March 30, 2020

How to Speak Sociologese

author photoBy Karen Sternheimer

At the Everyday Sociology Blog, we pride ourselves on avoiding academic jargon whenever possible and clearly defining concepts whenever we do use words that might not be familiar to most readers.

It’s also important to keep in mind that there are some words and phrases that should be used very specifically while speaking and writing sociologically, and in the social sciences more generally. The list below is not exhaustive, but a reminder that we should use our words carefully to clearly communicate sociological concepts and findings. Think about the following examples when reading and writing:

  1. Studies show. This is a popular shortcut phrase you might hear in lectures or conversations, but if it appears in writing there should be a clear reference to one or more specific studies. Otherwise it is an empty phrase; the reader should be able to find the specific study and read it for evidence that supports the author’s argument.

In order to properly cite any study that you reference, it is important to either explicitly discuss the study and mention its author and title in the text, and/or include a clear citation at the end of the sentence. There are numerous style guides, and your instructor may have a preference for which style you use. Parenthetical citations come at the end of the sentence and direct the reader to a specific reference in the works cited page.

Sometimes articles include multiple citations for a single sentence; that’s when you see the last names of several authors listed along with the year of publication within a single set of parentheses. And do use last names; sometimes students will use only the first name of an author if they are describing their work at length. Think of it this way: the last name connotes their professional status, and the first name is more personal. It is also unnecessary to refer to authors with a title (such as Professor, Dr., Mr., and so forth).

  1. There is a correlation. A correlation coefficient is a specific statistical measure that assesses the relationship between two variables. Students often incorrectly use this word to indicate that two things appear to have a relationship or association. Without actually having calculated this specific statistic, we cannot conclude there is a correlation and should not use this word.
  1. Spurious relationship. This is a cousin to the overuse of the word correlation. To say that a spurious relationship exists is a very specific observation: that two variables are correlated, but a third variable actually explains the relationship. Students in my courses sometimes use this phrase to indicate any example of two unrelated variables that might at first glance seem to be related.
  1. Cause and effect. Causality is very difficult to assess in many issues that sociologists are interested in studying. Because we often need to use experimental methods to assess causality, which are very rare in sociology, we have to be very careful about when we can say that one thing causes another. I notice that many students use the language of causality to couch their assumptions without citing a source (see #1 above) or challenging their preconceived notions (see #5 below). Instead of finding causality, we are more likely to find relationships (see #2).
  1. Bias. As I have previously blogged, bias is an often-misunderstood concept. We often confuse having a point of view with bias, but specifically bias means that we are not open to another point of view if our data challenge our preconceived notions. We might expect to find something in particular, but this means that we have a hypothesis. If we are open to accepting the null hypothesis—the opposite of our hypothesis—then that means we are not biased.
  1. Back in the day. Here’s a phrase that often appears in papers referring to events in the past, without specifying when these events took place. Because understanding context is central to thinking sociologically (we even have a magazine in sociology called Contexts), it is imperative to be specific about when we are talking about. 
  1. Based off. This is a common grammatical error that comes from patterns of speech. Our conclusions are based on particular findings, not off.

These are just a few of the basics to remind you how to be part of a sociological conversation; these suggestions apply to most academic disciplines too.

Instructors: What other tips do you have for learning to speak “sociologese”?


Thank you for these clarifications that are over-used or misunderstood. There are of course, many more. No discipline is free from jargon and confirmation bias in discourse.
I am often tempted to pull James Boren's book WHEN IN DOUBT, MUMBLE: A BUREAUCRAT'S HANDBOOK (Van Nostrand, 1972) off the shelf, when I read some pretentious authors hoping to strongly impress. Examples like: "The unique enrichment rate at which the quantitized residual subsidiary can effect an overall unitized executive balance, depends in part, on the maximized professional integrity of the encumbered technological thrust." Cheers!

Your posts leave me with a lot of experience and impressions, I hope you will have more good posts in the near future to share with readers.

Great, I have found great knowledge through your writing. I will take a closer look and introduce some useful information in your article. Thanks very much.

I gain a lot of knowledge and impressions from your blogs, so I hope you'll have more worthwhile ones to share with us soon.

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