Nuance starts with N

Nuance is subtle. It lives between things. A shade off centre, just off balance, not as simple as you thought, it is the complexity of life.

In Academic Writing, nuance is usually a good thing. Life is complicated. Academics know this, and work hard at fitting all that complexity into their work.


A couple of years ago, Kieran Healy suggested that in his field (sociology) there was too much Nuance. This over-abundance of Nuance tended to obstruct clear thinking. Healy presented a conference paper about this problem with the not-so-subtle title “Fuck Nuance.” In summary, Healy thinks Nuance impedes Theory. Powerful theories need less nuance as theories look for similarities, not shades of minute difference.

Healy makes an interesting case. I was all ready to write about how academic writing could use MORE nuance, not less. Clearly I need to be more precise in my suggestion. Perhaps some aspects of academic writing could use more nuance. Descriptive work, history writing, detailed ethnographic observations, all these need detail and depth. These call for nuance. Theory as it develops from observations needs to shed the detail, to look for patterns and similarities, and so needs less nuance. The theorist needs to decide what the important differences are, pay attention to those. Yes, theory is thus less shaded than description, but perhaps it is more powerful, useful, applicable if less nuanced.

Nuance is also an aspect of writing. Choosing just the right word or phrase and getting it right makes all the difference in the world. The New York Times knows this too.

Nuance: it is a many-shaded thing.

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