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Jim Dean

Business also uses jargon to delude itself. Have you SEEN the Gallup "Strength Finder 2.0"?? Where there is no negative, it's about playing up your, and your employee's strengths. By inventing labels to discuss existing, and already quantified personalities it becomes somewhat disquieting to read. The guy who runs over other people's opinions is called a "command type," and the suggested way of working with him is to "never threaten unless you're serious." Creepy. Even simplistic jargon can make clear issues completely obtuse. I applaud those who clarify and strengthen discussion through simplicity.


I might be a little late for this discussion, but apparently a different perspective on these issues is provided by a new paper from Princeton's Daniel Oppenheimer that will be published in Cognition. A short piece in the current issue of the Economist previews this paper. In it, the authors empirically find that making something hard to read means it is more likely to remembered. In this vein, maybe a new and difficult academic jargon will help a paper to be remembered and hence increase its impact - making academic jargon somewhat useful.


i think it is wrong to confuse "Person-Technology-MutualShaping" with "Sociomateriality". I could now understand why Bob Sutton is upset. He is probably thinking that "Sociomateriality" is a fancy term for "Person-Technology-MutualShaping". Precisely not.
In fact, the very point of that paper is to move beyond the "Person-Technology-MutualShaping" argument, and to question the very separation between the "social" and the "material".

So, in that sense, I couldn't think of a more evocative word that connotes the ontological fusion between the "social" and the "material" than "Sociomateriality".


Isn't the idea that some people are too dumb to understand certain forms of discourse comparable to the idea that some people are too mean to occupy certain social positions?

How can someone who actively encourages people to label other people "assholes" be made "ill" by people who (might) think that some people out there are just not smart enough to understand a particular theory of social life? (Is it that sociology shouldn't think of itself as a game for smart people?)

Why is it okay to assume are people "mean" but not okay to assume they are "stupid"? Or even more on topic: why is okay to assume academics are pretentious bores when they use the word "sociomateriality" but not okay to assume they are stupid when they think it should be called "a sort of personal thingliness about life"?

I want to make clear that I have no urge in either direction. I think the "personal thingliness" idea could, in the right context, be a smart suggestion. And I also have no trouble imagining a pretentious bore invoking "sociomateriality".

Bob Sutton

Well, we certainly have plenty of perspectives here. I acknowledge and appreciate the arguments that, in the name of precision, sometimes we need a new word. But as a long-time behavioral scientist, all too often, the jargon is used to disguise that we are talking about simple common sense things, to make it appear as we are "smarter than you" and I continue to believe that ""Sociomateriality" smells of a word invented and repeated by people who want to have that effect. In this case, I would prefer something like "the interplay between people and technology." Or "humanity and technology." There is some implication in at least one comment that this move toward simple language is happening because people are too dumb to learn fancy words... that's the spirit that make me ill. I guess where I come down on this is that, for precision, an occasional new word is worthwhile, but it is something that scholars should do with care and as rarely as possible. I have probably consumed an average of 20 academic articles a week for the last 35 years -- starting when I got involved in research when I was an undergraduate, and I would assert that at least 75% of the jargon we use in our articles obscures rather than enhances communication and understanding. And the stereotype that sociologists are the worst is, I believe true, but as a psychologist, we are pretty bad too.

I have an idea. Perhaps we should create a norm in academia that you only are allowed to introduce new jargon if: 1. It is really necessary and 2. You are required to identify a useless or confusing or pretentious word or phrase and suggest a replacement. Perhaps, something like the Urban Dictionary, we would start the "Snotty Academic Language Project" where clear thinking and clear speaking academics could suggest alternatives to offending words and phrases. I would start with mimetic isomorphism.

I confess that this is the kind of topic I find embarrassingly fun and an obsession I have had ever since, in about 1986, I got a comment on a paper -- from the editor and reviewer -- that may paper was carefully done and offered a nice review and perspective on the literature on organizational decline, but they wondered if it was appropriate for the journal because it was so well written and used so little jargon.. I never forgot that lesson, and when I was an editor at the Administrative Science Quarterly, I drove authors nuts because I thought they should use language that was understandable to more than 25 people on earth. I once had a population ecologist tell me that he wasn't going to do it because most ASQ readers (these are mostly PHD's and professors at research universities) were too stupid to understand the brilliant ideas developed by him and his colleagues.

Experiences like these have taught me to question why we need a complex phrase that most humans cannot understand when we have simple ones that will do. And I also have taught myself to reject arguments that, if I were smarter or devoted myself to studying some obscure field, I might be able to develop a dim understanding of these brilliant concepts.

I guess what I am saying is that CV may have a point about sociomateriality, but it still sounds like jargon monoxide to me, and I will continue to assume that academics are guilty until proven innocent on such matters.

Robin JG


Have you read J. Scott Armstrong's classic paper on unintelligible writing and academic prestige?


I'm with CV on this one, Bob. The adjective "sociomaterial" is no more (and no less) jargon than "actuarial". It's a tecnical term for a technical concern. If you haven't heard of it before, you may have to have someone explain it to you, but once it is explained to you, you understand why a special word is needed.

"Couldn't you just say 'insurance science'?" Well, no, and for reasons that could then be made clear.

Like any other struggle, the fight against "unnecessary words" (to use Strunk and White's epithet) must begin by an accurate sense of the problem. "There is no room for superstition in this," as Arthur Miller put it. "The devil is precise."

Also, I'd like to repeat my worries about the opposite tendency (or counter-movement) towards "plain speaking". This is what valorizes telling people that they are, "for lack of a better word", assholes. Well, maybe there are actually better words. Words that more aptly identify the problem and indicate solutions. (I stress the "maybe". Like everyone else, I find TNAR refreshing.)


I totally agree with what you said in here. You know, the editors of Webster's Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged (475,000 main headwords) in their preface, estimate the number to be much higher. It is estimated that about 25,000 words are added to the language each year.[78]
The Global Language Monitor announced that the English language had crossed the 1,000,000-word threshold on June 10, 2009.
However, The latest 2007 5th edition of Xiandai Hanyu Cidian 现代汉语词典/現代漢語詞典, an authoritative one-volume dictionary on modern standard Chinese language as used in mainland China, has 65,000 entries and defines 11,000 head characters.
I don't which one is better or maybe both of them have advantages and shortcomings.


Thanks for the smile, Bob (and I'm enjoying the Isaac's Merton excerpts!) Makes me think, too, of Murray Gell-Man's citing of an "old saying:" A scientist would rather use someone else's toothbrush than another scientist's nomenclature."

Wally Bock

I think the ultimate test here is whether or not the specialized term helps or hinders understanding. What I understand CV to be saying is that in the context of a academic article aimed at other specialists, the term does that. If it were in a blog post, it probably wouldn't.

I think there's a tension here that reminds me of working with police agencies. Every agency has a specific set of terms to refer to specific situations. Many California agencies use California penal code sections as a dispatch shorthand. 223 is robbery, for example and 459 is a burglary.

Several agencies have tried to go to some form of "plain language" system of dispatch, but dispatchers, officers, and deputies always develop their own form of shorthand.

In a dispatch situation code 223 gets a message across quickly and clearly. Using that same code as the only explanation to a reporter or a victim, "Yes, ma'am you're the victim of a 223," would not be helpful.

I don't have a problem with academics making up terms or using terms of art to communicate with each other, as long as it makes communication better. But I do have a problem with academics or consultants who use jargon to communicate with the rest of us or who invent words to use as part of their branding, while pretending that they've developed a specific term we all should use.

Bob Sutton


I get and respect your perspective, but honestly, I think that term and many others we use are just awful and serve only to cause confusion and encourage plain speaking human beings to mock us.

CV Harquail


While I'm with you on the general concept that scientific jargon can obscure perfectly good constructs and thus render them useless to your average manager, I have to disagree with you on this one.

"Sociomateriality", as a term, is a precise, specific, and evocative name for a way of thinking about the relationships between 'things' and 'society'. The French guy who invented the term could have called it "SocialThingness" instead of 'sociomateriality', but if he had, Latour would not have evoked the long history of the study of the material relationships of work (all the way back to Marx's analysis of the relationship between physical means of production and the institutions-organizations created by same) and even further, back to our favorite feature of western empistemology, the mind-body problem.

The term "sociomateriality" doesn't go far in a non-academic environment, true, so it doesn't serve to pull together many unrelated ideas that might allow a manager to infer what it's all about.

However, and this is a big however, sociomateriality *is* a really useful term within academia at large because it is significant to *many* diverse disciplines... beyond management & org scholars. It is actually a term that gathers ideas together, and reads well and makes sense to many disciplines easily and automatically. We can recognize its history, and the long intellectual conversation the term brings with it.

I know a neologism when I see one, and 'sociomateriality' is no neologism. ;-)

Also, consider that there is not another term that sociomateriality is attempting to fancify. It is not a term that tries to borrow interest and legitimacy from 'hard' sciences, as 'memetic isomorphism' does.

It may be that SocialThingness, or 'Person-Technology-Mutual-Shaping' might be more direct terms. These terms lack the intellectual power of sociomateriality. They are superficially easier to 'recognize', but at the same time they lack the full set of meanings that 'sociomateriality' conveys.

As an aside, if managers were better educated, and had at least been introduced to non-American conversations about work, labor, and social relationships, the term might not seem so offputting.

climbing down off my "soapbox" (aka rectangular parallelipiped of surfactants),



Go figure. Academics are people too, falling victim to the fallacy that difficult to understand means superior content or intelligence. ("This must be good, I can't understand a word of it.") In the world of consultants, multi-syllabic terminology creates the illusion of newness which makes it easier to sell the next training program.

Another product of this notion that big-words-imply-superior-intelligence is the Margon Jonger: An individual who bungles the use of trendy jargon in an attempt to impress others. (I coined this term while in physics graduate school many years ago. Think Mythbusters: "Don't try this at home. We're experts.")

Lacie B.

My favorite book on this topic is Andreski's "Social Sciences as Sorcery."

Here's the summary article in Time from 1972:,9171,903608,00.html

I think it should be a staple reading for graduate training programs in the social sciences.


HR / OD "professionals" have their own jargon issues.

I saw some training the other day where managers were expected to "re-direct" an employee's performance.

How about, just how about, "coach them to improve??

Keep up the fine work professor.



One among many problems with the broken model of academic writing and idea sharing.

Bret Simmons

Academics full of shit? Say it isn't so, Bob!

Honestly, the way we communicate creates barriers not bridges. No wonder so many question our relevance. Thanks, Bob!


The post reminds me of the "veritable nosography and materia medica of closely identified ailments endemic among scholars and scientists" that Robert K. Merton supplied in his 1965 book "On the Shoulders of Giants."

Indeed one of the ailments was "the obscurantist grimgribber (the art of gobbledegook)."

(The others were: "denigrating adumbrationism (or the practice of finding seeming anticipations in times long past of ideas or findings newly discovered in the present); the correlative anatopic or palimpsestic syndrome (the covering over of earlier versions of an idea by ascribing it to a comparatively recent author in whose work the idea was first encountered); an honest cryptomnesia ('submerged or subliminal memory of events forgotten by the supraliminal self' as in forgetting the source of an idea one takes to be newly one’s own); insanabile scribendi cacoethes (the excruciating itch to publish, an ailment remedied only by scratching words down on paper); the humbling Parvus-complex or nanism (diminishing the scholarly merits of one's own work by ambitiously contrasting it to the towering work achieved by giants of science and learning); the parochial peregrinosis (the subliminal fear of foreign learning); and, to extend this prefatory list no further, the defensive tu quoque (thou also), first generally identified in the seventeenth century and specified here as meeting a charge of plagiarism by retorting that the accuser has himself plagiarized.")

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