just show you a few lines from an article by Adele Horin entitled Shoot the Messenger: Ideas Buried in Jargon Jungle (published in The Sydney Morning Herald on 5 May 2001).

I don't entirely blame Australian sociologists for their failure to reach a popular audience, or for their failure to try. To a large extent, they are prisoners of the academy, trained in an impenetrable prose style. No brownie points accrue to the academic who writes for the people. The more obscure the journal and the fewer the readers for an academic's work, the better the chances for promotion . . .

[A]cademics write for each other, and for their students. But the sociologists can't escape blame. When postmodern theory gripped sociology departments in the '90s, the last drops of life were squeezed from their prose. It all got too hard for interested lay folk.

Aha! So there’s the culprit.

Postmodernism is known to its adherents and detractors alike as POMO — though to me that word always sounds like a brand of hair-dressing or moustache wax. It is a mysterious and grotesque countryside for the unwary to go exploring, full of all sorts of hidden guerrilla words just waiting to spring an ambush.

What you have to do, as I’ve indicated, is arm yourself with the Sword of Scorn and you’ll soon be dashing about performing feats of derring-do you’d never have thought possible, with nary the hint of a distressing thought to bother you.

Some people have found the postmodern language of sociology so hilarious that they have written plausible essays as part of hoaxes. Some have even devised computer programs to generate nonsense passages that look like the real thing.

A famous case of a hoax was the one perpetrated by NYU Professor Alan Sokal who in 1996 cooked up an utterly meaningless article that was accepted by a cultural criticism publication (Social Text) as sincere and authentic. You can enjoy the full story here.

With all that in mind, let’s see if you can detect the real from the pretend among the following seven extracts. Five are passages of genuine sociological jargon, the other two are concocted, either by human or by machine.

If you can’t pick the difference, don’t let it worry you. Just remember to keep that Sword handy. You can use it to cut a way out through the dense undergrowth, and you’ll be free.

1. The fixing of an array of gendered and generationed characters provides the ground-rules for conventional readings of the text, strongly inviting concurrence with the initial arrays and deflecting all but the most persistent of counter-readings.

2. Here my aim is to carry these deep analyses one step farther, by taking account of recent developments in quantum gravity: the emerging branch of physics in which Heisenberg's quantum mechanics and Einstein's general relativity are at once synthesized and superseded. In quantum gravity, as we shall see, the space-time manifold ceases to exist as an objective physical reality; geometry becomes relational and contextual; and the foundational conceptual categories of prior science — among them, existence itself — become problematized and relativized. This conceptual revolution, I will argue, has profound implications for the content of a future postmodern and liberatory science.

3. A preliminary attempt has been made elsewhere to gather these disparate discourses together, in a process of DIS-articulation and RE-articulation, so as to forge a distinctively new discourse on literacy pedagogy which deliberately seeks to bring together issues of subject-specific classroom learning and critical-democratic schooling.

4. Postmodern analyses challenge the ontological status of modernist claims to knowledgeability concerning the world. Consequently, when such approaches are applied to social theory, the privilege which has been claimed by modernist social scientific discourses is dissolved.

5. Rather than leave difference as difference, the cultural margins have the positive potential to reconstitute the core, be that through reworking the idea of nation away from the traditional homogenising, assimilationist, ideological nationalisms, or by allowing the Canon to be open to disruption, debate and revision.

6. If one examines capitalist discourse, one is faced with a choice: either reject the dialectic paradigm of consensus or conclude that the State is a legal fiction. Thus, the premise of the predialectic paradigm of narrative holds that discourse is a product of the collective unconscious, given that truth is interchangeable with consciousness.Lyotard uses the term “the subtextual paradigm of discourse” to denote the economy of cultural truth.

7. Educational practice, and the discourses which currently sustain it, is increasingly characterized by the techno-logic of efficiency and productivity, by hyper-rationalization and what Lyotard calls “the performativity principle”.

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