Problematising the discourse: clear communication fail

I’ve just read an article which used “problematised” as a verb. Apart from causing me to stumble and have to re-read the whole sentence, this uncommon word illustrates perfectly the problem with so much “educated” writing. And with journalism.

Discussing this on Twitter earlier this afternoon, I said I’d save the writer from further embarrassment. And the editor. But I’ve changed my mind, because I’m going to pull them into this conversation.

The author is Jeff Sparrow. The editing is by And the article is certainly something I’m interested in understanding: The Golden Age Of Publishing is an essay on the challenges facing publishers as we move into the digital era.

Here’s the whole paragraph:

That’s why the glory days of the press coincided with the long boom after the Second World War, a time of relative economic and social stability, in which Keynesianism explicitly validated public works and the public sphere. Since then, however, the turn back to marketisation that reached its zenith with neo-liberalism has problematised, more and more explicitly, the very notion of a public. In the idealised free market, there is, as Margaret Thatcher famously explained, no such thing as society — there’s simply an aggregation of competing individuals. In the midst of that fragmentation, the old newspaper model no longer makes sense.

“Problematised”? I’d never seen the word before! I thought it might mean “position as a problem” or something like “assert it’s a problem rather than a benefit”. But no.

So what the hell is this about?

The Macquarie Dictionary tells me:

problematise (say ‘probluhmuhtuyz)
verb (t) (problematised, problematising) to expose and analyse problems in (something previously assumed to be without problems): to problematise the current assumptions.

So that core phrase about problematising the notion of the public — and I feel dirty even typing that! — might perhaps go something like this:

But since then we’ve turned back to the market as our solution [saviour?], a process that reached its peak in neo-liberalism. This process has, ever more explicitly, exposed problems with the very notion of a unified “public” that we hadn’t realised before.

Now I don’t know whether that gets the emphasis right. If I were the editor, I’d run those suggested changes past the author to make sure we’re conveying the right nuances.

But that’s the problem. I’m a well-read, intelligent middle-aged person with a tertiary education and a keen interest in the subject matter. If I can’t be sure I’ve understood the author’s intent, then what chance does anyone else have?

Who are the author and editor at expecting to communicate with?

I think there’s two issues here: assumed cultural literacy, and the role of the writer.

The concept of cultural literacy was coined or at least promoted by E D Hirsch Jr. As Wikipedia puts it:

Cultural literacy is the ability to converse fluently in the idioms, allusions and informal content which creates and constitutes a dominant culture. From being familiar with street signs to knowing historical references to understanding the most recent slang, literacy demands interaction with the culture and reflection of it.

Take a daily newspaper. To be culturally literate — and this is my rough paraphrase — you need to understand all of the words and phrases used in the front-page stories that are presented without explanation.

Let’s say there’s a story about the Prime Minister reshuffling the front bench. You need to know that “front bench” means the cabinet, and that the cabinet consists of the government’s ministers. You need to know the power relationship between PM and cabinet. You need to know that cabinet positions are often granted as rewards for service rather than being based on competence. None of this is explained in the story. It’s assumed you’ll already know.

If it’s a story about the Bombers, it’s assumed you already know that that’s the nickname of the Essendon Football Club in Melbourne, and that they’re an Australian Rules Football team rather than part of the Australian Rugby League. Indeed, the abbreviation “AFL” will be used without explanation, as will team members’ nicknames and various aspects of the game’s rules.

And yet most people are excluded from the political story because they don’t know the nuances. As I’ve written elsewhere:

Most people couldn’t identify a front bench, government or opposition. Most don’t even know what a front bench is. In the late 1980s I did a vox pop in Adelaide’s Rundle Mall for ABC Radio. The question: “There’s just been a state cabinet reshuffle. Can you name any cabinet members, old or new?” 80% didn’t know what a “cabinet” was. “Oh like John Howard, you mean?” asked one. Well, kinda. Just a different parliament and (then) a different side.

And I’d be excluded from the football story. I just had to look up “Bombers” to see which club that is. Sports journalists are particularly bad at understanding cultural literacy issues. If you’re not already into a sport, where do you start? Because the news stories give you no clues.

In just that single paragraph of the story, “Keynesianism” is presented as a given, and “zenith” is used rather than the everyday “peak”.

I studied computing science and linguistics, not economics or media studies. I know that Keynes was an important economist because… something. But give me a chance! At least give me a sentence or two explaining his views of the “public” in the context of what you’re trying to explain to me.

My point here is about communicating clearly with your audience. What is’s intended audience? Only people with a post-graduate education who already know that “problematised” has a particular meaning in post-grad analysis? That’s perfectly fine, but it seriously reduces the size of your audience — with obvious implications for your potential revenue.

I’d argue that there’s plenty of people interested in the history and future of the media, but only a small proportion of them are media studies or sociology post-grads.

My second point is that it’s the writer’s job to write clearly for their audience.

On Twitter, Barry Saunders said — and I’ll turn a series of tweets into prose — “Having spent time writing as an academic as well as for general audience, some words can’t be simplified. Sometimes you should just crack out a dictionary. If you understand the word ‘problematic’ [then ‘problematised’ is] really not a stretch.”

Sure. Sometimes there really is no alternative to a specialist’s specific jargon word. So when you use it, explain it. Or link to a definition. But if there is an everyday alternative, use it! Even if it takes a few more words or a re-phrasing.

In this case, though, I don’t think the specialist meaning of “problematised” is quite so obvious. Well-educated me got it wrong first time around. Surely I’m not alone.

Every reader who stumbles over a meaning… Every reader who makes a mistake in interpretation because they didn’t know a word’s special meaning in the special context… Every reader who’s forced to go to a dictionary or, more likely, doesn’t bother… Every one of them represents a failure of communication.

Every failure of communication is a failure of the writer, and of their editor whose job it is to massage the writer’s words for the audience.

[Photo: 135.365 Academics by Reilly Butler, used under a Creative Commons Attribution license.]

20 Replies to “Problematising the discourse: clear communication fail”

  1. It’s easier to deal with those things you don’t understand when you’re online. Whack it in google and away you go.

    Good thing I don’t ready paper papers anymore.

    Or is it? Is it just making them lazier?

  2. @Fiona: Agreed. I must say, an online subscription to the Macquarie Dictionary for $39 a year is excellent value. And free searches on the Oxford English Dictionary — amongst other resources — come free with the free State Library of NSW membership. I daresay similar benefits can be had with other state libraries.

  3. I find it strange that every man and his dog is supposed to be up to speed with the lingo of economics. I recently took a class in it, and in sociology, and that brought me a little bit more up to speed, but before that I’d have lost interest in that article simply because of the discourse used. I also have a Creative Writing degree and you’re right, there’s way too much ‘expert’ talk in that passage, so even though I’m interested in the content, it doesn’t flow!

  4. Some people who are a bit hard of thinking — a construction that parallels “hard of hearing” — seem to imagine this is all personal attack on Jeff Sparrow. Far from it. I like his work, and I hope to find the time to read his book Killing: Misadventures in Violence because… well… if you’ve been following me for a while you’ll know I have a personal connection.

    It’s simply that a word triggered a train of thought, and I wrote it down. What artist Paul Klee would have called “taking a line for a walk”.

  5. This calls to mind John Ralston Saul’s critique of managerialism, where “specialists” (about which more in a moment) use language to insulate themselves (and their discipline) from broader society. For Saul, the failures of communication that arise from the use of these dialects is not merely an unfortunately side-effect, but actually their raison d’être, allowing the self-anointed few to communicate in obscurantism, while denying the ability to engage in what Saul calls “integrated thought”, where the specialist reasoning within a particular domain of knowledge is put into the ethical, human context of wider society.

    “The purpose of language is communication. It has no other reason for existence. A great civilization is one in which there is a rich texture and breadth and ease to that communication. When language begins to prevent communication, that civilization has entered into serious degeneracy”

    — from Voltaire’s Bastards.

    In a way, John Ralston Saul’s use of “specialist” as a sneer word mirrors your own argument: If New Matilda wants to be a narrow “specialist” publication, communicating to a like-minded audience in a dialect shared only between them, then using words like “problematise” and “marketisation” and even “neo-liberalism” (the blurred meaning of such words aside) is a good way to go about it. But the world hardly needs another journal that amounts to professional experts having a circle jerk in an ivory tower.

  6. @Snake: It’s not just economics. Academic writers do still seem to assume that anyone important will have a liberal arts education just like them. It’s assumed you’ll know the writings of J M Keynes and M Proust and K Marx, yet it’s acceptable for them to be ignorant of, say, the Copenhagen Interpretation. All that science stuff is still a bit too grubby, being out there in the “real world” n’all.

    There’s also the arrogant view that their culture — that is, the culture that’s in the kind of books they read and in the kind of concerts they go to at those grand old buildings — is somehow more capital-C Culture than sport or pop music or airport novels.

    @Jason Langenauer: You have just eloquently summed up what I was going to include in my post as a third point. I decided not to because it was already a bit long and also gin.

    If I can throw in a bit of linguistics jargon, those words are part of their tribal sociolect. And yes, the words are both signifier that the speaker or writer is a member of the tribe — social bonding, if you will — and a barrier to prevent outsiders from intruding. We all do it, automatically. A great example is the TV show Big Brother, where within hours of being isolated in the house they create nicknames for each other, as well as shared rituals.

    And yes, all of this is about what sort of media outlet wants to be.

    Within about ten minutes of posting this, I’ll have edited your comment so that it links to some of the things you mention. I’m helpful like that.

  7. In just that single paragraph of the story, “Keynesianism” is presented as a given, and “zenith” is used rather than the everyday “peak”.

    I studied computing science and linguistics, not economics or media studies. I know that Keynes was an important economist because… something.

    To hell with Keynes!

    Would you write the same post about The Economist, The Monthly, The Paris Review or The Atlantic?

  8. @lelaissezfaire: Yes, and for exactly the same reasons. Well, maybe I’d exclude The Economist. An editor there might be able to assume that readers have slightly more background knowledge in economics. Might. Though personally I see The Economist more as a general news magazine written from a particular point of view rather than a magazine about ecomonics or necessaily for economists.

    All of the media titles we’re talking about here are not academic journals where you can assume the readers are well-educated in the topic being discussed — to a graduate or post-graduate level. They’re titles that cover a wide variety of topics for a general readership.

    Right now has on its home page articles about the re-regulation of the banking industry, gay marriage, how to draft laws about the internet, the Victorian election, nanotechnology, media coverage of the OECD report on the NBN, and selling uranium to Russia. Plus the piece which triggered my essay.

    There’s an important difference between someone being interested in a subject and knowledgeable of it. If intends to serve a general readership, then I reckon they need to add those few words that bring the readers up to speed on the topic being discussed.

    Choosing the appropriate level of cultural literacy required to read the articles is part of good editing. I reckon that for, say, “OECD” and “NBN” can be introduced without explanation, but not “Keynesianism” and certainly not “problematised”. But of course editors can discuss this stuff for hours.

      • Well, this “exact same reasons” are why I really like The Monthly, Le Monde, The Paris Review, The Atlantic or the New Statesman. No drama.
      • As for “the world hardly needing another journal that amounts to professional experts having a circle jerk in an ivory tower” … may the wise ones subscribe to Fox News then. ‘Il faut de tout pour faire un monde.’
      • Fair point about needing to reach out for a broader readership, especially for their own good as we all want their success (I presume).
      • Also. I unequivocally* agree with the need for clear communication and also abhor* the binge on BS jargon. And yes there is a case for plain language.


      1. Do you think you have taken a few collateral causalities in your eagerness to ask for clear language?
      2. Would you agree that referring to “Keynes*” — especially after 2 years of intense reporting on the Credit Crisis — or let’s imagine using “plethora*” in lieu of “too many”, doesn’t fall in the same category as — say — the offensive “going forward” to mean “in the future”?
      3. Would you agree that using seemingly sophisticated language is also a form of respect for the readers? A way to push them up, rather than pull them down?
      4. Would you agree that gleaning* a few words here and there and having to peruse* them in a dictionary is one of the pleasures of life?

      In conclusion, beyond the “problematised” controversy, and looking at the wider issue of quality writing, my understanding is that are aiming for quality, although not dryness. They are part of a collective effort to push the envelop against mediocrity and junk journalism. So would we rather see them trying than not? And if it means that we have to pick up the dictionary from times to times, be it?

    1. @lelaissezfaire: I’ve bulleted your list and numbered your questions for easier reference. I also have this thing about titles in italics. For some reason I like things looking traditional when it comes to typography. Possibly that’s obsessive.

      1. No. I consider this to be constructive criticism. I didn’t insult anyone personally. I pointed out something that for me was a problem, and explained why. This is way within the normal parameters of discussion that happens in media organisations. I thoroughly recommend hanging around a newsroom for a day.
      2. “Going forward” is more a stylistic issue, I think, or just a meaningless noise-phrase. “We will be improving our customer service strategy going forward.” When else? I’m a big fan of plain language if there’s no loss of meaning, and generally there isn’t. However it does improve accessibility.
      3. Possibly. But I come back to my point that it’s the job of a professional communicator to connect with their audience. Every word that they potentially might not know, every unfamiliar concept that isn’t explained, is a hurdle to comprehension. Good writers remove the hurdles. Plus, in a commercial context, every little thing that reduces the reader’s comfort is one more little thing that might persuade them to leave and not return. That said, I don’t think you should talk down to readers. It’s a balance.
      4. It’s a pleasure for me, yes, if I’m in the right mood. At other times I’m annoyed because I’m having to do extra work to read the article — say if I have to analyse something while I’m on deadline. For some people it won’t be a pleasure at all. Are we writing solely for language enthusiasts?

      Comprehensible writing doesn’t have to be dull. Conversely, quality writing isn’t about using fancy words. Confusing the two is a Victorian middle-class affectation: using big words to show off your expensive education.

      It’s all a balance. Picking up the dictionary occasionally is inevitable, as is looking up an unfamiliar concept. Three times in one paragraph is probably too many.

  9. Criticising the use of specialist words like “problematised” with a comment including “their raison d’être, allowing the self-anointed few to communicate in obscurantism” amused me. I guess the comments section here isn’t a revenue raising enterprise.

    Anyway, I’m off to buy the tele (tabloid newspaper in nsw) now to give my brain a rest.

  10. @James Neave: Yeah I was going to have a go at Langenauer for using “raison d’être“, but I went soft. In his defence, it was me who edited his comment to add the “proper” French accents and the italics. This is in line with my comments policy.

    As an aside, I spent five minutes searching for a book by Voltaire called Bastards. Which proves my point. Well, it proves something.

  11. @Glen: Yep, I reckon there would indeed be “thousands upon thousands of people” who understand. But that misses the point. If writing is more accessible, then there’s even more thousands and thousands of people in the potential audience. Why exclude those who would be interested in the subject matter but might not have all of the background?

    @James: Good for you. Maybe try thinking more generally about the issue, rather than focusing on the specific example which triggered my comments?

  12. I think Jeff probably knows exactly who is he is writing for, and in brief defence, it’s always difficult for journalists to know exactly at what level to pitch their stories to.

    But I think “problematised”, though it sounds infelicitous, is a useful word to have up your sleeve. It’s a different thing to “critiqued” or “undermined” or “attacked” and in any case, I think most people with a bit of common sense can take a word they know, “problem”, and assume that “problematised” simply turns it into a verb.

    Having said that, isn’t the point of online media to be specialist, niche and just a little demanding? We’re not writing for a tabloid newspaper here, we’re writing in an online current affairs website about … society and the economy. So I don’t think we should be that surprised when specialist words from sociology and economics creep in.

    Everyone is always criticising the media for dumbing things down. New Matilda has never done that and I think that’s a good thing. It’d be a shame to have to explain the economics of Keynes every time you write an article about the stimulus package, just as it would be tedious to use the full name of every sports team on the back page of the newspaper.

  13. Interesting. I came across this having baulked at the use of the word “problematised” in an academic higher education paper (so full of jargon that the use of “problematised” is the least of its communication problems) and then did as Fiona commented and “whacked it” into Google.

    I wonder when the word came into use. Is it the product of lazy English, creating a verb by adding the suffix “-ise” to an established noun? I suspect so. When it comes to clear communication, less is more.

  14. @riposte: The Oxford English Dictionary gives the following gloss…

    To render problematic; to view, interpret, or analyse (an issue, discipline, etc.) as a problem or system of problems to be solved.

    … and dates it to 1910 in the sentence “Hamlet himself is capable of being problematised to the nth.”

    The older meaning, “To speak of or postulate problems”, dates to 1631 but is marked as “rare”.

    I wouldn’t call it a product of “lazy English” myself, at least not the older usage. “Standard” or “unimaginative” maybe, but this is just how English works. But this newer meaning just strikes me as awkward.

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