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.