The Jargon of Social Innovation Could be Worse, But Should be Better

There is an ongoing debate in the medical community surrounding the use of eponyms, greek, latin, and general language usage in reference to medical conditions.

Some industry professionals appreciate the connection to history that eponyms provide, some others want to see more scientific precision in medical language. Patient advocates want to see more plain language and think indecipherable jargon separates sick people from their own bodies and prevents them from participating in their own care. Encephalopathy doesn’t mean anything more specific than brain disease, so why not just call it what it is in plain language?

Specialized Language is Inevitable, But Clear and Universal Language is Key for Collaboration

Anne Curzan is a professor of English at the University of Michigan and the author of several books on language. “As a linguist, I think about jargon as the words or the lexicon that is specific to a profession or a pastime. And we know that when groups of people get together and are involved in a shared enterprise, that they will often create and use a set of specialized terms.”

And Anne says regardless of their value, new words have always been a problem.

“People complain about the new words that are coming out of business, social media, pop culture, out of slang, and they say, young people are ruining the language. For hundreds and hundreds of years, people have complained about new words.”

But there is nothing inherently good or bad, in the Manichean sense, about jargon. “I, myself, do not like the word impactful, which people often see as business jargon. I don’t like it. I actually know, as a linguist, there is no good reason for me not to like it. It is a very well-constructed word. It’s just like hopeful and joyful, mindful, impactful. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with it.”

Anne says while jargon “can provide us with useful shortcuts. It also can create a sense of insiders and outsiders.” And when we’re trying to get large groups of people to work together we want to reduce as many barriers as possible. Clear and universal language is key.

Social Innovation Language Could be Worse, But Should be Better

In social innovation, the language starts out relatively clear. Eponyms are practically non-existent, and although we lack the univeralisty of using a shared language, like latin, for our terminology, on the positive side our jargon is in the language we speak. Social innovation in English is l’innovation sociale in French, is soziale innovation in German. And social innovation vernacular largely makes sense on its face, even if that implicit meaning is fairly broad: social innovation is innovation with a social purpose. A social lab’s implication is similarly backed out. Emergence is the process of waiting to see what comes of things, firmly rooted in the dictionary definition. And when social innovation practitioners seek to move past these high-level definitions to something more specific, they don’t necessarily agree. SiG’s Social Innovation Primer gives four definitions of social innovation itself, three external and their own. Academic publisher IGI Global has no less than 20 referenced definitions without many specifics in common beyond what you get from what’s implied by the language. Or as one social innovation practitioner puts it: “If you agree on a Developmental Evaluation approach with a funder, you’re only agreeing to flexible evaluation terms as your program develops, there is a lot more you’ll need to talk about before you’re both on the same page.” The problem is that even clear language quickly becomes greater than the sum of its parts. “When you start using any quantity of these terms together in a job description or call for proposals, you quickly make it clear that these words are not incidental, but rather part of a lexicon most people have never heard of.”

An Inclusive Ecosystem of Social Innovation for 2019

Inclusive language issues are something we’re thinking a lot about as we practitioners and network builders try to bring together the social innovation movement. We’re not a national network, because there are many nations within Canada, so we’re pan-Canadian. We’re using a gender neutral version of French. We’re seeking out diverse voices and ideas at every level of involvement, from staff and volunteers to network nodes, communities of practice, and stewards.

At the same time, social innovation is a global movement and language is rarely defined by intention and always defined by use. The key then to being globally aligned but inclusive of everyone is how we carefully and intentionally choose our words for our audiences. A veteran at a social lab may be both respectful and publicly indecipherable if speaking to a veteran social innovation funder. But anything resembling an invitation should use plain and inclusive language. When engaging with the stakeholders we serve, or with new-to-social-innovation practitioners, it’s essential they feel welcomed, included, and comfortable enough to bring their considerable assets to the table. Or put better by Natalie Mobbs, Catherine Williams, Andrew D Weeks when writing about language in maternal issues:

In practical terms, this means that those providing maternity care need to consider their use of language seriously. Not only as a way of respecting women’s views and ensuring that they are empowered to make decisions, but also in order to respect their human rights.”

“The use of insensitive language can be indicative of an underlying malaise, which reveals underlying attitudes and prejudices. It is essential that we achieve respectful practice, ensuring that women have complete understanding and control of their own care. If we can achieve that, then the use of appropriate language will follow on naturally.”


– Article by Kyle Shantz, Communications Lead for Social Innovation Canada. You can follow Kyle on Twitter @KyleShantz

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