Thursday, December 3, 2015

"Fuck nuance"

Tim Hunter sent me this interesting paper by sociologist Kieran Healy that argues against nuance as a theoretical virtue. The title, “Fuck Nuance” tersely provides the paper’s main conclusion. It is a paper that linguists might find interesting for, IMO, many of the vices that nuance has wrt sociological theory carry over pretty directly to theory within linguistics. Indeed, as Healy argues, nuance is often the scourge of theory. Healy describes it as follows:

It is the act of making—or the call to make—some bit of theory “richer” or “more
sophisticated” by adding complexity to it, usually by way of some additional dimension, level, or aspect, but in the absence of any strong means of disciplining or specifying the relationship between the new elements and the existing ones. Theorists do this to themselves and demand it of others. It is typically a holding maneuver. It is what you do when faced with a question that you do not yet have a compelling or interesting answer to. Thinking up compelling or interesting ideas is quite difficult, and so often it is easier to embrace complexity than cut through it. (2)

In other words, nuance is the name for the impulse to do anything and everything to cover that last data point. It is “the free-floating request that something more be added” and this sort of request, if indulged, becomes “a pernicious and invasive weed” that strangles the hope of explanation. As Healy writes:

…the kudzu of nuance … makes us shy away from the riskier aspects of
abstraction and theory-building generally, especially if it is the first and most frequent response we hear. Instead of pushing some abstraction or argument along for a while to see where it goes, there is a tendency to start hedging theory with particulars. People complain that you’re leaving some level or dimension out, and tell you to bring it back in. Crucially, “accounting for”, “addressing”, or “dealing” with the missing item is an unconstrained process. That is, the question is not how a theory can handle this or that issue internally, but rather the suggestion to expand it with this new term or terms. (5)

I am very sympathetic to Healy’s observations. Indeed, I think that I am on record lamenting this tendency within current linguistic theory (see here). Rare is the paper or interaction where theoretical profligacy is resisted and a data point or two left stranded in the deductive wilderness. Indeed, tolerance for “counter-examples”[1] is taken to be sure evidence of scientific felony, and to forestall such a charge we lard our papers and stories with ad hocry that serves to both obscure the interesting explanatory points being made and to confuse us into mistaking description for explanation. One of the virtues of the early Minimalist papers was to warn against this tendency, alas to little apparent effect. What makes this truly unfortunate is that these demands, as Healy notes, have baleful results.

The result is a lot of unproductive blocking. Both specific explanations and more
abstract concepts and theories suffer. By calling for a theory to be more comprehensive, or for an explanation to include additional dimensions, or a concept to become more flexible and multi-faceted, we paradoxically end up with less clarity. We lose information by adding detail. A further odd consequence is that the apparent scope of theories increases even as the range of their actually-accomplished application in explanations narrows. (6)

The paper makes other interesting points and I encourage you to read it. And please don’t think that this is just dumb sociologists and that his observations do not apply to linguistics. Here’s one more observation that I believe hits the mark concerning the motivations behind looking for nuance:

There is a strong tendency to embrace the fine-grain, both as a means of
defense against criticism and as a moral guarantor of the value of everyone’s empirical research project. (4)

So, I am with Healy here. Fuck theoretical nuance!

[1] These are scare quotes. I am currently hard riding a hobby horse by the name of “most people don’t really understand what a serious counter-example is.” Maybe I will write on this sometime soon, but right now I am loving the verbal ride.


  1. Agreed!
    I was recently complaining to a semanticist friend that semantics articles are far too long (often >50 pgs). He responded that of course this is the case because semantics is so nuanced. This post kind of allows me to link the article length complaint with another issue I always have with the semantics literature which is that one can't evaluate how a given analysis fits with the theory, because the theory is just so nuanced.

    Side-note: I think the scare-quotes around "counter-example" might be catching on. I recently got reviews for an abstract that used the scare-quoted variant of "counter-examples". I must say I was absolutely befuddled by it until now. now I'm only slightly befuddled.

  2. I like that paper. Could this help us understand why some usage-based or functionalist theorists don't worry all too deeply about accounting for, say a handful of contrived sentences purportedly showing parasitic gaps — "a data point or two left stranded"?

    1. Maybe. The issue is always going to be what constitutes "contrived." But this is exactly where we ought to be focusing our attentions.