Turn! Turn! Turn!

I blogged yesterday about the irritating preponderance of ‘turn’ rhetoric in the humanities and social sciences. I compiled the list of 44 by starting with ‘turns’ that were familiar to me. I then used a google wild card search (“the X turn” + humanities social sciences) to extend the list. I googled for a specific string if I wasn’t sure about its status as a turn but most were clearly examples of the rhetoric from the context supplied in the search result. I was also surprised by how many of them I remembered actually having encountered at some point – though the frequency with which I had subsequently forgotten them probably says something about their intellectual value in many cases.

It’s far from a rigorous methodology for analysing this trend. However it has left me thinking about this as a serious research question. How many ‘turns’ are there? What rhetorical features do they share? What disciplines do they occur in? Bemoore just left a really interesting comment on yesterday’s post:

I’d say the use of ‘turns’ varies enormously: some uses are largely historical/retrospective names for important shifts, on the other end is when the term is used for a relatively minor branch of new work that the author wants to give the air of large-scale, discipline/sub-discipline encompassing change.

But what about the hybrids, turns that really are relatively large-scale, but are still on-going and the people participating in that turn are still competing for funding, articles in prestigious journals, etc.?

Also, a question, you list a bunch of turns from the social sciences and humanities, but which disciplines did they come from, exactly? ‘Turn rhetoric’ is everywhere in human geography in the UK, for instance, but not in economics. So who says it and who doesn’t?

If they are as absent from economics as Bemoore suggests then this is really interesting. I suspect the literature I spend most time reading (social theory, qualitative sociology, continental philosophy, cultural theory etc) is also the most prone to turn rhetoric because they are bodies of work from which shared standards and cumulative progress is most absent. Turning is something you do when you don’t know what direction you want to go in or you know where you want to go but can’t work out how to get there. But if you turn too much then you’ll get dizzy and be in an even worse position than you were to begin with….. I’m not invoking ‘cumulative progress’ as an unambiguously good thing here but it is something that presupposes shared standards. That’s why I find the normative dimension to declaring a turn so interesting – it’s unavoidably an assertion that something should occupy the attention of a discipline/sub-discipline. Sometimes this is explicit and other times it’s implicit. Analysing the precise character of these putative turns, their specific framing and rhetorical devices, would offer a fascinating perspective on the wider condition of the intellectual field within which the claim is made.

6 responses to “Turn! Turn! Turn!”

  1. The problems of “turns” is addressed in an internet article by French sociologist Michel Grossetti (2011) where he argues for a “Post-gyrationary” sociology (http://sociologies.revues.org/3466). His conclusion is very similar to that independently formulated by N.Mouzelis in his 2008 book. Both argue for the need for Dimensional Frameworks (in some senses similar to Bhaskar’s Four-planar model of social being). In such a situation a “turn” is a move into a one of the other dimensions pulling a baggage of recent theories from the preceding dimension that has been previously explored. “Turns” are then real discoveries exploring a territory using new concepts. but are not the visit into virgin territory they are often claimed to be . The problem being that one can navigate around the cube or the dimensions ad infinitum if one does not take the journey as a cumulative exercise.

  2. Hey Mark,

    Yeah, very interesting stuff. Just wanted to emphasize that my comment was way less rigorous than your Google search, I was just thinking off the top of my head. During my US undergrad in economics, I never heard ‘turn’, but read it all the time during my geography master’s in the UK.

    When you posted my comment, I searched for “economics” and ” the * turn”, and I found articles by economic geographers, mostly in the UK, describing a “geographical turn”, not in economic geography, but in economics:

    Martin 1999, “Critical survey. The new ‘geographical turn’ in economics: some critical reflections” (800 cites on Google Scholar)

    So even though it’s my impression that turn rhetoric is not used by economists (they call the geographical turn “new economic geography”) it is interesting how it is used as a concept in the bordering, and competing, sub-discipline of econ. geog.

  3. And just to follow up on that very ‘close-up’ comment:

    1. This reminded me that turns are not always used as a positive concept, they are sometimes ‘boundary objects’ that both supporters and opponents of said turn contest: what does the turn mean? Is it the right new direction?

    2. I’m pretty interested in where the whole general concept came from originally, which discipline and which author? Was philosophy the first?

    3. I guess you could argue that it is just a specific rhetorical device, every discipline/specialism needs some way for researchers to signal a new research direction.

    PS here’s a Google Ngram Viewer graph of the use of linguistic turn in their book corpus:

  4. That would be consistent with what I was arguing – the ‘turn’ as a rhetorical device used to try and commandeer the intellectual attention space. Would make sense in a boundary skirmish like that.

  5. I’m pretty certain it comes from the linguistic turn – a quick play with Ngram viewer (thanks for that excellent idea!) seems to back this up as well, though the cultural turn also seems well established as a notion.

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