Ethnographers as Writers: A Light-Hearted Introduction to Academese

Academics are collectively responsible for the production of some of the most obtuse and impenetrable prose in the English language.  Rhetorical fashions come and go, but the penchant for opacity has become a defining feature of contemporary scholarship

We were sitting over the remains of dinner in a Village restaurant when the conversation turned to gender and women’s studies.

“I am an –ism person,” Temma Kaplan, Rutgers historian said to me. “I don’t do –ity.”

I gave her a knowing look.

“It used to be all –isms. Now everything is –ities,” she said.

“But you can’t get a job in women’s studies without working on an –ity.” I said, “–ities are the thing these days.”

She sighed and shrugged.

Academese is the secret code that some scholars use to signal that they are members of the club.  It ensures that no one can really tell whether their ideas are brilliant, bad, or merely mediocre.   This is especially useful when submitting an application to a multidisciplinary search or review committee.  Since academics are so narrowly specialized these days, there are probably only a handful of people in the world who can judge whether a project is truly groundbreaking. 

Learning to write like an academic is difficult. If you don’t want to rely solely on the University of Chicago’s academic sentence generator, you too can learn the subtle art of writing impenetrable prose. It takes time and practice, and not an insubstantial amount of creativity, to produce appropriately complex neologisms for otherwise basic concepts.

First, master prefixes and suffixes.  The wrong prefix or suffix use can mark your ideas as passé.  For instance, as Temma Kaplan so astutely noted, -isms are out, and –ities are in.  Words like “postcolonialism,” “modernism,” “materialism” or “feminism,” are so 20th century.  For the new millennium, we have new and improved words like “postcoloniality,” “modernity,” “materiality” and “intersectionality.”  If you must use an -ism, be sure to pluralize it.  No one will hear of a singular “feminism” or “materialism” today; there are only “feminisms” and “materialisms.” 

But you will be au courant if you abandon the –ism and go with the –ity.   The worldview of an individual subject becomes “subjectivity.”  The imposition of certain social norms is “normativity.”  The close reading of literary texts for the influences of previous texts is “intertextuality.”  As with the old -ism, you should probably use these in plural as well: “subjectivities,” “normativities” and “intertextualities.” 

Following these patterns, we can create a lot of interesting new terms.  If I am interested in forms of political or economic oppression, I can talk about “oppressivities” or technologies of “oppressivity.”  Are you studying educational reform?  How about “educativities?”  The study of historical truth claims can become the examination of “historicities.” Interested in how governments rule or in the politics of environmental change?  Then “governmentalities” and “enviromentalities” are for you.  If you are studying how governments affect environmental policy, you can use the fantastic word: “Ecogovernmentalities.”

For prefixes, neo- and post- have largely gone the way of shoulder pads for women’s suits.  These days, bio-, hetero-, homo-, and techno- are the way to go.  Bio-, which derives from “biopolitics” can be used to describe the way states, markets, or technologies regulate and control aspects of human social life: “biosubjectivities,” “biogovernmentalities,” “biointersectionalities,” “bioregionalities,” and “bioalterities” all become possible. 

Hetero- and homo- can be used in a couple of different ways.  These prefixes sometimes refer to hetero- and homo- sexualities as in “heteronormativity” or “homonormativity.”  But hetero- and homo- can also mean “different” and “the same” as in “heterogenous” and “homogenous.” This ambiguity in usage is a gold mine for creating neologisms that prove difficult to interpret.  The term “heterocartographies,” for instance, can mean different ways of mapping space or it can refer to the abstract visualization of where straight people live.  Similarly, “lapine homocopulativity” can refer to how different genera of rabbits form social connections in similar ways or it can mean how homosexual rabbits forge meaningful relationships.

Techno- is a very sexy prefix which can refer to something related to technology or something related to technocracy (i.e. the rule of experts). So words like “technosubjectivity,” “technonormativity,” and “technogovernmentality” are deliciously flexible.

Finally, if you really want to impress people, you can use compound prefixes.  The prefix inter- is very useful in this task. We already have basic inter- words like “intersectionality” and “intertextuality. “ These can be built upon by adding bio- or hetero- for words like “biointersectionalities” or “heterointertextualities.”  Why write about the different types of discrimination that the Roma minority experiences in Bulgaria when instead I can write about “heterointeroppressivities?”  Why examine how they feel about their societal exclusion when I can instead interrogate their “biointersubjectivities?”  If you’re feeling bold, techno- makes a real statement: “technoecoalterities” or “technointerhistoricities.”

Don’t worry if you’re not entirely sure what a term means; with the correct combination of prefixes and suffixes, you will most likely arrive at something that at least appears fashionable, if not profound. When you deploy terminology that might mean any number of different things, you ensure that no one knows exactly what, if anything, you are arguing.

The great benefit of learning to write this way is that even if you never get a grant to fund your research, you will be able to confidently discuss the interbiotechnogovernmentalities of the espresso machine with your fellow Ph.D. baristas at Starbucks.

4 thoughts on “Ethnographers as Writers: A Light-Hearted Introduction to Academese

  1. Oh, Lord! I laugh, I roar. So does my sagacious spouse with whom I have shared this delicious bit.

    Never was humor more exquisitely pointed. Could Savage Minds become the cutting edge in counteracdemotechnoprosativities?

  2. Beautiful!

    I got a book for Christmas about the Devonian extinctions – When the Invasion of Land Failed by George McGhee. I’m not a paleontologist, but it’s a fascinating subject, so I thought it would be worth a try. It’s an attempt at a popular book by someone who apparently has no idea what a popular book looks like. I’m reasonably familiar with the geological timeline of Earth and with evolution in general, but the word ‘plesiomorphic’, I feel, should not be casually used without introduction.

    It seems like a different issue to the problems in humanities and social sciences, though, because ‘plesiomorphic’ is entirely transparent, assuming you have a background in paleontology, while ecotechnoherpaderpities are opaque to everybody. Social science jargon is used self-consciously and knowingly, while Professor George R. McGhee Jr. (and his editors, I suppose) didn’t realise he had to tone down the paleontological shorthands when writing an ostensibly introductory volume to his research.

  3. It is interesting how it is now the fashionable thing to do – that is, creating such “impenetrable” prose and implying that it is a sophisticated, academic, sociocentric way of writing ethnography for the 21st century. If I am not mistaken, Foucault did this back in the 60s and was considered, at least by the Anglo-American tradition of analytic philosophers, radical or irrational. For example, some of his favorites were historicity, discontinuities, and of course discursivity. All the same, thank you for an interesting and introspective article…tchau.

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