"Seriously, fuck it," explains the paper’s abstract.
September 1, 2015 5:33 AM   Subscribe

Nuance is revered in higher education. That’s especially true in sociology, where scholars spend their lives digging into the fine grain of human social behavior, often finding even finer grain underneath. Which is why it came as such a surprise — and perhaps a relief — when Kieran Healy, an associate professor of sociology at Duke University, last week brought a blunt message to the American Sociological Association’s annual meeting: "Fuck Nuance."

Despite the blunt title, Healy's actual position is a bit more... well, nuanced. From the Chronicle interview:
It doesn’t make much sense to argue against the idea of nuance per se. What counts as nuance depends on whom you’re speaking to, and why. Instead I have a specific phenomenon in mind: the tendency to demand more detail, insist on a more-sophisticated approach, or assert things are more complex than has been said — without having anything much to say beyond that. In particular, it’s the tendency to think doing so makes you a deep thinker.
posted by nebulawindphone (48 comments total) 31 users marked this as a favorite
 
If there is any competition for best abstract, I certainly can't call it to mind.
posted by 256 at 5:46 AM on September 1, 2015 [2 favorites]


A commenter in the accompanying Crooked Timber thread nominates a competitor.
posted by rory at 5:55 AM on September 1, 2015 [13 favorites]


This is an incredibly brave paper for someone married to an analytic philosopher to write.
posted by escabeche at 6:01 AM on September 1, 2015 [5 favorites]


It's so weird seeing this on the blue. I was at the panel, and the most interesting thing to me was that it came out in the course of the Q and A that different sociologists have opposite ideas of what nuance is. To illustrate his point in response to a question from the audience, Healy brought up "black lives matter" and suggested that the people who argue instead that "all lives matter" are committing the sin identified in his paper of "saying nothing more than 'It’s more complicated than that' and then giving a list of ways that it is." Not surprisingly, a guy in the back put his hand up and asked, but wait, isn't "black lives matter" a more nuanced position because it examines a narrower range of cases with a greater degree of granularity? A lot of hedging and "I don't want to belabor the point"-ing ensued on the part of Healy.

I assume this is why he points out that "What counts as nuance depends on whom you’re speaking to, and why" at least twice in the Chronicle interview.
posted by Dr. Send at 6:15 AM on September 1, 2015 [20 favorites]


A fine piece of screenwriting advice I'd read long ago was that no script should ever, ever have the line "You just don't get it, do you?" It adds nothing, and has become an irritating cliche. Just cut it. It's unnecessary.

Academics have their own "you just don't get it, do you" phrases.

1. As cited in the OP: "...things are more complex than has been said." NO SHIT. That goes without saying about every single fucking topic in the fucking universe.

I've long been tempted to put six history postdocs in a room and offer $1000 to the first one who can describe a topic that won't generate the retort of "well, actually, it's more complicated than that." (I haven't done this because even my cold, flinty heart shudders at the cruelty.)

Any variation on "it's more complicated than that" is filler, not a bold argument. It should be understood as a given. Asserting the reverse and explaining how "complicators" are full of shit would be bold. Not that it'd be accurate, of course, because everything's so damn complicated.

2. Anything psychological or in the social sciences: "it's a spectrum." NO SHIT. Everything is on a motherfucking spectrum aside from cheese and death, and I'm not so sure about death. Asserting that X or Y is "actually on a spectrum" is a "water is wet" type statement these days. Yet this is dropped as though it were a scorching truth bomb, burning clean the world of misconceptions.

Yes, the phrases have value, I admit -- you can't take either as a given when addressing a lay audience -- but after the nine millionth historian argues that "it's more complicated than that," it's hard not to want to shake them until their uvulas slap the roofs of their throats and scream at them that we fucking know already.
posted by Harvey Jerkwater at 6:31 AM on September 1, 2015 [46 favorites]


>This is an incredibly brave paper for someone married to an analytic philosopher to write.

Actually, I think many philosophers could get on board with this idea. Most good philosophers aren't looking to arbitrarily "demand more detail, insist on a more-sophisticated approach, or assert things are more complex than has been said," to quote from the first link. Rather, they're looking to better understand various problems and phenomena. Sometimes that means adding nuance, but nuance for the sake of nuance isn't helpful to philosophers and I think many of them would agree with Healy's premise.
posted by schroedingersgirl at 6:33 AM on September 1, 2015 [1 favorite]


"Everything is on a motherfucking spectrum aside from cheese and death, and I'm not so sure about death."

Slowly raises hand to make a point about cheese, decides against it in the prevailing mood, slowly lowers hand.
posted by Wordshore at 6:35 AM on September 1, 2015 [48 favorites]


You just don't get it, do you? Cheese is quite obviously a binary: (a) cheeses I eat, and (b) cheeses that smell like feet.
posted by Xavier Xavier at 6:42 AM on September 1, 2015 [6 favorites]


I would think that the pressure to publish would add pressure for nuance.
posted by tippiedog at 6:45 AM on September 1, 2015 [1 favorite]


It's so weird seeing this on the blue. I was at the panel, and the most interesting thing to me was that it came out in the course of the Q and A that different sociologists have opposite ideas of what nuance is. To illustrate his point in response to a question from the audience, Healy brought up "black lives matter" and suggested that the people who argue instead that "all lives matter" are committing the sin identified in his paper of "saying nothing more than 'It’s more complicated than that' and then giving a list of ways that it is." Not surprisingly, a guy in the back put his hand up and asked, but wait, isn't "black lives matter" a more nuanced position because it examines a narrower range of cases with a greater degree of granularity? A lot of hedging and "I don't want to belabor the point"-ing ensued on the part of Healy.

I assume this is why he points out that "What counts as nuance depends on whom you’re speaking to, and why" at least twice in the Chronicle interview.

Dr. Send

I think Healy may have just confused himself, or used a bad example, because BLM fits easily into the paradigm he suggests.

Yes BLM is a more nuanced argument, but he's not arguing against the very concept of nuance, as he repeatedly says. Rather, as you say, he's against simply saying an issue is more complex and listing reasons without offering an argument or theory. BLM is saying the issue is more complex than "all lives matter", but it's also giving an argument as to why. It's not a simple appeal to nuance for the sake of nuance.

One could argue that the "all lives matter" crowd has not put forth the kind of argument or framework necessary to support assertions that things are more nuanced than "black lives matter".
posted by Sangermaine at 6:46 AM on September 1, 2015 [1 favorite]


You just don't get it, do you? Cheese is quite obviously a binary: (a) cheeses I eat, and (b) cheeses that smell like feet.

It's more complicated than that.*

*affectionately known as 'morbid' cheese at our house, because it smells like something died.
posted by telepanda at 6:52 AM on September 1, 2015


Yeah, I think philosophers would be on board. In a way it's a reflex that's trained into people: you need to make some objection immediately upon hearing someone's theory, and this is an easy one to make - there's some detail you haven't captured, ha ha, smug arm fold. (It's not just academics - we get it here on the blue, too.)

I also think it's not that helpful to quibble over whether x counts as nuance. Maybe "nuance" isn't exactly the perfect word for what he's driving at, maybe in the case of "all lives matter" you'd want a different word to capture what's being demanded, but I think his point stands. Or at least the point that it's better not to make objections that are petty and facile and ignore what's plausible in the original claim.
posted by LobsterMitten at 6:55 AM on September 1, 2015 [4 favorites]


"Everything is on a motherfucking spectrum aside from cheese and death, and I'm not so sure about death."

sorry but this has been bugging me since the dog end of this thread.

Is cheez whiz cheese or isn't it?
posted by philip-random at 7:06 AM on September 1, 2015 [1 favorite]


It's a cheese flavoured product, not cheese. Just as cheetos are not cheese.

(See also, Kraft Singles and Velveeta)
posted by 256 at 7:18 AM on September 1, 2015 [1 favorite]


"A fine piece of screenwriting advice I'd read long ago was that no script should ever, ever have the line "You just don't get it, do you?" It adds nothing, and has become an irritating cliche. Just cut it. It's unnecessary."


Uh, what? How is that a cliche? When was the last time you heard that in a movie?
posted by I-baLL at 7:30 AM on September 1, 2015 [5 favorites]


"You just don't get it," said the Kenosha Kid, grinning idiotically as Vonda sasahyed back into the fusel-oil aerosol of the Boot Heel Lounge's champagne room. And normally she was so savvy about cell-phone contracts...The Kid's anal sphincter tightened. He strode across the room, yanked the beaded curtain open and took Vonda's suddenly quivering chin in his hand. He forced her to meet his eye. "Do you?"

"You!" The Kenosha Kid screamed across St. Blarfintino Square, his cries setting up, for a moment, a standing wave between the elliptical piazza's twin foci. Vonda's hand was already on the turnstile. "Just don't!" The tram snorted; Vonda disappeared in the steam, and then into the city's public transit system. Tears swam into the Kid's eyes. I love you, Vonda, he subvocalized, barely a croak. He sank to the stone-flagged street. "Get it?"

etc.
posted by Zerowensboring at 7:50 AM on September 1, 2015 [4 favorites]


I've long been tempted to put six history postdocs in a room and offer $1000 to the first one who can describe a topic that won't generate the retort of "well, actually, it's more complicated than that."

That's because it is more complicated than that. Now some degree of granularity may be sufficient for whatever particular purposes you have in mind, but that aside, the chances are very good that it really is more complicated than that. Which is to say, that this argument is usually over when those complications need to be deployed and to what purposes.
posted by octobersurprise at 8:05 AM on September 1, 2015 [1 favorite]


Is cheez whiz cheese or isn't it?

It is a "pasteurized process cheese food."
posted by octobersurprise at 8:16 AM on September 1, 2015


Well that's a strong stance on the subject.
posted by CravenRaven27 at 8:19 AM on September 1, 2015


What this reminds me most of is conversations in my field between experimentalists and mathematical modelers. Experimental-oriented people tend to be very "but what about XYZ, your model is useless unless it accounts for those things" and get frustrated by mathematical models that exclude phenomena that are definitely important. Coming from a background that involved doing work in vivo, I spent a long time being confused as to what the point of the models was.

It was a real lightbulb moment when I talked to a fellow who does both mathematical modeling and experimental work about what he saw the value of models being. They're toys that intentionally exclude some complexity from the system in an attempt to better understand the implications of certain aspects of it. I mean, it seems obvious now but that's a conceit which really does not come across to many people in biology--or, I suppose, in sociology.
posted by sciatrix at 8:38 AM on September 1, 2015 [6 favorites]


Anything that promotes the development of useful theory in sociology is a good thing. I don't see nearly as much ambitious or fruitful theorizing as I'd like to.
posted by clockzero at 8:40 AM on September 1, 2015



It was a real lightbulb moment when I talked to a fellow who does both mathematical modeling and experimental work about what he saw the value of models being. They're toys that intentionally exclude some complexity from the system in an attempt to better understand the implications of certain aspects of it. I mean, it seems obvious now but that's a conceit which really does not come across to many people in biology--or, I suppose, in sociology

Even social studies must have its frictionless surfaces and spherical cows.
 
posted by Herodios at 8:43 AM on September 1, 2015 [5 favorites]


Most good philosophers aren't looking to arbitrarily "demand more detail, insist on a more-sophisticated approach, or assert things are more complex than has been said," to quote from the first link. Rather, they're looking to better understand various problems and phenomena.

Yeah, I think philosophers would be on board. In a way it's a reflex that's trained into people: you need to make some objection immediately upon hearing someone's theory, and this is an easy one to make - there's some detail you haven't captured, ha ha, smug arm fold.

But without the smug arm fold, I think of this as something that philosophy rightly values. If there's a case that puts pressure on someone's theory, and you write about that, that's valuable and important work, whether or not you have your own theory. Every theory exists in a cloud of self-doubt and self-questioning and conscious articulation of its own limitations, and should.
posted by escabeche at 8:48 AM on September 1, 2015


That's because it is more complicated than that. Now some degree of granularity may be sufficient for whatever particular purposes you have in mind, but that aside, the chances are very good that it really is more complicated than that. Which is to say, that this argument is usually over when those complications need to be deployed and to what purposes.

Well, actually, it's more complicated than that. For example, as Healy argues, sometimes it's about demonstrating that one guy is a connoisseur and the other one is a noob.

You just don't get it, do you?
posted by layceepee at 8:52 AM on September 1, 2015 [1 favorite]


Sure, escabeche, but there's a difference between telling, thoughtful objections and empty reflexive objections.
posted by LobsterMitten at 8:53 AM on September 1, 2015 [4 favorites]


Cheese is delicious.
posted by Enemy of Joy at 9:03 AM on September 1, 2015


it seems obvious now but that's a conceit which really does not come across to many people in biology

Statistical population models, predator-prey for example, and model species in contaminants research are basic ideas in modern biology. They're the nuts and bolts from which theories are developed.

I think part of the problem is social scientists sit at an intersection between this reductionist, mechanistic tool box of models and theories that science has, and the ideas of Theory that come from the literary and philosophical communities, where subtext and complexity are valued highly. Those are the two poles this article is trying to maneuver between.
posted by bonehead at 9:05 AM on September 1, 2015 [1 favorite]


If there's a case that puts pressure on someone's theory, and you write about that, that's valuable and important work, whether or not you have your own theory.

Zeno of Elea's entire career as we have it is based upon this, to say nothing of Socrates.
 
posted by Herodios at 9:05 AM on September 1, 2015


Zeno of Elea's entire career as we have it is based upon this, to say nothing of Socrates.

Both well known trolls. QED
posted by PMdixon at 9:16 AM on September 1, 2015 [1 favorite]


That's because it is more complicated than that. Now some degree of granularity may be sufficient for whatever particular purposes you have in mind, but that aside, the chances are very good that it really is more complicated than that. Which is to say, that this argument is usually over when those complications need to be deployed and to what purposes.

Every problem we look at in the world is connected to every other thing in the world if you follow the connections far enough down. So when we focus on a particular problem for some particular purpose, we're artificially isolating only certain features of the world from everything else they're connected to (which, at the extreme end, is literally everything) for some specific purpose. So, yeah, it's all about why you're asking the question, who's asking it, etc., because otherwise every problem eventually becomes about solving the world.
posted by saulgoodman at 9:26 AM on September 1, 2015


An idea I saw while studying something tangentially related recently: explain why you came this far, and explain why you stopped here. In my case it was about reproducible research, but it seems that justifying your level of nuance would deflect that kind of "it's more complicated" derail and produce better criticisms.
posted by Wrinkled Stumpskin at 10:00 AM on September 1, 2015 [4 favorites]


256: re: great abstracts, I'd always appreciated this one, although for some reason I remember it in my head as just "No."

And as for the essay-- overfitting is a thing. I didn't realize it applied to sociology too, so this was interesting, thanks.
posted by nat at 10:05 AM on September 1, 2015 [1 favorite]


Anything psychological or in the social sciences: "it's a spectrum." NO SHIT. Everything is on a motherfucking spectrum aside from cheese and death, and I'm not so sure about death. Asserting that X or Y is "actually on a spectrum" is a "water is wet" type statement these days. Yet this is dropped as though it were a scorching truth bomb, burning clean the world of misconceptions.

That's just false.
posted by srboisvert at 10:06 AM on September 1, 2015


> "You just don't get it," said the Kenosha Kid, ....
> posted by Zerowensboring


That was just really well done. I sincerely encourage you to do more Pynchon riffing as the occasion calls for it.
posted by benito.strauss at 10:36 AM on September 1, 2015 [2 favorites]


Also, I don't know about sociology, but Healy's description of how wine works:
Connoisseurship thrives where judgments are needed but measurement is hard. That doesn’t mean those judgments are necessarily wrong, but it does make things more difficult. First, it opens the door to wide variation in quality. A good sommelier knows more about wine than me, but a bad waiter can learn that language too and use it to blather.
is concise and accurate.
posted by benito.strauss at 10:39 AM on September 1, 2015 [2 favorites]


Fundamentally the issue is that people primarily communicate through sparse representations. If you were to recursively consider every issue brought up by every word in every statement in a conversation, you would necessarily go on for ever because each word used in response introduces its own controversies.

People avoid this for the most part because 1. they have a limited capacity unfold an argument in this manner so, 2. they negotiate shared resolutions to the issues, 3. they form communities of discourse in which resolutions to the issues are implicit in coding schemes the community embraces, and 4. they form more specialized communities as necessary. In this way, no single person is required to exhaustively resolve all the issues, but resolutions exist in a socially distributed manner.

This means that a great deal of the "nuance" of a statement is based on (unstated) common ground between the writer and the reader. It also means that critiques of a statement can be made from any perspective of any reader. In a field with strong disciplinarily, the range of critiques which must be answered will be limited by the rigor of the discipline. Both the initial statement, and the response could both be quite concise if the authors have the necessary common ground.

Obviously Sociology is a bigger tent than that and more nuanced language is required to make sure that the hard core of the author's research programme is not undermined by critiques from a perspective that they have not addressed. That ideas require defense from so many angles is a virtue of the field, up until the point where the auxiliary nuances that shield the author's points from critique also shield them from comprehension.

At that point diversity of perspective has become a vice. One would hope (as the author does) that the discourse could be improved so that progress could be maintained while the preserving the diversity of the field.
posted by ethansr at 11:37 AM on September 1, 2015 [1 favorite]


As my personal philosophy has evolved over nearly 6 decades of consciousness (the first few years contributing very little), one of the few Universal Truths I have been able to settle on is "It's always more complicated than you think."

In fact, that one Universal Truth tends to make all the other Universal Truths a lot less... Universal. Except for one, which also applies here: "No matter how you try to explain it, somebody will misunderstand it. And too frequently, misunderstand it on purpose."
posted by oneswellfoop at 12:16 PM on September 1, 2015 [1 favorite]


This is why it is important to have tenure.
posted by Postroad at 12:40 PM on September 1, 2015


I sincerely encourage you to do more Pynchon riffing as the occasion calls for it.

Riffing, right, exactly. An impression, that's what it was.
posted by Zerowensboring at 1:54 PM on September 1, 2015 [2 favorites]


"It's a lot more complicated than that--"
"No. It ain't. When people say things are a lot more complicated than that, they means they're getting worried that they won't like the truth
posted by fullerine at 3:30 PM on September 1, 2015


This is an incredibly brave paper for someone married to an analytic philosopher to write.

Not really? She commended it to the attention of other analytic philosophers on facebook.
posted by kenko at 3:31 PM on September 1, 2015


Statistical population models, predator-prey for example, and model species in contaminants research are basic ideas in modern biology.

I think this comes down to a difference between the culture of ecology/evolutionary biology and molecular biology. The first two fields have long and distinguished histories of theoretical work, but in molecular biology there's a much greater bias towards empiricism and an ingrained mistrust of mathematical models.
posted by en forme de poire at 3:35 PM on September 1, 2015 [1 favorite]


Metafilter: the kudzu of nuance.
posted by turbid dahlia at 3:35 PM on September 1, 2015 [1 favorite]


"And while I have strongly encouraged you to not read the comments, as always, MetaFilter is the exception."
posted by unliteral at 5:56 PM on September 1, 2015


Not really? She commended it to the attention of other analytic philosophers on facebook.

I know, she's my Facebook friend, and she also "liked" the FB version of that comment about Kieran's bravery...
posted by escabeche at 6:19 PM on September 1, 2015 [2 favorites]


Maybe sociologist s should be saying "fuck making up ethnography "?
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 7:16 PM on September 1, 2015


one way to look at it maybe like the extent of overlapping 'surfaces' -- degree of consensus -- for a bunch of (probablistic? path dependent? provisional?) multidimensional venn diagrams where the 'amount of weltanschauung agreement' (or whatever, literally!) may be large but, psychologically, the uncanny valley narcissism of small differences looms larger :P

the one weird trick then may be to mentally prioritize and let it go!

like i was recently reading about the difficulty of cross-theoretical aggregation (re: effective altruism)
Here is an oversimplified way of putting his point. Let’s say you think utilitarianism is true with some probability, and Kantian deontology is also true with some probability. Can you aggregate the recommendations of these two theories “across the probabilities”? Not easily. The Kantian theory offers an absolute recommendation, but should that carry the day if deontology is true with only 7%? More generally, even less absolute theories do not offer comparable frameworks for cross-theoretical aggregation. How does 6% truth for maximin, 13% truth for prioritarianism, and 27% truth for cosmopolitan utilitarianism all add up? It’s not like calculating true shooting percentage in the NBA, because there is no common and commensurable understanding of “points” across the different frameworks. This aggregation problem is actually tougher than Arrow’s, at least once we recognize there is justifiably uncertainty about the true moral theory.
which you may think 'engineer's disease' or 'physics envy' but apparently it's stuff [1,2,3,4,5] -- microfoundations (2.0) -- social scientists are grappling with anyway: "Social things do not have essential natures, and they do not maintain their properties rigidly over time. So we are best advised to regard sociological concepts in a contingent and pragmatic way -- as nominal schemes for identifying social events and structures of interest, without presuming that they have fundamental and essential properties in common."

also btw...
  • What Is "Price Theory"? (A Guest Post by Glen Weyl)[*]
  • This process eventually brought me to my own definition of price theory [pdf] as analysis that reduces rich (e.g. high-dimensional heterogeneity, many individuals) and often incompletely specified models into ‘prices’ sufficient to characterize approximate solutions to simple (e.g. one-dimensional policy) allocative problems. This approach contrasts both with work that tries to completely solve simple models (e.g. game theory) and empirical work that takes measurement of facts as prior to theory. Unlike other definitions, I argue that mine does a good job connecting the use of price theory across a range of fields of microeconomics from international trade to market design, being consistent across history and suggesting productive directions for future research on the topic.
  • Collective Decision Engines: "New startup by @glenweyl[*] and @EricAPosner[*] offers a better way to make collective decisions (or gauge group sentiment)"[*]
  • Quadratic Voting: Quadratic Voting is a way for groups to make decisions together that achieves the greatest possible good for the greatest number of group members."[*]
(oh and kinda previously ;)
-Eigendemocracy
-The Theology of Consensus
posted by kliuless at 11:59 AM on September 2, 2015


nat: "256: re: great abstracts, I'd always appreciated this one, although for some reason I remember it in my head as just "No.""

A competitor is the classic Guaranteed Margins for LQG Regulators: "Abstract - There are none."
posted by James Scott-Brown at 2:54 PM on September 2, 2015 [1 favorite]


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