Thursday, September 3, 2015

Against nuance

I can't find enough good epistemological work on comparative scientific archaeology, so I have to get my kicks elsewhere. I just read a fantastic paper by a sociologist, titled "F*ck Nuance." (thank you to Colin Wren for sending me a link). The author is Kieran Healy, a sociologist at Duke University. His basic point is that when someone calls for more nuance, the result is typically the complexification of ideas and theory to the point where theorizing and comparative analysis suffers. Comparison requires simplification ("abstraction" to Healy), and this is prevented by nuance.

      “Nuance is not a virtue of good sociological theory. Sociologists typically use it as a term of praise, and almost without exception when nuance i mentioned it is because someone is asking for more of it. I shall argue that, for the problems facing sociology at present, demanding more nuance typically obstructs the development of theory that in intellectually interesting, empirical generative, or practically useful.” (p.1)

This paper has been discussed in the Chronicle of Higher Education, and heavily downloaded from Healy's website.

Healy identifies three "nuance traps":
  1. Nuance of the fine grain: “the ever more detailed, merely empirical description of the world ... It is a rejection of theory masquerading as increased applicability or range.”
  2. Nuance of the conceptual framework: “the ever more extensive expansion of some theoretical system in a way that effectively closes it off from rebuttal or disconfirmation by anything in the world ... It is an evasion of the demand that a theory be refutable.”
  3. Nuance of the connoisseur: “the insinuation that your sensitivity to nuance is a manifestation of one’s distinctive ability to grasp and express the richness, texture, and flow of social reality itself ... It is mostly a species of self-congratulatory symbolic violence.”
The paper is discussed briefly (and posted) on the Crooked Timber blog. Comment # 24 uses the nuance concept to contrast development theories of Jeffrey Sachs with those of Acemoglu and Robinson. Very interesting.

The paper closes with:

·         “Given the current state of theory in some field, the question is—should we be trying to increase the supply [of nuance], or reduce it? My context is theorizing in American sociology at the time I am writing. We are glutted with nuance. I say, f*ck it.” (p.11)

Check out the paper. I especially like the abstract: "Seriously, f*ck it."

My sentiment, exactly.  See my paper on arguments later this month in the SAA Archaeological Record for a discussion of parallel ideas in archaeology.

Healy, Keran    2015    Fuck Nuance. Paper presented at the American Sociological Association Meetings.  .

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