Beware the nuance trap

In possibly the best titled academic paper of the year, Kieran Healy argues that nuance is, contrary to popular belief, a bad thing. He makes it clear he’s not arguing against nuance per se, but against the tendency to make

…some bit of theory “richer” or “more sophisticated” by adding complexity to it, usually by way of some additional dimension, level, or aspect, but in the absence of any strong means of disciplining or specifying the relationship between the new elements and the existing ones. (p. 118)

He argues that this kind of demand for nuance makes for worse theories, that are less interesting and actually stand in the way of the advancement of thought. As such, his objections to nuance are made on principled, aesthetic and strategic grounds. He also identifies three categories of nuance traps:

  1. The nuance of fine grain: “the ever more detailed, merely empirical description of the world”.
  2. The nuance of the conceptual framework: “the ever more extensive expansion of some theoretical system in a way that effectively closes it off from rebuttal or disconfirmation by anything in the world.”
  3. The nuance of the connoisseur: “the insinuation that a sensitivity to nuance is a manifestation of one’s distinctive (often metaphorically expressed and at times seemingly ineffable) ability to grasp and express the richness, texture, and flow of social reality itself.”

These three ‘nuance traps’, whilst directed at academic writing in sociology, can also be applied to criticisms of educational theory. Needless to say, I’m sure I’ve fallen victim to each of them at one time or another, and this serves as a useful reminder to avoid bullshit and communicate clearly.

Healy proposes that a ‘good’ theory is one that depends on abstraction.

Abstraction is a way of thinking where “new ideas or conceptions are formed by considering several objects or ideas and omitting the features that distinguish them.” Abstraction means throwing away detail, getting rid of particulars. We begin with a variety of different things or events—objects, people, countries—and by ignoring how they differ, we produce some abstract concept like “furniture,” “honor killing,” “social-democratic welfare state,” or “white privilege.” (p. 121)

Complexity isn’t inherently bad, it’s just that it’s a poor way to approach understanding a complex world. Our efforts to understand are more likely to be helped by striving after simplicity. By simplifying and creating abstractions we begin to make some sense of our little corner of the world.

By calling for a theory to be more comprehensive, or for an explanation to include additional dimensions, or for a concept to become more flexible and multifaceted, we paradoxically end up with less clarity. We lose information by adding detail. (p. 122)

Theories cannot account for everything, and the call to cover every niche interests is, as Healy puts it, “an unconstrained process”; it never ends, bogging us down in the tedious and the pointless.

This is important as while a theory should have explanatory power and utility, it should also seek to be interesting. When we sneeringly point out that ‘things are a bit more complicated than that’ we’re implying that we are more subtle and sophisticated than the person trying to simplify things. If a theory is interesting, why make it less so? Healy advises that

…we are likely to be better off developing a taste for what is interesting (with respect to the audiences for our work) rather than a taste for nuance in the name of sophistication. If nothing else, the orientation it encourages is fundamentally different from connoisseurship. It springs from the desire to substantively engage with one’s audience rather than intellectually subdue it. (p. 124)

He concedes that although

there must be some room for subtlety of thought and fine distinctions of meaning in any theory worthy of the name… whether subtlety and distinction-making are intellectually productive is in part a matter of where they are being done and for whom. (p. 126)

The paper ends with the claim that, currently, our taste for nuance hampers efforts to make intellectual progress and gets in the way of a broader understanding: “We are glutted with nuance. I say, fuck it.”

There are various tools we can use to help us cut through the glut of nuance. This series of seven posts on Dan Dennett’s intuition pumps might be useful in any such endeavour.

13 Responses to Beware the nuance trap

  1. Michael Pye says:

    Thank you for the link to Healy’s paper. It was a deliciously witty and sarcastic diatribe. The line “Indeed,“I don’t tolerate any bullshit” is itself an especially tedious sort of bullshit” was particularly enjoyable. I found myself considering it ironic, awaiting the final punchline like wading through a Stewart lee routine.

    Though he specifically mentions a tu quoque counter at the end I still believe he is guilty of it throughout. A simple appeal to simplicity would have been a better argument, though I would then have lost a very enjoyable hour of my life.

    • David Didau says:

      Help me out here, how is he guilty of the tu quoque fallacy?

      • Michael Pye says:

        Sorry mistake, it isnt clear when I reread it.

        His own argument seems to be deliciously riddled with the things he is writing about. He mentions this at the bottom as a possible criticism that people will make (accusing them of the tu quoque fallacy). I just still belief he is guilty of a large degree of irony (perhaps rather then hypocrisy as I suspect he is well aware of it). I don’t see any real counter argument other then mentioning it.

        I enjoyed the piece immensely, it just seemed to be a poor argument as it was more concerned with being witty.

    • Is it perhaps the case Michael that Healy is simply appearing hypocritical, and therefore, you would be the one making the tu quoque fallacy?

      • Michael Pye says:

        I wouldn’t be, I haven’t enough opportunity for hypocrisy. When reading I felt much, if not all of the irony was deliberate but I couldn’t be sure. (Also potentially deliberate). For the first half I thought it was a spoof paper for sure. I still haven’t dismissed the idea completely.

        • Sorry Michael – I wasn’t accusing you of hypocrisy. The tu quoque fallacy is dismissing the logic of what someone says based on them acting opposite to their words. 🙂

          • Michael Pye says:

            No need to apologize, i didn’t take it as such . Likelihood of hypocrisy increases the more you say, I just don’t think I have commented in enough detail for that.

            Mostly I was describing my impressions of the text rather then committing to details which is were I am more vulnerable.

  2. I guess my concern is how you judge whether your theory has enough explanatory power to allow it to stand, whilst also retaining the simplicity and clarity to make it appealing. Both demands are pulling in different directions, and it could merely be a matter of personal aesthetic as to whether you judge a theory to have just the right amount of nuance.

  3. Damian Hayes says:

    And just to get all literary… Borges covered this in ‘Funes the memorious’. Funes gets hit on the head and remembers everything. Which means that he can’t really think: “To think is to forget a difference, to generalize, to abstract. In the overly replete world of Funes, there were nothing but details.”

Constructive feedback is always appreciated

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