Academic Jargon & Knowledge Exclusion

Author: Alex Di Giorgio, PhD Candidate in Anthropology at the University of Tasmania and Research Assistant for Larrakia Nation

I remember my first year of university as being an introduction to the big bad world of academic writing. Taking home my first reading brick – back when they still existed – I was faced with long, complicated texts using unfamiliar terminology. Sentences, paragraphs, even whole chapters of books and articles were unintelligible without an insight into the meaning of certain esoteric words.

I had entered the world of academic jargon in which the normally trustworthy dictionary was of no use. I have mixed feelings about academic jargon, as they appear to be both an academic necessity and an exclusionary device.

“McDonaldisation”

Jargon is a mainstay of academia, in particular the humanities and social sciences. A common and less exclusionary form of jargon is to take a standard adjective or noun and nominalise it further, usually to describe a process or complex idea. Some might think it would be ironic to use an esoteric word in an article critiquing the use of esoteric words, but let’s just roll with it for now.

Some examples I have encountered include (crudely defined): “Problematisation” (in which a government portrays public policy issues as problems in need of a solution); “Flexiblisation” (the deregulation of the labour market for the purposes of making labourers more adaptable to the needs of capital and global markets); and finally – and also my favourite – “McDonaldisation” (which refers to the introduction of capitalism into formerly communist non-western nations and its effects).

To argue for jargon as an academic necessity we could claim that intellectual rigour requires engaging with conceptual and theoretical complexity in a nuanced way. That is, there is a need for a conceptual vocabulary to communicate complex ideas and a good way of developing this is to create new terms or phrases that are succinct in capturing their meaning.

Engaging with an idea at a higher level means that we need to use some words that can allow us to be critical of ideas and be able to capture the meaning of certain ideas, theories and arguments and refer to these easily. Here, the argument for jargon would be to avoid simplification. We cannot easily participate in intellectual debates or create original arguments and ideas without dealing with a certain level of complexity.

“Hard English” 

Having considered how jargon might be necessary, we might also think about some of the more negative aspects of using it. Jargon can function to exclude certain people from the production and consumption of knowledge. An example of how language can cause exclusion is drawn from my own experience as a researcher.

I was part of a research team investigating Indigenous perceptions of race and race relations in Darwin. One of the common responses from my interview respondents was that they did not often communicate with non-Indigenous people, and a major reason for this was that they used ‘high English’ or ‘hard English’. Such English was difficult to understand and contributed to disadvantage in terms of being less able to access institutions and get ahead.

Jargon can exclude in the same way by obstructing participation in the production of knowledge and access to certain institutions. Academia is one of the main institutions that regulates knowledge, meaning universities contain experts who hold a degree of authority on defining what can be counted as truth or not.

Criticism > Cynicism

I am taking a critical rather than a cynical perspective of academia. That is, I don’t think it is necessarily just made up of self-serving individuals who want to advance their own careers. Taking a critical perspective means understanding academia as having some level of power and influence in society in general.

Disciplinary jargon requires a certain amount of prior knowledge in order to understand it and the contexts in which the jargon is used. People who may not have the levels of education necessary to engage with the terms are therefore excluded, and are at a disadvantage from engaging with academic writing and ideas.

Academia: to Study and Change?

There are some questions I want to pose relating to the discussion of the use and abuses of academic jargon. Firstly, is it possible to reconfigure the role of it in academic writing and still maintain a high intellectual standard? Should we lay responsibility on the education system to provide people with the necessary skills to engage with academic debates and the research process? Is it possible to use simple English without simplification? I don’t intend on answering these questions here, although I will end with a couple of imperatives and ideas on why I think the exclusive nature of jargon is a problem.

Academic jargon is a problem for excluding others who might benefit from the work that academia produces. It is important for any democratic society to facilitate a level of communication that is inclusive and egalitarian. Creating these conditions or a ‘public sphere’ is conducive to a healthy democracy and allows those without power or resources to have their say, be heard and benefit from this.

As an influential institution, academia has a role to play in creating a public sphere. Open and equal styles of communication and language are good places to start for making this happen.

If we follow Marx’s famous adage that the point of studying the world is to change it – which is also a purpose of academic research – then in order to do this, the creation of knowledge, its dispersal and use should be accessible to all.

In today’s world of alternative facts and the rise of political populism, finding a balance between upholding academia’s commitment to intellectual rigour and facilitating more easily accessible research and knowledge is an important challenge for every university to consider. In particular, accessing knowledge and ‘real’ facts acquired through verifiable, reproducible and widely accepted scientific methods is critical for the maintenance of a well-informed public. Academic jargon intended to stimulate knowledge also has the potential to exclude members of the public from engaging in public debates and decision making processes that affect us all.

                                                                                          [Image sourced by The Familiar Strange]

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