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Social Science and Language, Again

Neuroskeptic iconNeuroskepticBy NeuroskepticJuly 31, 2012 4:23 PM


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On Sunday I asked, Why Don't Social Scientists Want To Be Read? I accused much of social science of using unnecessarily complex jargon.

This post prompted many excellent comments - including responses on other blogs e.g. Andy Balmer and Graham Davey.

The most common argument against my post was, in essence: Every science has a specialized, technical vocabulary. You wouldn't criticize a neuroscience abstract for being inaccessible to a layperson, so it's unfair to expect that from sociology.

This is a good and convincing point. Yet I think that, on closer inspection, it relies on some rather major assumptions.

The natural sciences do have a 'specialized' vocabulary, but only because they deal with things that are of special interest. What is 'special' or 'technical' about the word forebrain (to borrow an example from Andy Balmer) is merely that only neuroscientists are interested in the object, forebrains. It's not part of the everyday English language, because it's not part of everyday life.

There's nothing inherently 'academic' about forebrain, in other words. Plenty of similar terms like 'forearm' and 'foreskin' are part of everyday English, not because they're somehow less precise or less formal, but just because they crop up more often.

Everyday English is inadequate for natural science because scientists study things outside everyday experience. But the major object of the social sciences is everyday human life. Social scientists are interested in things that everyone is interested in - why people think, feel and behave the way they do.

So if the social sciences have need of a technical vocabulary, in the same way as the natural sciences, this would imply is that our everyday language is fundamentally inadequate to understanding the everyday world - in other words, that it is just inadequate, period.

Everyday English has developed to allow people to talk to one another. And the main thing people talk about, is one another, i.e. about society. Like any other branch of science, the social sciences need a rich vocabulary to describe all of the things they study: but don't they already have one - English?

Maybe not. It may be that ordinary English can't express the truth about society. But if you take that seriously, that's a pretty radical claim, akin to saying that the great majority of people are in the dark about how the world works. It's much more radical than saying that chemistry or neuroscience needs special words.

To be clear, I'm not making the populist argument that "Social science is all rubbish - the average man in the street knows better than these eggheads!" The average person is wrong about all kinds of important things, but I suspect that they're sometimes in the right ballpark, as it were, and that their errors are not a matter of lacking the proper words.

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