What we do when we do things with words

Hannah Monsrud Sandvik


“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less.”

“The question is,” said Alice,”whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master – that’s all.”

Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There


A foundational insight STS departs from is that concepts are not innocent. The words, theories and categories we use to describe and organize objects, events and people are, in addition to being tools for communication and science, also affecting the world. Think, for example, of gender and borders. Think also of economics, or laws. These are all cases of societal infrastructures that started to exist as the result of how some people started organizing sexuality and identity, territory and trade, composing new concepts and discourses to go along with them. The point is that concepts structure how we perceive and understand reality. Words are, in a word, performative.

This is important for STS because it shows that while science and technologies explain reality by investigating phenomena and systematizing our knowledge of the world, it also in a certain sense constructs the world by doing so. STSers have used this argument to show that science is not a linear process whereby knowledge is accumulated by confronting the world through a systematic method. Scientists also bring something to the table, and this something is theories, presuppositions, interests and ontologically loaded language.

If language is filled with underlying assumptions about the world, then language itself should be closely examined. How do the words we use come into being?

For a word to be meaningful in conversation, it needs to be used by a significant amount of people over a longer period of time. It also needs to be taken to mean the same thing by the group of people using it. An example is Gretchen in the movie Mean Girls, who tries, futilely, to introduce the term “fetch” to describe things or states of affairs that are “very cool”. As long as she is the only one using it, it’s never going to have any conversational authority and people will probably respond with confusion and ask her what she means.

The point is that words gain meaning through the way in which they are used. While this may sound blatantly obvious, it sent shock waves through the philosophical scene when Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote about it in the 1950s. For Wittgenstein, there is no separate logic to the world independently of observation, rather, the world we see is defined and given a meaning to through the words we use. A concept doesn’t designate something that is already given – it tries to articulate and systematize certain aspects of the world.

Words, then, have the power to shape how a certain issue is understood, and even to make something into an issue in the first place. One place where this comes to fore is in politics. The very purpose of political speech is to shape how people see the world and steer development towards a desired direction. To achieve this, politicians often create concepts to coin and describe new policy approaches. Examples that should be familiar are “responsible innovation”, “green growth”, and “sustainable development”. Such politically vogue words are often referred to as buzzwords. They are used by science policy makers, by scientists in their research proposals, by journalists and by academics. They convey a set of values: the importance of relations between science and the public, responsibility for the environment and avoiding risks, for example. How do these words function, and how to they shape the issues they address?

We can approach this question by considering an example: Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI) is a concept that has taken a hold in science policy and governance over the past years. Generally put, the term describes research and innovation that is ethically acceptable and socially desirable. RRI is a politicization of the effort to make science more ethical and responsible. Among other things, this means that in grant applications, researchers will have to include a section that explains how their research engage with the wider public sphere and discuss potential impacts on society and the environment. But what kind of concept is RRI? It is just filled with empty buzz, or can it be a useful tool for reforming modern science policy?

Buzzwords are often dismissed on account of being empty and misleading, but this doesn’t mean that they can’t be powerful. In her article “The politics of buzzwords at the interface of technoscience, market and society”, Bensaude Vincent demonstrates how buzzwords shape the technoscientific landscape. The power of these words lies in the fact that they urge towards a desirable future, creating expectations that mobilize the future into the present. RRI is an example of this: by establishing a moral basis for science, innovation can be controlled in order to secure the right kind of impact.

What exactly is meant by the term is hard to pin down, however. There are a variety of definitions of RRI, each putting emphasis on different aspects of the general idea. This is a characteristic of buzzwords: they are fuzzy enough to contain a variety of meanings and are often difficult to use as roadmaps. While they successfully point to a matter of concern, they often fail to suggest how we should deal with it.

The fuzziness of buzzwords can make it easy to conceal conflicts between opposing values. Take, for example, of “sustainable development”. Here, the idea of sustainability is put together with the idea of economic growth. The notions of change and permanence put together seems to imply a contradiction, but, as Bensaude Vincent point out, the performativity of the concept rests on this inconsistency. The promise of the concept is that the conflict between two opposing values can be overcome, but how, exactly?

All of this goes to show that the concepts we use are inherently political and ideological and that we should approach and use them with care and analytical consideration. For STSers, this means that we should pay attention to their context of emergence and investigate the epistemic and societal values that go into creating them. Understanding how a concept comes into being and what forces determines how it’s understood, we can critically engage with its content, and perhaps be a force on our own in the creation of better wor(l)ds.