Fuck Nuance

by Kieran Healy on August 31, 2015

About nine months ago, my colleague Steve Vaisey told me he was interested in organizing a session at the American Sociological Association Meetings about the idea of “nuance” in sociological theory, and in particular about how there seemed to be a lot of demand for the stuff. He asked me if I’d be interested in submitting a paper called something like “Against Nuance”. I replied that if you were going to do something like that, you should just go ahead and call it “Fuck Nuance” and be done with it. “OK then”, said Steve, “I’ll put that down as the title”.

Having inadvertently bound myself to that mast like some accident-prone Ulysses, I presented the paper last week in Chicago. Here’s the draft.



AcademicLurker 08.31.15 at 6:22 pm

Fuck Nuance

That’s just what Conan would say.


Chris Mealy 08.31.15 at 6:51 pm

Halfway through I thought, “Does he really want sociologists to be like economists?” The answer surprised me. Economists do seem to have more fun than sociologists, though.


Ted Lemon 08.31.15 at 7:21 pm

Er, but according to recent news, kudzu _does not_ actually cover the South. That said, I rather like your three nuance traps. Hopefully sociology is good for more, however, than the mere satisfaction of having chewed on a particularly interesting theory.


Robespierre 08.31.15 at 7:23 pm

Be sure to put a trigger warning up front.


Jonathan Mayhew 08.31.15 at 7:51 pm

Excellent. The fact that a distinction is more subtle or fine-grained does not make it automatically more significant, so the demand for nuance is a form of rhetorical blackmail, always available to anyone for any reason.

Of course, a distinction that is important or significant will always be so, whether it is fine-grained or not. So in fact, once you’ve said that a distinction is fundamental in any particular context, then is it any longer a nuance, a theoretical subtlety?


Oxbird 08.31.15 at 7:56 pm

Enjoyed the first rate “draft.” Hopefully, I am not being too nuanced in noting that I would enjoy a more elaborate discussion of the nuance of the conceptual framework.


Marktheknife 08.31.15 at 9:08 pm

Great stuff. I do feel like you’ve folded a fourth distinguishable driver of nuance-ing into your three drivers, and could pull it back out. Specifically, I think moralizing self righteousness is a strong driver of nuance -ing. It’s not unlike being a connoisseur; both make you feel superior to the non-nuanced pleb, but the basis of superiority is different. And the moralizing person also feels his or herself to be doing good when shutting down theories, or demanding they account for how certain wronged people should be treated.

I actually wonder if that is part of the distinction between sociology and economics as well. The former is often strongly attached to a particular form of leftist morality, and the latter ranges from taking perverse pleasure in upending conventional morality, to those with market-based morality. Perhaps it is not a surprise that Foucault was drawn to economics, when he himself gave surprisingly non-moralizing examples regarding pedophilia.


phenomenal cat 08.31.15 at 9:53 pm

Haven’t read the draft yet, though I’m looking forward to it.

But this is pretty spot-on: ” The fact that a distinction is more subtle or fine-grained does not make it automatically more significant, so the demand for nuance is a form of rhetorical blackmail, always available to anyone for any reason.” Mayhew@5

Anyone with a smidge of familiarity with humanities and social science milieus knows about the depth and extent of rhetorical blackmail techniques available to those willing to use them.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a sucker for nuance and it can be a valid criticism. Then again, I’m also a sucker for a well-aimed, well-placed polemic… Maybe Kieran could get a publisher (prickly paradigm comes to mind) to start a “Fuck…[that]” series!


John Holbo 08.31.15 at 11:15 pm

I think I’m really saying the same thing in my Conan post.


John Quiggin 08.31.15 at 11:19 pm

The big problem with Becker and his followers is that it’s easy to load all the nuance back into preferences. For example, martyrs have a preference for self-sacrifice, so there is no problem in explaining martyrdom.


John Holbo 08.31.15 at 11:54 pm

Sorry, Academic Lurker got to my joke first.


philofra 09.01.15 at 1:45 am

George W. Bush once famously said he didn’t do nuance. In other words he also said fuck to nuance. And look how good his administration didn’t turned out.

You would really have to nuance his legacy to find something good about it.


Fuzzy Dunlop 09.01.15 at 1:49 am

Oh my goodness. This is exactly the warning I was giving my history students on the first day of class (not in so many words).


philofra 09.01.15 at 1:54 am

Someone once wrote that there is a weak juxtaposition and a strong juxtaposition. I found that interesting. I suppose, then, there can also be a weak nuance and a strong nuance.


Collin Street 09.01.15 at 2:29 am

> For example, martyrs have a preference for self-sacrifice, so there is no problem in explaining martyrdom.

Dormative principle!


Sebastian H 09.01.15 at 3:28 am

I think you’re on to something that is important in all of the social sciences but it might even be stronger than your first (on principled grounds) formulation.

Social sciences (and don’t even get me started about law) natter on and on and on about edge cases when half the time they don’t even understand or incorporate the central thing they are talking about.

So huge swaths of general moral understandings that cross cultures get swept away because in the edge cases there are differences in the definition of murder. Sure, but in the central cases there is enormous agreement. It happens all over the place (and is a favorite of climate deniers, anti-vaxxers, and GMO crazies who all want to jump on disagreement on edge cases to promote their idea that the whole thing is fake. (It is a favorite of moral relativists too, but there aren’t so many of them.)


rootlesscosmo 09.01.15 at 3:36 am

When a copy editor at the Village Vloice ca. 1955 “corrected” a Norman Mailer column, replacing “nuances of growth” with “nuisances,” Mailer quit the paper, with a farewell blast called “the nuisances of growth.”


rootlesscosmo 09.01.15 at 3:37 am



david 09.01.15 at 4:18 am


Collin Street 09.01.15 at 4:33 am

> Halfway through I thought, “Does he really want sociologists to be like economists?”

The path you take depends as much on where you are as where you want to be.


Garrulous 09.01.15 at 5:06 am

Nuance can also fuck up your prose. Everyone’s read academic sentences which, striving to be over-precise, tie themselves up in vast knots of caveats, hesitations, exceptions and disclaimers. (And paragraphs too, obviously, though perhaps not quite to the same degree, and not always in the same way. It does, I suppose, depend to some extent on the context. Also chapters.)


Roland Stone 09.01.15 at 5:37 am

One of the great abstracts of all time, surely. Right up there with this one.


Timothy Scriven 09.01.15 at 5:54 am

I’ve just cited this in my PhD proposal.


Rakesh Bhandari 09.01.15 at 6:33 am

This seems to put Healey in Acemoglu and Robinson’s camp against Sachs. Sachs has called for more nuance in the diagnosis of poverty and argued that A&R have simplified matters by ignoring geography (say malarial load), culture (e.g patriarchal culture) and dubious policy decisions to put undue attention on “inclusive institutions”. This would seem to be the sharpest current debate about how nuanced a theory should be.
So Sachs writes:
“Acemoglu and Robinson put the difference between us as follows:

‘We think, and perhaps Sachs disagrees, a framework that says there are 17 factors, each of them hugely important is no framework at all. The power of a framework comes from its ability to focus on the most important elements at the exclusion of the rest and in doing so in providing a way of thinking about these elements, how they function, how they have come about, and how they change. For us, those elements were related to institutions and politics, and we have focused on them.’

This is a useful summary of our differences. I believe that several things matter for the diverse patterns of economic development, while they believe that one big thing is the key: political institutions. Yet wishing for such a focused framework doesn’t make it accurate. Choosing between these approaches is not a matter of style or ideology, but of the evidence.”


Jim Harrison 09.01.15 at 6:36 am

I’ve come to think that a valuable sociological idea is one that upsets people and is less wrong than you’d expect it to be, something like Halbwach’s theory of collective memory.


strategery 09.01.15 at 7:12 am

“A Master Sommelier probably knows a lot more about wine than you, but it is still reasonable to be skeptical whether detailed wine-talk has any sort of codiable connection to the taste of wines.”

I guess it is always reasonable to be skeptical, but it is also reasonable to draw a straight line to the conclusion that you have no clue about wine or wine culture and shouldn’t have used the example.

There are bullshitters everywhere and an infinite supply of wine noobs for them to fool but not amongst the Master Sommelier set, who can taste wines blind and determine their type, location and age with uncanny accuracy because they follow a standard methodology that works if your ability to interpret the smells and tastes is sufficiently developed. Moreover, you don’t have to be a credentialed professional to learn enough about wine to get into the wine talk of terroir and winemaking choices and see the omnipresent connections between wine-talk and the actual smells and tastes.

Just because some people fail at their attempt to learn the detailed wine-talk and end up sounding phony does not mean all the other people engaging in the wine talk are deluding themselves with contrived nuance.


casmilus 09.01.15 at 10:39 am

Ordinary language philosophy went in to decline when Ernest Gellner declared the same thing.


Snarki, child of Loki 09.01.15 at 2:15 pm

So, the takeaway from all of this is that when attending American Sociological Association meetings, one should wear a nametag that says “NUANCE” ?

Sounds legit.


Tim Craker 09.01.15 at 2:19 pm

“Davis’s account is usefully dialogical. He has a convincing explanation of how interestingness depends on the relationship between the theoretical claim being made, the position of the person making it, and the composition of the audience hearing it. The same idea may be interesting or dull depending on these relationships.”

So if Healy were trapped on an island (or a department) with humanities faculty who quite like Geertzian “thick description,” nuance might become more interesting?

Perhaps the question is: When do we want explanatory power, and when do we want to address singular or particular meanings (of a text, of a practice, of an artifact, etc.)?


LFC 09.01.15 at 3:25 pm

Have looked through (not read every word of) the draft paper. The trick of combining simplicity and strength in the ‘right’ amounts (cited to D. Lewis, Counterfactuals) surely is an issue for a lot of theorizing, and not just in sociology.

The paper does restrict its judgments to one discipline/field, saying there is too much nuance in contemporary theorizing in U.S. sociology (see the very end of the paper). Because the paper’s judgments are explicitly limited in this way, I’m not sure Rakesh @24 is justified in saying this “puts Healey in A&R’s camp rather than Sachs.” However, it would be interesting to know whether Kieran would make the same judgment for other fields, say, political science, which is probably (?) more sharply divided between ‘positivists’ and ‘interpretivists’ than sociology, at least as these fields are currently practiced, esp. in the U.S. academy. Might also be interesting to address the question whether the existing disciplinary divisions in the social sciences are useful or largely artificial.


LFC 09.01.15 at 3:36 pm

The stuff on bottom of p.7 and top of p.8 is (sorry for the word) interesting.


JRLRC 09.01.15 at 4:22 pm

I´m with Hirschman…


Matt_L 09.01.15 at 7:16 pm

A great paper and I look forward to seeing it published somewhere. I think you are spot on. I have seen good ideas downed like a sack of kittens in a river by “nuance.”


marcel proust 09.01.15 at 7:16 pm

The title of the OP brought to mind this poster which I had on my wall about 30 years ago. Just learned about the connection with Krassner in tracking it down. If you are looking for a suitable illustration for the piece discussed in the OP, this might be of interest.


Main Street Muse 09.02.15 at 12:14 am

This is awesome. Of course you saw the Chronicle review, I’m sure: http://bit.ly/1IGBCWL

Timothy Scriven @23 is perhaps the first, but certainly not the last to cite this paper. Nice way to wake up the review committee… ;-)


Dean C. Rowan 09.02.15 at 4:20 am

So you’re saying, “Fuck adding complexity when doing so is merely gratuitous”? Or, “Fuck our present maladroit execution of underdeveloped or badly constructed methods”? Or, “Let’s just chill the fuck out and gaze a bit more at our navels”?


Map Maker 09.02.15 at 9:22 pm


strategery 09.03.15 at 12:37 am

@map maker — that study is a joke because the state fair competitions are a joke. Actual connoisseurs know better. As mentioned in the article, those competitions involve speed tasting, the judges are paid to be there and people in the business of fine wine understand them to be an invalid marketing gimmick (can you find a bottle of wine over $30 that submits to those fairs? That use the results to help sell their wine? ). Speed tasting being unreliable is an obvious fact to many but apparently the social scientist and journalist involved didn’t talk to actual experts and connoisseurs. But really we are talking about disparate segments of the market. Professor Healy cited Master Sommeliers as potentially unreliable and that was ignorant. The MS process probably wouldn’t work in a speed tasting format but actual MS tours wouldn’t associate themselves with the garbage being served at the state fair competitions. You might think that the judges would be embarrassed by the inconsistentcy (which needed no study, again, obvious to people with a clue) – but I think most in the business see the state fair competitions as a marketing opportunity for second tier wines. But most of the market is not high end connoisseur stuff anyway.


strategery 09.03.15 at 1:30 am

Sorry for piling on… but the previous message was written on the train and was interrupted. Two last points about wine:

1. The wine world is infused with BS, fakirs, and noveau riche clowns that wouldn’t know nuance if it skullfucked them. There are business incentives and social codes that obscure this. When a third of the supposed insiders are being secretly laughed at behind their back by the other two thirds, it is very difficult to penetrate that from the outside.

2. Blind tasting is known to be challenging, humbling, and unreliable. Not to Master Sommeliers, but to virtually everyone else. That does not support the proposition that nuance is contrived.

Is nuance deployed by wanna be wine snobs who have learned just enough language to sound legitimate to outsiders, and who think of themselves as experts, even though many of their friends and colleagues know they are out of their depth? Yes of course. In that, wine and academia do have something in common. But the paper comes across as knee-jerk populist in this section and in so doing undermines the broader points of his otherwise brilliant piece.


Ragweed 09.03.15 at 6:11 am

I haven’t read the whole paper, but a thought: I think part of the appeal of demanding more nuance is that poor applications of sociological research are rampant in policy making.

One of the biggest buzzwords in education right now is “data-driven”, in which research is used to justify some intervention or other. The research is often quite interesting and meaningful on its own, but it gets duck-taped and misapplied to some poorly designed intervention that may or may not actually be related to the research (and often is the latest product from some for-profit outfit), and gets rolled out by administrators as the latest “research based” and “data driven” intervention of the month.

The problem is not the research, but the misapplication of the research to a real-world scenario where it does not take into account the multiple variables that are present in the real world. The abstraction that is a feature in the research becomes a major bug in the application. And for someone who has seen cases of the failure of an intervention that doesn’t take into account factors like race or culture or disability, the temptation is to cut it off at the source – to try to insist that the research take account of these variables up front before it becomes the favorite “research based” intervention being crammed down everyone’s throat.


Dave 09.03.15 at 2:24 pm

You know who else f*cked nuance?


arcseconds 09.04.15 at 8:13 am

Nice paper, like the abstract :-)

But I am confused by the term ‘Actually Existing Nuance’. I’m pretty sure I understand what you mean by that, it’s the kind of nuance that someone is asking for when they say “your paper needs more nuance”. But to me, the term if anything seems more appropriate for the kind of nuance you’re not against: the level of sophistication the theory needs to be any good. I’m wondering whether something like ‘superadded nuance’ would be better.

I sometimes wonder whether academic papers and books shouldn’t have a ‘hair let down’ section where the authors can just go wild with whatever stuff doesn’t really belong in the theory itself. It’s here that they can display all the nuance they want, speculate wildly, distance themselves from their own theory or gushingly cheerlead it, engage in whatever aesthetic appreciation they want, etc.

And I think there are merits to displaying that you don’t think your theory is some kind of rich, high-fidelity reflection of deep aspects of reality, or anything. I’ve made a cautious truce with homo economicus for the time being, but it is a rather brutal construct, and if some economist had come clean much earlier on that they don’t actually think morality is just the same sort of thing as a preference for the colour purple, and had rhapsodized about how great goodness is and how much they like the magic of sunsets and Sibelius, but that economics just doesn’t try to capture this stuff, I would have gotten over the hideous simplicity much earlier.

I sometimes wonder whether academic papers and books oughtn’t to have a ‘hair let down’ section where the author(s) can just run wild with


Dean C. Rowan 09.05.15 at 5:26 am

“I sometimes wonder whether academic papers and books oughtn’t to have a ‘hair let down’ section where the author(s) can just run wild with”

Marvelous fragment! The great thing is academic authors always can and should run wild with … [you name it!]. But maybe many of them are … what’s the word? … pussies?

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