The Perils of Pseudo-Orwellianism

By Chrisomalis, Stephen | Antiquity, March 2007 | Go to article overview

The Perils of Pseudo-Orwellianism


Chrisomalis, Stephen, Antiquity


R. Alexander Bentley (2006) provides a provocative and timely challenge to archaeologists (and indeed to all scholars) in his quirky and tongue-in-cheek essay, 'Academic copying, archaeology and the English language' (Antiquity 80:196-201). The dangers of sloppy, jargon-filled, and abstruse language are as great now as they were 60 years ago when Orwell's essay 'Politics and the English language' (1946) was written. Yet the data Bentley provides concerning academic 'buzzwords' do not justify his conclusion that archaeology is in serious trouble when it comes to linguistic usage. Not only are there good reasons (aside from 'random copying') why such words are adopted and borrowed within and among academic traditions, they are not the primary contributing factor to the sloppiness and ambiguity against which Orwell and others railed.

It is, as Bentley notes, hardly an exercise in futurology to predict that new buzzwords will emerge in academic writing. What he does not note (although he is surely aware of the fact) is that such words inevitably decline in popularity. One would, I suspect, be quite heartened if one were to compare 'agency' and 'nuanced' with similar buzzwords chosen from some decades ago. It is also worth noting, without denying that 'agency' and 'nuanced' are buzzwords, that virtually any word may be found to have increased enormously in usage in the ISI Web of Knowledge between 1986 and 2004. This occurs because of the very proliferation of journals that Bentley bemoans at the beginning of his essay, and in particular the proliferation of journals that are indexed in such databases. In Figure 1, I show the dramatic rise in the popularity of the non-buzzword 'dirt', starting (as with 'agency' and 'nuanced') in 1990. Because they do not account for the increasing size of online journal indices or the raw number of articles published in any given year, Bentley's data thus fail completely to support his claim.

[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]

Bentley's choice of 'agency' and 'nuanced' as examples of buzzwords is curious. These are by no means the same sorts of words, and their purposes within the information system comprising the title, abstract and keywords of articles are entirely different. 'Nuanced' is rarely encountered in either title or keywords, but frequently in abstracts. It is a poor descriptor of an article's topic. Unsurprisingly then, of the 454 instances of 'nuanced' in title, abstract or keyword in the ISI Web of Knowledge database from 1986 to 2004 (the period examined by Bentley), only 18 occur in the title of an article and none in keywords. While it is a neologism (though hardly brand-new; the Oxford English Dictionary notes its use in print in 1920), and has recently experienced a surge of popularity, it is not ambiguous and has no ready synonyms. Thus, while its appearance in English academic writing is certainly notable from a linguistic perspective and is interesting from a selectionist archaeological perspective, it is not an example of jargon or politicised language. If there is a problem with language use in archaeology, the rising frequency of 'nuanced' does not demonstrate it.

'Agency' is a very different sort of buzzword. Bentley has included results such as 'European Defence Agency' in his Figure 1, which if excluded would alter his data. Nonetheless, I cannot possibly deny that 'agency' as an abstract concept, as he claims, has become a buzzword both in archaeology and in the humanities and social sciences as a whole over the past 15 to 20 years. In archaeology, it is frequently used in both article titles and keywords. Its use in archaeology, both as a concept and as a word, frequently correlates with particular ideological commitments, political positions, and/or theoretical interests on the part of authors, both proponents (Johnson 1989; Dobres & Robb 2000; 2005; Dornan 2002) and critics (Saitta 1994). As Mullins (2001: 755) notes in what is almost certainly not a fortuitous juxtaposition of buzzwords, 'agency can provide a nuanced, fine-grained perspective on any archaeological context, one that confronts dominant patterns and stability with variation and change'. …

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