Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Googling Reveals Norms, Settles Many a Debate

Apropos of the previous post on whether "normative" is "academic jargon" (an issue which you all should still vote to determine, although it looks like The Dude is winning this argument), a Google search revealed this thread from Ask Metafilter (from four years ago) when searching for "normative jargon":


What does "normative" mean? Is it a useful word? I only ever see it used in obscure, academic writing, which makes me suspect it's worthless. How is it different from "normal"? My dictionary says it means, "Of, relating to, or prescribing a norm or standard: normative grammar." That sounds like "normal" to me, so why not just say "normal"? Can someone give me some clear sentences that use the word -- sentences that are not written in post-modern, complit speak? Can one use "normative" meaningfully in a sentence about real-world things, like butter, eggs or bricks?


It is true that I should probably not drop academic a-bombs in casual speech. The Dude, to his credit, does not sound like one of the adults in Charlie Brown (womp womp womp) when describing his day and his work, although he most certainly could. Incidentally, contrary to his appearance on the blog he is nice and wonderful, and no, we do not argue all the time.

There is plenty of technical jargon that's best left out of casual speech with non-insider people. I am sure I should avoid using "social structure" or "resource dependence theory" or "mimetic isomorphism" in every day speech, although I use it in my work all the time. But I am not quite convinced that "normative" is on the same par with such highly specific terms that reference the theories and methods of my discipline. It's just the only way I can think to describe my project, and I didn't really think it was especial to my field, so droppign this a-bomb was inadvertant.

Normative is different than "non-objective" or "prescriptive" or "advocating _____." The following responses to the Ask Metafilter thread seem to agree:

1. normative implies prescriptive by community standards, as opposed to merely habitual - for instance, you wouldn't speak of normative behavior among animals. And you wouldn't speak of a person or a thing as normative - like, "he's a pretty normative guy". Only social behavior can really be normative - which for some philosophers is all our behavior, but it's important that it's due to social interaction and rule-making, as opposed to mere instinct or happenstance.

2. "Normative" doesn't mean "normal." The key bit of your dictionary's definition is "prescribing" -- a normative statement reflects an opinion or something that can't be proven, as opposed to a "positive" statement, which can be tested. Think of it like "subjective" and "objective": You can say "Butter is more expensive than it was last year" and that's a positive (or objective) statement, because you can look up the prices and compare. It might be false, but either way, it deals only with facts. If you say "Butter is too expensive," that's a normative statement, because it can't be evaluated without reference to some external notion of how much butter "should" cost. It tries to apply a norm or standard (which other folks may or may not share).That's why you'll see it used in academic works so much; people like to distinguish between statements of fact and opinion. I suspect if you go back and look at some of the places you've seen it used, that understanding of the word will cause the phrases to make a lot more sense.

3. When someone with specialized knowledge--whether "academic" or otherwise (imagine an auto mechanic for highly specialized knowledge which may not be considered "academic")--uses a technical term from the field, 99% of the time it's not just to obfuscate things and make them difficult to understand for the layperson. It's because the technical term has a precise meaning which is not adquately captured by more common words. Example: why do biologists refer to "deleterious" mutations, rather than just calling them "bad" mutations? Well, "bad" would raise the question, "bad for whom?" A mutation which reduces the viability of a disease-causing bacterium might be bad from the bacterium's point of view, but good for the human who is potentially infected with it. Calling it a deleterious mutation, rather than a bad one, removes that ambiguity. No doubt grumblebee uses technical terms in his/her own field of specialty which would be equally confusing to the layperson, possibly without even realizing it.Disclaimer: as far as I'm concerned, the above does not apply to business-speak, which in my experience often does serve no other purpose than obfuscation.

4. This sort of thing occurs in all walks of life, however. We could probably all get by with vocabularies one third the size of those we use, but in an attempt to be both precise and interesting we have other words we use. To do otherwise would be injurious to the arts and would, I think, do the world (in this case the english-speaking world) a great disservice: language is a beautiful thing and certainly isn't immutable.


The thread is actually really rich and non-snarky, and gives a lot of good references to literary criticism worth reading. Pretty awesome. Check it out.

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