Brian Martin: Why academic jargon thrives


Richard Moore

Why academic jargon thrives

Published as "Secret passwords at the gate of knowledge," The Australian, 23 
September 1992, p. 16

Brian Martin

To understand why jargon is so entrenched in academia, it is necessary to 
examine how academics maintain their power and status. Academic disciplines are 
central in this process.

There is no inherent reason why knowledge should be divided up into disciplines 
such as physics and philosophy. These divisions are made and enforced by 
practitioners. It is salutory to remember that most of today's disciplines did 
not exist one or two centuries ago.

An academic discipline can be considered to be a strategy by a group of 
practitioners to claim control over resources and decision-making. The 
practitioners assert that they alone are capable of judging competence in their 
area of study.

Credentials are central to disciplinary control. A tight, effective discipline 
will demand that all who enter the field must have degrees in the discipline 
itself. No outsiders are allowed. Someone with lots of experience in practical 
psychology or engineering, but without appropriate credentials, is most unlikely
to obtain a university post.

To maintain a discipline, it is essential to control appointments. Disciplinary 
guardians insist that they, and they alone, are qualified to judge who should be
appointed to positions in the discipline. A biology department, for example, is 
likely to bitterly oppose appointment of a physicist, especially to a top 

Conceiving of disciplines as ongoing products of power struggles helps explain 
the bitter battles that are waged between and within departments. I've witnessed
experimental physicists assert their primacy over theoreticians, saying that 
"Physics is an experimental science." I've heard sociologists criticise 
colleagues who "are not doing real sociology." I've observed pure mathematicians
dismiss parts of applied mathematics as not being part of the discipline of 
mathematics. In debates over environmental science, I've heard natural 
scientists reject social science contributions because "An environmental 
scientist is a scientist."

In each cases these claims are aimed at putting a particular group at the centre
of the discipline. The language of disciplinary purity is deployed. Battles are 
constantly waged over the syllabus, over admission of postgraduate students, and
over appointments, promotions and grants.

But disciplines do not exist in an intellectual vacuum. There are outside 
pressures as well. Many disciplines have obvious areas of application, 
especially in industry, government and the professions. There are grants, 
consultancies and jobs to be gained by engineers, lawyers, psychologists and 
others who do applied work.

It is not surprising that disciplinary purists, especially theoreticians, assert
the importance of publishing in core journals and teaching core ideas to 
aspirants to the discipline. By contrast, those who are more oriented to outside
groups emphasise applications and teaching to a range of students.

If a discipline is to effectively control its intellectual turf, it cannot 
afford to be too easy to understand by outsiders. Jargon may serve as a 
convenient medium for practitioners, but it simultaneously serves as a way of 
excluding interlopers, namely those who have not served their time in study and 

Suppose you have a bright idea about a subject that is not your speciality. The 
idea is the easy part. Getting it taken seriously in a different field is 

To get published in an academic journal, it is necessary to know the literature 
in the field. You've got a lot of study ahead to get on top of it. You must cite
appropriate references and be familiar enough with the jargon to write 
comfortably in it. Referees can pick up an outsider readily enough, and a few 
false steps are enough for a rejection. Although your idea might be a good one, 
that's not enough. After all, if every outsider with a bright idea were allowed 
to be published, what would be the point of all that long training?

Jargon serves to police the boundaries of disciplines and specialities. It's 
like a toll collected from those who attempt to cross an intellectual border, a 
toll collected in the currency of intellectual labour. Jargon, on top of 
credentials, ensures that migration between disciplines is kept to a low level.

Jargon serves another purpose too. It separates academic work from the so-called
"general public." Academics may battle among themselves over knowledge, but they
have a common interest in maintaining the status of academic knowledge in the 
eyes of outsiders. If what academics do is too easy to understand, then it 
becomes harder to justify comfortable salaries and conditions.

This helps explain why most academics consider research to be more prestigious 
than teaching. Research is the creation of new knowledge, which adds to the 
lustre of the discipline. Most research helps maintain and raise the barriers 
against understanding by outsiders.

Teaching, by contrast, is about communicating insights to outsiders. It means 
explaining the very insights that are used to claim exclusive control over the 

Communicating to popular audiences is like good teaching. It explains what is 
going on inside the discipline and the academy in a way that newcomers and 
outsiders can understand and use.

Popularisers can encounter considerable hostility from protectors of the 
discipline. There are economists who look down on John Kenneth Galbraith and 
composers who hold Andrew Lloyd Webber in contempt. Sociologist Paul Starr wrote
a book that won a Pulitzer Prize, but was denied tenure at Harvard. Since he 
wrote for a wide audience, his scholarship was deemed suspect.

To be fair, academics are not alone in raising barriers to outsiders. Many other
occupations do the same. For example, the medical and legal professions seek to 
outlaw unlicensed competitors. Nor is the use of jargon unique to academia. Even
journalists have their own special style, which is said to be required of all 
who communicate with "the public."

The idea that jargon exists just because specialists need to communicate with 
each other helps to hide other reasons for jargon. It hides the key role of 
jargon in struggles by specialists to gain power and status. It hides the way 
jargon is built into the structure of disciplines, systems of publication and 
the whole apparatus of credentials.

If jargon is central to disciplines then, by the same token, writing clearly to 
a wide audience is a challenge to disciplinary power and privilege. (There's 
even a bit of jargon for this: "demystification.") It sounds easy to do, but for
many academics it is the greatest challenge of all.

Dr Martin works in the Department of Science and Technology Studies, University 
of Wollongong

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