A Little More Nuance
“Fuck Nuance” has just been published in Sociological Theory. The pace of academic publishing being what it is, the paper has been out in the world for a while in draft form, but it’s nice to see the canonical version appear. The issue also contains a symposium on theory in Sociology, with contributions from Ivan Ermakoff, Ashley Mears, and Max Besbris and Shamus Khan. I’ve described the circumstances of the paper’s conception before. Early in 2015, my colleague Steve Vaisey told me he was interested in organizing a session at the American Sociological Association Meetings about—really against—the idea of “nuance” in sociological theory, and in particular about how there seemed to be a lot of demand for the stuff. He asked me if I’d be interested in submitting a paper called something like “Against Nuance”. I replied that if you were going to do something like that, you should just bite the bullet and call it “Fuck Nuance”. “OK then”, said Steve, “I’ll put that down as the title”. Having inadvertently bound myself to that mast like some accident-prone Ulysses, I was then obliged to write and present the paper.
During the review process, a reviewer requested that I substantiate the claim—or at least, make a prime facie plausible case—that nuance was on the rise in Sociology. While the reviewer suggested I provide some particularly egregious examples as evidence, I strongly preferred not to do this. The paper’s target is a quite widespread habit of mind rather than an individual or a school of thought. Little would be gained by picking a fight with someone in particular. So instead, I took a bird’s eye view and collected some data from the JStor corpus on the incidence of the word “nuance” or “nuanced”. In the paper, there’s a figure showing the recent and rapid relative growth in the use of those terms in the American Journal of Sociology, the American Sociological Review and Social Forces. But I also collected some additional data for other journals, and across various social science disciplines (using JStor’s own classification of journal disciplines). The results are intriguing and I thought I’d present some of them here.
The first thing to say is that, in absolute terms, the use of the term has been growing across all of the social sciences. If we just count the percent of all articles mentioning the words ’nuance’ or ’nuanced’ over the whole of the period indexed by JStor, the trends rise sharply everywhere in the 1990s. We can get a more informative sense of the differences between the disciplines by standardizing what we might call their nuance rates by the baseline usage of the term across the whole JStor corpus. This gives us the following figure.
In this view, the trajectories of the disciplines relative to one another are sharpened. I have to say that if you’d asked me ex ante to rank fields by nuance I would have come up with an ordering much like the one visible at the end of the trend lines. But it also seems that social science fields were not differentiated in this way until comparatively recently. Note that the negative trend line for Economics is relative not to the rate of nuance within field itself—which is going up, as it is everywhere—but rather with respect to the base rate. The trend line for Philosophy is also worth remarking on. It differs quite markedly from the others, as it has a very high nuance rate in the first few decades of the twentieth century, which then sharply declines, and rejoins the upward trend in the 1980s. I have not looked at the internal structure of this trend any further, but it is very tempting to read it as the post-WWI positivists bringing the hammer down on what they saw as nonsense in their own field. That’s putting it much too sharply, of course, but then again that’s partly why we’re here in the first place.
I did look at journal-level trends within the social sciences and also within Sociology specifically. Here are the trends for selected journals across Sociology, Political Science, and Economics, again showing the trend relative to the overall baseline.
Finally, here are the trends for a number of Sociology journals:
There are lots of suggestive patterns here. It would probably be wise not to lean on any of them too strongly. I do think that the overall patterns are picking up something real, and that people’s sense of the word “nuance” now being everywhere is not wrong. (The patterns for more generic terms of theoretical praise like “sophisticated” or “subtle” are much flatter.) At the level of entire fields—or the level of the whole of the social sciences—I’m tempted to see these trends as at least in part a manifestation of decreasing returns to Ph.D-level research in the context of a very large increase in the numbers of people doing and publishing academic work. Academic research is intrinsically specialized, and one must specialize within a literature or research program. Once that context is set, the more people who are working in that area, the less room there is for broad or wide contributions. It is much easier to make an incremental contribution that adds a wrinkle or an additional caveat to an existing approach or finding. In the paper I argue that there’s nothing wrong with that as such. After all, refining results and ideas is one of the main virtues of scientific research. The distinctive problem facing sociology, and perhaps some other fields too, arises with the idea that the unconstrained demand for nuance is a reliable path to theoretical innovation, or a useful marker of quality. That’s a mistake.