We academics do many things to invite deserved ridicule and parody. Perhaps the most vile habit–especially among behavioral scientists like me–is we invent or spread new words that are just absurd abuses of the English language. Academics usually try to justify and glorify this practice by arguing that no word in the English language quite captures what they want to say; but in truth, I think we do this because to show others that we are so damn smart that mere “civilians” can’t possibly understand our brilliant ideas–or, worse yet, because if we spoke clear English, they would realize how absurdly simple and obvious our ideas actually were. For example, about 20 years ago, I recall an article that ripped sociologists for using the term “mimetic isomorphism,” which means, in English, copying other organizations.
Unfortunately, along these discouraging lines, I just got sent a PDF of an academic article on “Sociomateriality” (The full title is “Sociomateriality: Challenging the Separation of Technology, Work, and Organization.” I feel like I am lying or it is April Fool’s Day, but it is a real article by accomplished scholars. I will not name the authors, as I consider one a friend, although she may not feel the same about me after reading this post. But it is completely beyond me why this word had to be invented (or perhaps imported from someplace else) and, frankly, I refuse to read the article because using such language is just absurd as it invites deserved criticism.
In the words of Polly LaBarre, we really don’t need more jargon monoxide. I confess that I am sometimes guilty of this sin. When I have been, it happens because I am unable to take my reader’s perspective, or worse, because I suffering a bout of arrogance or insecurity. I once titled a co-authored article (with Anat Rafaeli) on the good cop, bad cop technique “Emotional Contrast Strategies as Means of Social Influence.” I really had no answer, except “I was feeling insecure,” when a friend asked my why on earth I didn’t call it “The Good Cop, Bad Cop Strategy.” And note this jargon monoxide was not my co-author’s fault, she wanted that simple and clear title too. Indeed, we even studied actual cops (along with bill collectors) for the article!
To return to the “Sociomateriality” article; it appears to be on an important subject, but I hope the authors can find a simple word or two to explain what they mean by it to normal human beings.
Reprinted from Work Matters
Robert I. Sutton, PhD is Professor of Management Science and Engineering at Stanford. His latest book is Good Boss, Bad Boss: How to Be the Best…and Survive the Worst. His previous book is The New York Times bestseller The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t. Follow him at twitter.com/work_matters.