good jargon and bad jargon


Dan Myers notes that one of the main complaints about academic writing is that it is filled with jargon. I’ve heard this gripe numerous times, recently by a writing consultant who was being interviewed on some NPR program.* The magic of academic thinking would be revealed if only we would stop littering our work with jargon. I doubt this.

Dan, however, sees a different set of problems in academic writing:

Whether the writing is exciting or dull, wordy or sparse, technical or accessible, it ought to be CLEAR to the audience who is supposed to consume it.

Two things are bundles in this statement: academic writing ought to be clear and it ought to be targetted to its intended audience. I agree with Dan that this is how we should all strive to write. Any book or article has to reach someone, even if your audience is relatively small. But in this type of writing there will always be difficulties in translation across audiences. Writing clearly to one audience creates comprehension problems for those who are outside or not fully in the target audience of the writer. When you’re writing to a particular audience, you often use shorthand concepts that make a point clearly and succinctly. You don’t want to have to define every little word along the way, and so you assume that there is a shared vocabulary that eases the translation of your ideas on paper. This is what jargon is.

Imagine how difficult it would be to get through a paper if we actually did use plainspoken english everytime we wanted to communicate a concept. Instead of, individuals who bridge structural holes are better able to maximize the value of their human capital, you’d have to say, persons who associate with lots of people who do not share the same friends or acquaintances tend to get more wealth from their innate or learned skills and knowledge than people whose friends or acquaintances all know each other (or something like that). You might want to say it in the second fashion once in a paper, but after a certain point it becomes tiresome to have to spell out the meaning of a concept every time you use it in a paper. The problem is that the unintended audience that reads an academic paper without a lot of prior knowledge of the concepts can easily get bogged down with the jargon. What is clear to organizational scholars seems obfuscated to someone else. To one audience jargon clarifies, while to those outside the audience jargon muddles the message.

I think there is good jargon and bad jargon. Good jargon communicates a clear idea to the right audience. Bad jargon is language that signals ideas that are not very clear or concepts that may imply different things to different people in the same audience. We have lots of both kinds of jargon in our literature. “Structural holes” is an example of good jargon. “Institution” has, over time, become bad jargon. Seriously, what exactly is an institution anyway? Not even institutional scholars (or neoinstitutional scholars or what have you) can agree on what constitutes an institution. Often it is used in the same paper to convey different ideas. An institution in one sentence means a rule-like norm or pattern of behavior, while in another sentence it conveys the basic taken-for-granted structures of society (e.g. family, religion). And that’s just when we’re talking among sociologists. If you try to talk about institutions with economists, you introduce a whole other set of translation problems.

So why do we have bad jargon? Why don’t we replace them with good jargon? My take on it is that bad jargon starts off as good and then slowly gets co-opted by other scholar fragments that use it in a slightly different way. Over time, jargon turns bad as it begins to describe too many dimensions of social life or becomes the “all encompassing fudge factor,” as someone once described the concept “political opportunity structure.” Even after people become aware of the fact that a concept has become ambiguous and meaningless, scholars continue to use it as a signal. Bad jargon signals to other scholars that you’re working in a particular area of scholarship. You use it to gain entrance to a conversation that you want to be a part of, even if you don’t intend to use the jargon in a specific way. I think that’s what has happened to much of institutional scholarship. We’ve become a bunch of bad jargon spitters in need of clearer mechanisms to explain what the hell we’re actually talking about. But as more and more junior scholars enter the fray, the same bad jargon gets reproduced and slowly becomes even more muddled.

*The writing consultant was full of useless and idiotic advice that actually would make your writing less meaningful. I began tuning him out when he said that instead of talking about “stakeholders” we should just talk about “people.” Someone needed to give the man a thesaurus.


Written by brayden king

August 2, 2007 at 5:43 pm

Posted in academia, brayden, sociology

12 Responses

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  1. My favorite examples of bad jargon are “social capital” and “cultural capital.” Social capital can mean either an individual trait of being somebody with a lot of valuable connections (Portes) or a collective trait of gemeinschaft (Putnam). Cultural capital can mean either prestigious taste (Bourdieu), both prestigious taste and skill (many European sociologists), or a set of skills and dispositions that tend to be found among certain ethnic groups (the ethnic entrepreneur literature).
    Of course I have my own opinions about who is using these terms correctly, but it almost doesn’t matter since the listener won’t know in what sense you mean the term.



    August 2, 2007 at 6:40 pm

  2. Yes, those are two great examples of bad jargon. I’m sure that at one time they basically meant the same thing to everyone, but the concepts have become greatly diluted. Still, I don’t begrudge anyone for using those terms (or institutions or any other bad jargon) because I see this as a collective problem.



    August 2, 2007 at 7:16 pm

  3. How strange. I’m sitting here working on an R&R in which I’ve been asked to justify my use of the word “institution,” when I give up, take break, and… this post. I fell victim to the lure of the jargon. And got called on it.



    August 2, 2007 at 9:31 pm

  4. Given your comments, maybe jargon is a good thing. Perhaps if a theory is successful it will almost certainly attract people who will be less than perfect in the usage of a term associated with a theory.


    Fabio Rojas

    August 2, 2007 at 9:52 pm

  5. As a young naive doctoral student I remember talking to a very prominent OT scholar, and him saying that he explicitly takes advantage of jargon – knowledge, institutions etc – to package up his studies even though he has no idea what some of the jargon specifically refers to. He was undoubtedly exaggerating to make a point.

    Here’s Hirsch and Levin’s nice piece about the lifecycle of organizational constructs – something fuzzy gets introduced, folks get excited and jump on-board, others start wondering what all the fuss is about, the construct gets challenged…something like org ‘absorptive capacity’ is a great example.

    All that said, I would still like to think, naive as I am, that we are after Truth.



    August 2, 2007 at 10:28 pm

  6. I also have difficulties discovering negative effect in “bad jargon”, since (1) when using terms that have different meanings with different theoretical approaches, one might either package up one’s studies as Teppo’s adviser suggested or (2) deliver some literature with the specific term used within a text to narrow the scope of potential meanings of the term uses in a particular context, theoretical and empirical approach. And (3) when talking in everyday life or the earlier phase of academic teaching, one might also use analogies, that is, speak about familiar situations in familiar language. “Jargon”, be it good or bad, is not a specialty of the social sciences, is it? I agree with Brayden, though, very much in that I would take a closer look at the language of a scientist whose books I had previously read with great pleasure with regard to the language and style he or shed used over a writing advisor.



    August 3, 2007 at 12:55 pm

  7. Fabio – yes, the tendency for a concept to become increasingly vacuous is probably an indicator of the related theory’s early success. Perhaps, as Teppo points out, that is one reason that theories cycle. Good concepts quickly become bad once they become co-opted by everyone and their dog.

    Tina – This is a collective problem because, individually, it is an optimal strategy to use jargon in ways that the concepts were not originally intended. You do it to gain entrance to a conversation, to be given a seat at the dinner table. Everyone does this. But does it improve the underlying science? I don’t think so. Rather than incrementally getting more and more specific and predictive over time, our theories degenerate into mushy perspectives with little predictive power.



    August 3, 2007 at 2:44 pm

  8. hmm… I always thought of jargon as technical terms that have specific meanings for specialists but are completely meaningless to lay people. In that sense almost all of the language that appears in peer-reviewed articles in any discipline is “jargon.” From that point of view, the “good” versus “bad” jargon dichotomy does not make any sense to me. If something made it through peer review, then it was clear to at least two people. Maybe that was the intended audience. Just because you don’t understand it or find it unclear, doesn’t mean that the jargon is “bad.” Maybe it is precisely designed to exclude readers like yourself instead! In the humanities, (cultural studies, literary theory, etc.) this kind of knowledge-political use of jargon is crucial. It is used to signal membership in specific theoretical communities and to keep out the uninitiated. Outsiders usually recoil against this use of jargon (as in the work of say Judith Butler), but that usually just gives away that person as not a member of the given thought-collective.

    Things like “cultural capital” and “social capital” are best thought of as just fuzzy concepts not “bad jargon.” If you look up those two terms on google (along with “globalization” and “social structure”) how many millions of hits do you think you are going to get? It strains credulity that terms that have spurred such a gigantic amount of intellectual production and creativity could possibly be “bad” (unless you just feel bad because you came late to the party), of course, it is possible to think that the best way to get rid of the fuzziness of concepts is simply to not use English at all, so that we may one day instead of “institution” simply point to an equation (something like I=DP*MR). But that’s just not going to happen. Instead like “performativity” most of the fun in social science comes from the use and the debate inspired by the fuzzy concepts. This tends to divide the world into the retentive (let’s kill the fuzzy concepts!) and “expulsive” (viva la fuzziness!) types. If you ever see my office, you will quickly realize that I’m the latter camp.



    August 4, 2007 at 12:59 pm

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