-Isms Are Out, -ities Are In

To start off 2015 on a light note, I refer you to a recent post on academese over at Savage Minds. It seems that at least in anthropology (the purview of Savage Minds), -isms are out, and -ities are in.

“I am an –ism person,” Temma Kaplan, Rutgers historian said to me. “I don’t do –ity.”

I gave her a knowing look.

“It used to be all –isms. Now everything is –ities,” she said.

“But you can’t get a job in women’s studies without working on an –ity.” I said, “–ities are the thing these days.”

She sighed and shrugged.

It goes on like this.

But you will be au courant if you abandon the –ism and go with the –ity. The worldview of an individual subject becomes “subjectivity.” The imposition of certain social norms is “normativity.” The close reading of literary texts for the influences of previous texts is “intertextuality.” As with the old -ism, you should probably use these in plural as well: “subjectivities,” “normativities” and “intertextualities.”

How about in political science? Does seem to be the case that the -isms are no longer au courant, especially when it comes to mid-level theorizing in international relations. But other -isms—positivism, constructivism, behavioralism, institutionalism—continue to thrive.

We also have not yet embraced the “weighty -ity” the way that other disciplines have. For example, we political scientists should be all over “governmentality” but we don’t agree exactly what this means. The only weighty -ity words that I encounter with any regularity are “performativity” and “intersectionality,” and of these two, only intersectionality has entered my own research lexicon. (There are other -ities like rationality and heteroskedasticity, but I don’t think that these are what the anthropologists are on about. Although I do think that rationality, at least, has the grad-school-argument-inducing qualities that the other weighty -ities have.)

Should we jump on the weighty -ity bandwagon, come on in for the big win just like the anthropologists? Should we say that the mode of scholarly inquiry characterized by concern over causal identification is, say, experimentality? Should we consider the ways of being constrained by the committee structure in Congress as, uh, institutionality? Maybe the conditions of monetary unions without fiscal unions reflect incentive incompatibilitality?

Think these sound lousy? Perhaps you are subject to the bionormativities of ordinary language as a mode of communicality:

Don’t worry if you’re not entirely sure what a term means; with the correct combination of prefixes and suffixes, you will most likely arrive at something that at least appears fashionable, if not profound. When you deploy terminology that might mean any number of different things, you ensure that no one knows exactly what, if anything, you are arguing.

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