Research

Is Nuance Overrated?

Duke U.

“Sociologists typically use it as a term of praise,” says Kieran Healy, an associate professor of sociology at Duke U., “and almost without exception when nuance is mentioned it is because someone is asking for more of it.”
August 31, 2015

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."

That is the title of a paper he presented at the conference and later uploaded to his website. "Seriously, fuck it," explains the paper’s abstract.

"Sociologists typically use it as a term of praise," says Mr. Healy, "and almost without exception when nuance is mentioned it is because someone is asking for more of it."

Nuance can elucidate the complexities of the world, says the Duke sociologist, but too often scholars use it to bury anything resembling a clear, forceful idea. "We want our abstract concepts to do something for us," he says, but nuance-worship "makes us shy away from the riskier aspects of abstraction and theory-building."

The paper struck a chord. It has been downloaded more than 12,000 times since it went online, on Thursday, according to Mr. Healy. "I’ve definitely not had an academic-conference paper get this much attention so fast before," he says.

In an email interview that has been edited and condensed for publication, Mr. Healy explained his beef with nuance in less-abrupt terms.

Q. What moved you to write this paper?

A. My colleague Steve Vaisey organized a conference panel on "The Promise and Pitfalls of ‘Nuance’ in Sociological Theory." He asked me if I wanted to contribute something to it, perhaps called "Against Nuance." I said, If you’re going to write a paper like that, you should really just name it "Fuck Nuance" instead. And now here we are.

Q. Nuance is pretty much always seen as a good thing, since it acknowledges the variation and complexity of the world. When is nuance bad?

A. In social theory, nuance is bad when it becomes a kind of free-floating demand to make things "richer" or "more sophisticated" by adding complexity, detail, or levels of analysis, in the absence of any real way of disciplining how you add them. People just keep insisting on a more-sophisticated approach and act as though simply listing the many ways something might be more complex is the same as having a better theory of that thing. In such cases, levels and aspects and dimensions may just pile up in a heap. It is especially bad when you habitually make this your first move when deciding whether an idea or theory is any good.

Q. So you’re not arguing against nuance per se, but against the idea of calling for more nuance without explaining precisely what is missing from a theory and how to account for it.

A. 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.

Q. You say embracing nuance is "not the opposite of being stupid." Why do smart people equate nuance with intelligence, and why are they wrong to do so?

A. The world is a messy place. We should value the ability to grasp and express its complex texture. Great artists and novelists can do it, for example, and it happens sometimes in social science, too. But that laudable capacity can also degenerate into just calling for a more-sophisticated approach — and then pretending that’s the same as actually providing one. That’s bad.

Q. Acknowledging one’s blind spots can stand in the way of developing an idea succinct enough to be put into practice. But blind spots do exist. What are the risks of setting aside nuance in order to make theories more user-friendly?

A. This mistakes the issue. It’s not that theory should be as simple as possible. But it is true that we can often make a lot more progress than you’d think when we simplify things in slightly absurd ways.

This happens over and over and with different kinds of models, not just mathematical ones. You still have to intelligently develop these simple tools. You have to be aware of what they can and can’t do. But your first reaction to them should not be to look for what the tool lacks, and demand it be added in.

Q. One type of nuance fetish you talk about is "connoisseurship" — for example, devoting energy to the nuances of wine. You say: "Connoisseurship gets its aesthetic bite, and a little kick of symbolic violence, from the easy insinuation that the person trying to simplify things is, sadly, a bit less sophisticated a thinker than the person pointing out that things are a bit more complicated." Ouch. So are sommeliers just wasting our time?

A. 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.

Second, when connoisseurs dominate, their theoretical language tends to really outrun the phenomenon. The very large vocabulary of wine has many terms that are next to impossible to reliably connect to what we can taste.

Q. The sociology literature might be drowning in caveats, but out here in the world politicians and pundits are always encouraging people to see things in the simplest terms. If you’re an academic expert talking to a lay audience, is it your role to complicate things by providing a nuanced point of view? Or should you promote ideas that are straightforward enough for people to rally around?

A. What counts as simple, nuanced, or interesting depends partly on who is talking and whom they are talking to. An elementary or even boring point for area experts might be illuminating (or weird) for people out in the world. There’s no contradiction there.

Where you don’t want to end up — either with a lay audience or an expert one — is to find yourself saying nothing more than "It’s more complicated than that" and then giving a list of ways that it is. Like I said, the world’s a messy place — it’s always "more complicated than that." It is not the job of theory to verbally reproduce the complexity of the world.

Steve Kolowich writes about how colleges are changing, and staying the same, in the digital age. Follow him on Twitter @stevekolowich, or write to him at steve.kolowich@chronicle.com.