I think we need a 'Papers I wish I had written' category:
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.
I think I took a more nuanced view of this issue back in 2009 when I said "Nuance sucks." But seriously, I agree with Dr. Healy's basic premise. In the social sciences, nuance often clouds the obvious. In an attempt to be nuanced (sound smarter?) we often surround important conclusions with caveats, conditions, exceptions, waffling, whatever. This nuance provides the ammunition needed by often simple-minded critics to dismiss the entire fact-based argument and insert in its place the critic's own opinion. This reminds me of a cartoon I recently saw on a 'friend's' Facebook page:
While scientists still try to follow 'Then,' nuance often leaves the perception that they are following 'Now.' The non-nuanced audience then uses the perceived 'Now' to dismiss 'Then,' which leaves us where we are today (in my nuanced opinion of course): Political discourse based solely on selection of opinions that support preconceived notion rather than critical assessment of important issues based on science. Nuance has its place in academic discourse. But within the realm of convincing the general population of scientifically defensible positions: Nuance sucks.
*I figured since John (and the Chronicle of Higher Ed, and the NY Times) opened the barn door, I am OK with this title. If anyone is offended, my apologies...perhaps next time I will pick a more nuanced title.