Unpack Your Discourses

August 22, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

In her “Ten Commandments of Graduate School,” published recently at The Chronicle, Tenured Radical* commands
Thou shalt use the word discourse sparingly; likewise neoliberalism, and other theoretical catchphrases designed to obscure that thou hast not fully thought through thine ideas.
At the ASA meetings earlier this month, I didn’t hear much discourse.  But there were other trendy words.  Narrative, for example, has achieved widespread use even outside of academia, though most of the time the word story would do just as well.  (My post on this word  five years ago had the title “That’s My Narrative and I’m Sticking to It.”)  Both these terms had fallen into relative disuse until post-modernist, structuralist, post-structuralist writing pumped them with new life. 

(Click on an image for a larger, clearer view.)

From the 16th to the 19th centuries, learned people wrote discourses – Rousseau on Inequality, Dryden on Satire, etc.  Nowadays, anyone who speaks has a discourse just waiting to be analyzed.  And of course we all have narratives for just about everything we think about. 

A couple of words I heard several times at the ASA were newbies. They just did not exist back in the day.  These were the “ize” words.


Incentivize probably comes to us from the economists.  With contextualize and problematize, it’s harder to guess who’s responsible. 

Maybe it’s because academics travel to these conferences, but at the ASA, and apparently elsewhere, there was much talk of unpacking.  I even think I may have heard someone unpacking a narrative (or was it a discourse?)  Unpack, too, begins is rise in the 1970s.**




Finally, the ASA seemed a good place to look for your lenses. Speakers urged us look at something “through the lens of” this or that theory, or noted that a theory was “a lens through which” we might view some data.  The graph below shows these two phrases as a proportion of all uses of lens references (to avoid the possible effect of an increase in lens caused by “contact lenses”). 



I’m sure there are other trendy terms I’ve missed.  Maybe you have your own favorites.  It’s hard to predict which will sink in popularity as quickly as they have soared, and will be with us for a while.                     
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* Tenured Radical is the nom de blog of  historian Claire B. Potter, who looks like she might have an even more noted relative..


** “Unpack Your Adjectives” first appeared on Schoolhouse Rock in 1973, but although I love to hear Blossom Dearie, I doubt that she was responsible or all the unpacking going on at academic conferences in the following decades.

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