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A Little More Nuance

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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 habit of mind rather than an individual or school of thought, and it’s quite widespread. 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.

Relative rates of nuance across the disciplines, 1860-2013.

Relative rates of nuance across the disciplines, 1860-2013.

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.

Relative rates of nuance across selected social science journals.

Relative rates of nuance across selected social science journals.

Finally, here are the trends for a number of Sociology journals:

Relative rates of nuance across selected sociology journals.

Relative rates of nuance across selected 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 “sophicticated” 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.

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mako
50 days ago
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Glad to see this is out!
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Stuff I'm thankful for

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I'm thankful that the sewing machine was invented a long time ago, not today. If the sewing machine were invented today, most sewing tutorials would be twice as long, because all the thread would come in proprietary cartridges, and you would usually have to hack the cartridge to get the type of thread you need in a cartridge that works with your machine.

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mako
54 days ago
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mako
105 days ago
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everyday meals everywhere

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A subtitle emerges for the book, Meet Me at the Bamboo Table. (Photo by A.V. Crofts)

A subtitle emerges for the book, Meet Me at the Bamboo Table. (Photo by A.V. Crofts)

 

I took the photo above at the end of January, when it was crunch time on the subtitle. I’d batted around possibilities for months, but a survey to a small circle of friends sent me back to the drawing board. Out came the Post-It Notes, the trusty Sharpie, and just about every imaginable word related to food, travel, and memory I could muster. What surfaced stuck immediately: “Everyday Meals Everywhere.”

Meals shape and change me, no matter where I am. And they need not be five-star banquets to leave a lasting impression.

Today was bookended by two such everyday meals: a late breakfast atop a Berlin rooftop terrace, capped with a cozy pasta supper across town in the dining room of a 7th floor walk-up. Conversations easily swirl as drinks are poured, plates are served, and then eventually dishes are cleared. No one wanted to break the spell tonight, as we lingered over dessert well into the wee hours of the morning.

These meals are magic.

 

 

 

 

 

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mako
375 days ago
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Meals shape and change me, no matter where I am. And they need not be five-star banquets to leave a lasting impression.

Today was bookended by two such everyday meals: a late breakfast atop a Berlin rooftop terrace, capped with a cozy pasta supper across town in the dining room of a 7th floor walk-up. Conversations easily swirl as drinks are poured, plates are served, and then eventually dishes are cleared. No one wanted to break the spell tonight, as we lingered over dessert well into the wee hours of the morning.

These meals are magic.
Seattle
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Scratch Community Manager Position Available

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A while back Mako introduced me to Mitchel Resnick, LEGO Papert Professor of Learning Research and head of the Lifelong Kindergarten group at the MIT Media Lab. Mitchel is a tremendous human being; warm, passionate, and terribly creative in solving interesting problems.

Mitchel introduced me to some members of his team and the conversation was focused on how they can find a good community manager for the Scratch learning environment. For the cave-dwellers among you, Scratch is a wonderful platform for teaching kids programming and the core principles involved.

So, we discussed the role and I helped to shape the role description somewhat.

It is a really awesome and important opportunity, particularly if you are passionate about kids and technology. It is a role that is calling for a creative thinker to take Scratch to the next level and impact a whole new generation of kids and how they can build interesting things with computers. While some community managers focus a lot on the outreach pieces (blogging, social media, and events), I encourage those of you interested in this role to also think of it from a deeper perspective of workflow, building different types of community, active collaboration, and more.

Check out the role description here and apply. If you and I know each other, feel free to let them know this and I am happy to share with them more about you. Good luck!

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mako
388 days ago
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meet me at the bamboo table

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MMATBT Cover

 

I’m thrilled to announce that this September, Chin Music Press will publish my first book, Meet Me At the Bamboo Table: Everyday Meals Everywhere. This is a book about meals that spans 15 countries and three decades. It highlights how food anchors my memories as well as builds and strengthens my communities.

Ann Handley, author of Everybody Writes, says that writing is like birthing a Volkswagen. I laughed when I read that but, having now been through the process, I think she has the model wrong. At least for me. Writing this book was more like birthing a Volkswagen bus.

What started in March of 2014 will be bound and in my hands in just a few months. Up until this point, my writing focused on the intersection of food and identity with me as observer (or documenter). This book places me smack dab into each essay.

Meet Me at the Bamboo Table also allowed me to dive back and swim deeper into stories that I first shared on this blog. Pieces about Wisconsin, or my love of pickles. I’ll be using this blog in the next few months to share parts of the publishing process and sneak peaks at the book itself.

I can’t wait.

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mako
393 days ago
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Maybe I should share some of my pickles with Anita.
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