Kieran Healy: abstraktion vs nyans

Nuance is not a virtue of good sociological theory. Sociologists typically use it as a term of praise, and almost without exception when nuance is mentioned it is because someone is asking for more of it. I shall argue that, for the problems facing Sociology at present, demanding more nuance typically obstructs the development of theory that is intellectually interesting, empirically generative, or practically successful. […]

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” (Rosen 2014). Abstraction means throwing away detail, getting rid of particulars. You start with a variety of different things or events—objects, people, countries—and by ignoring how they differ you produce some abstract concept like “furniture”, or “honor killing”, or “social-democratic welfare state”. […]

It is difficult to participate in seminars or attend professional meetings in contemporary Sociology and not hear an audience member say to a speaker that their theory or research is missing something, or has ignored some dimension, or neglected to adequately address some feature of social reality.

That is the kudzu of nuance. It makes us shy away from the riskier aspects of abstraction and theory-building generally, especially if it is the first and most frequent response we hear. Instead of pushing some abstraction or argument along for a while to see where it goes, there is a tendency to start hedging theory with particulars. […]

The blocking that nuance causes is not just a matter of practical or strictly empirical utility. It also has an aesthetic aspect. This is most obvious with the nuance of the connoisseur. Connoisseurs call for the contemplation of complexity almost for its own sake, or remind everyone that things are more subtle than they seem, or than you just said. The attractive thing about this move is that it is literally always available to the person who wants to make it. Theory is founded on abstraction, abstraction means throwing away detail for the sake of a bit of generality, and so things are always “more complicated than that”—for any value of “that”. Connoisseurship gets its aesthetic bite, and a little kick of symbolic violence, from the easy insinuation that the person trying to simplify things is, sadly, a bit less sophisticated a thinker than the person pointing out that things are more complicated.

Referens: Healy, Kieran, 2015. “Fuck Nuance”, kieranhealy.org.