2.1 Definitions – Questioning an Academic Reflex

First thought of a thread On Definitions

Blog - DefinitionA few weeks ago I was asked to provide a definition of “conspiracy theory” – an innocent enough exercise, and not too difficult especially because I could draw upon some experience in the field. But this experience had also revealed to me how standardized the whole act of definition is. If social scientists are not plagued by the same “writer’s block” as novelists, then perhaps to a large degree because they can always fall back upon the preliminary act of definition as a starting point for their work.

Far be it from me to issue a moratorium on definitions – they have their use, and to a certain degree they are indispensable, and much of the time when they are not explicitly stated they are implicitly present. But a mild case of “definitioner’s block” might not be such a bad thing if it prompts some inquiry into what we are actually doing when we define something, and if it can in some way innoculate us against some of the naivities which we expose ourselves to when we treat definitions as such a routine starting point for our work. For approaching phenomena in terms of definitions is, when seen within the broader sweep of human communication, a highly artificial act. However, as things stand at the moment, definitions represent one of the most unreflected and under-investigated acts within the whole practice of social science research.

To return to the request for a defitinion of “conspiracy theory” – I was somewhat reluctant to articulate any misgivings in this regard because I had a certain type of person in my head … the overly-clever pedant with a philosophic bent which induces him or her to nip every conversation in the bud by insisting upon a need to reflect upon the terms of the inquiry. Where do I know this type from? Is it in some some variant upon a memory of my former self who as a boy used to infuriate my mother by questioning every order she gave me? Why should I pack away my toys when I will be unpacking them out of the toy box first thing tomorrow? The point simply being that reflection can inhibit productive discourse, particularly if it causes uncertainty about our methods and therefore manifests itself as a mental block.

But there are good reasons to believe that the time is nigh for giving some consideration to the act of definition and the posts that follows are submitted in the hope that methodological reflection can also be fruitful. Definitions are often posited in deference to an expectation of objectivity. But the objectivity which they create is often based on the notion that in posing the definition they – at least as a gesture – clarify and create a consensus for the terms under which we engage with the object defined. But the consensus among those who engage in the research program is only one form of objectivity. The definition also conditions the research program; and indeed in a manner which is not necessarily ‘objective.’ In other words, an inquiry into the act of definition is prompted at least in part by a growing awareness that defining something is a creative act. In many cases, to define an object is, at least to some degree, to create an object, and as soon as we acknowledge this it becomes necessary to move beyond creeds of objectivity and consider the mechanics behind the act of definition.

As simply a first point which hints at a possible alternative or, if not that, than at a more sophisticated approach: a few days ago, my colleague Olaf drew my attention to a schematic illustration. In fact it was a Venn diagram produced and then posted by the self-proclaimed rationalist Crispian Jago. He titled it the Venn Diagram of Irrational Nonsense – four ellipses representing various forms of ‘bollocks’ overlap and intersect and allow him to create a ‘map’ of modern irrationalism.

Blog - Venn Irrationalism

Much of what falls under the rubric of conspiracy theories is deserving of the response ‘bollocks’ – a statement which we can stand by despite attempts to rehabilitate conspiracy theories (more about that later), and therefore I was asking myself how conspiracy theories related to the forms of bollocks he had identified. Interestingly enough, in a subsequent comment, Crispian mentioned that he had also considered this point and then included a diagram submitted by Dehydrationstation which took on this challenge.

Blog - Venn Irrational 2

(double click for full size)


One can, of course, debate the details of these diagrams but from a point of view based on an interest in the act of definition they are enlightening because they do the opposite of what definitions often achieve – instead of isolating the object, they contextualize it within a field of alternatives. Of course, one can then ask on what level definitions once more creep in implicitly: what, for example, is the definition of ‘bollocks’? Future posts will in any case seek to demonstrate the advantages of asking not only what a object is but how it is related to neighbouring objects.

To be continued.


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