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Sunday, 19 October 2008

Newfangledisms: A Terminological Challenge

A few years ago RHB and I received a card from a friend which said something like:

I'm confused. I have met someone and I do'nt know how to describe him to my friends. Should I say:

A). boyfriend? no, too cutesy.


B). partner ? no, too PC


C). significant other? no, too pompous


D). person I want to regularly ***** the living daylights out of ? yes , that'll do.

I have to admit that after two scant weeks of being edercated, that I stand similarly terminologically confused.

This confusion first arises when I discover that as I progress through my course, I will have multiple 'partners'. I should not continue without describing where I stand on the issue of describing one's current paramour. In our daily life, RHB and self refer to the other variously as 'partner', 'husband', 'wife', boyfriend', 'girlfriend', 'She Who Must Be Obeyed', 'Idiot', 'Largey', 'Darling', 'the UberleutnantReichfuhrer' or simply 'me bessie' (this is Liverpool slang for 'my best mate'). All these terms are interchangeable, and I would like to think, humourous and non-judgemental. Despite a degree of variation in the labels, we tend to err on the side of choosing words that imply a degree of intimacy, either via the language used or via the tone of voice and I have to admit that there is not an awful lot of thought injected into these expressions- they come out as they come out.

Social psychologists, on the other hand, as I have discovered this week, devote an awful lot of time to what people are called. So much time in fact, that one can spend weeks devoted to arguing over the correct nomenclature to be used in research, while completely ignoring the results thereof. It is while being lectured on this issue that I discover that the term 'partner' is now the correct term to use for people whom I would have previoulsly called 'subjects'. In fact, I discover that I am way behind the times, because 'subjects' was superceded years ago by 'participants' , which was then itself superceded by the term 'partner'. I struggle to see the relevance of the discourse, and I disagree with the appropriateness of the term. Naturally, in private life, I can understand how in a relationship where one straps someone to a table, pours oil over them and then subjects them to some experimental processes, the term 'partner' would apply. It carries the correct implications of intimacy for such operations. But in Science, even if the same actions are conducted during the course of experimentation, it is, when the term is introduced for the first time, misleading to call the person one is doing these things to 'partner'. The proposed outcome, and circumstances, are entirely different, and essentially, are totally dissimilar in intimacy than the previously described activity. even the clothes are different. In my opinion, adoption of the word 'partner' for 'experimental subject' sends completely the wrong signal. Admittedly, the actions sound similar, but unlike in one's personal life, there is an entirely different agenda in play here.

It is a tricky subject to introduce to one's tutor, so I approach the topic bluntly.

"Is'nt it rather anal, getting all twisted out of shape over a few stupid words?" I ask my tutor, whom I later discover is auther of a tome entitled 'The Semantics of Science: Gender and Sex Issues in Language" (Or something). Forty five minutes later, I cave in to the inevitable and resolve to cross 'partner' off my list of names for RHB. She can still call me 'subject' though.

Next up is Anthropology. Here, I think, I'll get to some meat. No messing around with terminology or semantics. Our first lecture however is about the ethnography of anthropology and whether peoples we previoulsy knew as 'hunter-gatherers' should still remain so, or whether, as a reflection of the larger role played by women in providing nutrition for these societies, they should be referred to as 'gatherer-hunters'.

University, I can see, will not simply be about learning stuff. It will also be about whether the stuff I am learning is correct, and also about speaking an entirely new language. Already as a tenderfoot, I am asked to take sides in this war of words. Franky, I have a foot in both camps. I am disturbed that anthropological arguments about terminology got in the way of actually stdying the people we are supposed to be studying. But I will not dismiss the alternate view. That, marvellously, is what I am here for. Even if it does mean having multiple partners.


Grasshopper said...

"Partners"?!! Ugh!!!

MJN said...

I know. In truth, new-speak can cause problems. THe new language is supposed to be empowering and to engender equality, but in reality these meaningless substitutions often do the opposite. Managers seized on empowernment in the workplace, and the concept of 'giving ownership' of work to their subordinates as a way of delegating themselves out of particularly nasty bits of work. If the employee succeeded, the manager claims success through his (ususally) enlightened policies. If the project fails then the manager claims that he employee, who had ownership of the project is to blame.