screwance

Kieran Healy has written a paper about nuance and posted it here.  It’s an argument that resonates with my own experience, especially in terms of various forays of reading efforts of social theory to talk about the relationship between what they are doing and psychology or, worse, “biology.” While there’s various colorful language throughout the paper, this unadorned sentence hit home for me in that regard:

there is a desire to equate calling for a more sophisticated approach to a theoretical problem with actually providing one, and to tie such calls to the alleged sophistication of the people making them.

Author: jeremy

I am the Ethel and John Lindgren Professor of Sociology and a Faculty Fellow in the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University.

9 thoughts on “screwance”

  1. The paper’s attention to the symbolic violence of this mode of feedback was spot on, and when I witnessed this exact practice the next day from a discussant at an unrelated panel–“perhaps you can flesh out a few of these dimensions to add nuance”–I could only hope that the author had been to this panel the day before.

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  2. Yes. I think what’s interesting about a paper like this as a contribution is exactly that: the idea that somebody could hear another person say “blah blah blah nuance blah” and internally react differently and more critically than they would have otherwise. So on the one hand the subject may feel small but on the other hand maybe provoking a set of “hey… wait” reactions is what really makes a difference in the intellectual world.

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  3. Healy’s paper is great, well worth clicking over and reading the whole thing, not just Jeremy’s snippet. It could be worth a whole conversation about the difference between nuance and complexity as fog machines and actually proposing some specific interaction or angle on the problem that could improve the analysis.

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  4. I loved the paper and presentation-as-performance, but I still wonder if the problem and diagnosis are the product of a particular location in the discipline. I have a few things in mind here. One I raised at the panel: graduate students are taught that if we aren’t contributing to theory, we aren’t contributing. Just applying an existing (parsimonious, un-nuanced) theory to a new case (and perhaps specifying what it misses) is insufficient to count as a contribution. So instead we are forced to turn that application + listing of exceptions into a theoretical reformulation. It’s not because we want nuance for its own sake, or cumbersome theory, but because we want to publish and get hired and “contributing to theory” (in this particular discursive mode) is the hoop we’re forced to jump through to get there.

    A second issue that was brought up in post-panel discussions focused on how little this problem occurs for historical sociologists, especially those working on less conventional (read: US/Europe) cases. I wish I could remember the exact language of the complaint, but it was basically something like, no one ever asks us for nuance. Instead, it’s ‘why does this matter?’ Here the pressure is to do violence to the case to theorize something ‘useful’, meaning applicable to the cases we already care about (20th-21st century US and Europe). It’s the reverse symbolic violence of the demand for nuance.

    A related issue is the distinction between ‘theory’ and ‘explanation’, which are used in overlapping ways. One variant of the demand for nuance – not the one Kieran primarily emphasizes, but I think one that is also prevalent and came up in the discussion – is really a demand for more nuanced explanations, not more nuanced theories. This demand is something like, “but you’ve left out X, which I believe is important to the actual case.” The problem is, we can’t cleanly separate theory and explanation, so this call ends up sounding like a criticism of the theory rather than the explanation. The struggle here (and in the previous point) is not simply one of intellectual connoisseurship, but about who gets to define which aspects of the case are essential to a good explanatory account.

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  5. Dan, I agree with your first point, but I disagree with your second. Having recently suffered a drive-by comment that I’m not a “real” historical sociologist in the hotel lobby, I may be feeling a bit defensive on this front, but my own experience of historical sociology is exactly what Kieran describes. I make what I consider to be a good explanation of a particular historical event based on the available evidence, but anyone with any knowledge of the case can criticize/dismiss my case by saying “but you didn’t account for X events or Y groups.” It seems to me a cheap shot, easy to make, and a substitute for grappling with the argument I am making and evidence I am presenting, and deciding whether it is convincing on its own merits.

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    1. Hm. Maybe I need to rephrase. I completely agree that it can be a cheap shot to demand that an explanation account for a specific feature of a case that was not already explained. But it’s not the same cheap shot as demanding a more nuanced theory. And it’s that conflation that I’m worried will happen in the wake of Kieran’s paper. That is, I think “I want your theory to be more nuanced, so that it can account for Y” is different from “I want your explanation to be more nuanced, so that it accounts for Y” but we often ask for the first when we really want the second because our discourse around theory and explanation is muddled. Does that make sense?

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  6. Dan, yes it does make more sense, but the interactive practice among colleagues is the same. If, for example, historical institutionalism is providing us with a theory that policy events constrain future policy events, and I pick a case to explain and use this theory to explain it, you can argue that this is an un-nuanced theory, or an un-nuanced application of theory, but the path to doing so is the same. Include more verbiage about more stuff, without any constraints on that demand.

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  7. It’s a great paper and the presentation was fantastic, so I’m glad it’s gone viral. That said, I think there are parts of the argument that remain muddled, probably because of the polemical nature of the paper. The most important of these in my view is contained in Kieran’s insistence that he is talking about “Actually-Existing Nuance.” As he agreed on the panel, the problem is not nuance per se but nuance as deployed in much the way Tina identifies here. In that sense, the argument is not anti-nuance, but anti-pro-nuance in the same way that Geertz made an anti-anti-relativist argument.

    Part of the problem is that the three types of nuance Kieran identifies (the fine-grained, the connoisseur, and the conceptual framework) have very little in common with one another; in particular, the first two strike me as nearly opposite the third. It is the nuance of the fine grained and that of the connoisseur that Tina (appropriately) objects to above; connaissance is established through fine-grained one-upspersonship about cases that are not quite covered by theories. But the nuance of the conceptual framework is in a sense the opposite; it offers the possibility that an account may be at once nuanced and theoretical. I think some of the best STS and “performativity” theories fit this category, in that they successfully demonstrate the abstract effects of particular causes (“small differences with big effects”).

    Finally, both in this paper and in the “abstraction” panel at JTS, Kieran was careful not to establish a specific rule for how much nuance or how much abstraction to practice; I think he’s right, pragmatically, that the question is how best to convince a community of scholars/readers, not a general rule. The problem, though, is not just about parallax (how fine-grained vs. how abstract) but also of centroid: which grains, in particular, are ignored in order to generate abstraction can matter a great deal.

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  8. I really don’t understand the fuss over this paper. He’s basically arguing that people shouldn’t make unhelpful, self-important comments. For whatever reason, the kind of people who become sociologists tend to put this in the form, “I’d like to see more nuance by accounting for X / exploring Y, etc.”

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