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Monday, February 06, 2012

jargon

My dissertation director justified academic jargon by likening academics to plumbers. We wouldn't expect two plumbers discussing a difficult problem to forego technical terms; in fact, their use of "jargon" serves both as a shorthand and as a way to more precisely refer to tools and mechanics and identify potential solutions. Of course (one hopes) they'll use more basic language when they communicate with their customers and non-plumbers. I don't need to understand much of what a plumber might say to another, but I don't have to, so long as my plumber can translate what he's doing and the nature of his bill to the extent necessary for me to understand. My director's argument was that "jargon" is not a dirty work; it is a necessary consequence of expertise and only criticized by those who want in on the internal conversation without doing the work necessaryto familiarize themselves with its terminology.

Like plumbers, certain academic disciplines, with varying degrees of justification, have developed extensive and sophisticated terminology. This clearly makes sense in the natural and physical sciences, and it also makes some, more limited sense in the social sciences and humanities. But law fits uneasily in any particular discipline--indeed, as I blogged a while back,* it is one of law's great advantages and disadvantages not to be as specialized as disciplines driven by narrowly focused doctoral programs and the epistemological need (as well as the institutional and intellectual desire) for methodological and terminological purity.

That said, the legal academy does have discipline-like subject areas (some of which must use jargon to refer to statutory or scientific terms), an increasing attention to methodology, and of course an increasing tendency to hire JD/PhDs and encourage interdisciplinary work. Under these conditions, one might expect legal academic fields to escalate their use of jargon by evolving it internally or incorporating it from other disciplines.

Ok, I'm a lazy law professor, I'm a bit skeptical of my director's argument, and I'm ready to farm out my arm chair speculation to others. Are certain fields of legal academic endeavor using more jargon these days; and if so, is it a problem? 

*- The fact the linked post is more than five years old is %$&*ing frightening, frankly, as it illustrates the swiftness of time's passage and the fact that stuff doesn't disappear fast enough on line.

Posted by Mark Fenster on February 6, 2012 at 03:46 PM | Permalink

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Quick addendum, from a Times review of a history book published by a trade press:

"There should be a term in German that describes the sinking feeling you have when reading a serious book of scholarship, one whose determined author deserves praise and tenure, that no civilian reader should pick up, that will not warm in your hands, that will make you regret the 10 hours of your life lost to it, and that, once put down, will not cry out to be picked back up."
http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/07/books/autumn-in-the-heavenly-kingdom-by-stephen-r-platt.html

No comment as to whether this is justified; it's just another version of the anti-jargon/ academic writing complaint -- which is often justified and sometimes a sign of laziness.

Posted by: Mark Fenster | Feb 7, 2012 12:18:17 PM

It seems like many articles use jargon not to use language familiar to insiders and to facilitate communication, but instead to sound smart. This makes legal academic jargon rather different from the type used by plumbers.

Most of the time the legal academic's strategy backfires and the product is stilted, impenetrable writing ("contains explanatory force" rather than "helps explain"; "norms" when "policies" is the right word; and so on.)

Posted by: andy | Feb 6, 2012 5:08:58 PM

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