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"Normative"
May 21, 2004 9:53 AM   Subscribe

What does "normative" mean? Is it a useful word? I only ever see it used in obscure, academic writing, which makes me suspect it's worthless. How is it different from "normal"? My dictionary says it means, "Of, relating to, or prescribing a norm or standard: normative grammar." That sounds like "normal" to me, so why not just say "normal"? Can someone give me some clear sentences that use the word -- sentences that are not written in post-modern, complit speak? Can one use "normative" meaningfully in a sentence about real-world things, like butter, eggs or bricks?
posted by grumblebee to Writing & Language (24 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
 
"Normative" is used in place of "normal" because if you used "normal," why, anyone could read and understand your writing. Can't have that!

Snarkiness aside, there is a slight difference in that "normative" has connotations of the thing being described being a standard or definitive example. I get the impression that normative is not just normal, but the most normal possible.
posted by kindall at 9:57 AM on May 21, 2004


normative implies prescriptive by community standards, as opposed to merely habitual - for instance, you wouldn't speak of normative behavior among animals. And you wouldn't speak of a person or a thing as normative - like, "he's a pretty normative guy". Only social behavior can really be normative - which for some philosophers is all our behavior, but it's important that it's due to social interaction and rule-making, as opposed to mere instinct or happenstance.
posted by mdn at 10:08 AM on May 21, 2004


"Normative" doesn't mean "normal." The key bit of your dictionary's definition is "prescribing" -- a normative statement reflects an opinion or something that can't be proven, as opposed to a "positive" statement, which can be tested. Think of it like "subjective" and "objective": You can say "Butter is more expensive than it was last year" and that's a positive (or objective) statement, because you can look up the prices and compare. It might be false, but either way, it deals only with facts. If you say "Butter is too expensive," that's a normative statement, because it can't be evaluated without reference to some external notion of how much butter "should" cost. It tries to apply a norm or standard (which other folks may or may not share).

That's why you'll see it used in academic works so much; people like to distinguish between statements of fact and opinion. I suspect if you go back and look at some of the places you've seen it used, that understanding of the word will cause the phrases to make a lot more sense.
posted by nickmark at 10:09 AM on May 21, 2004


Hey maybe people in academia aren't all full of crap! Who knew? What is it with "I don't know something, therefore it must be worthless?" Does anybody see the flaw in this common stance?
posted by callmejay at 10:29 AM on May 21, 2004


Sorry about the shrillness. Pet peeve.
posted by callmejay at 10:37 AM on May 21, 2004


Hey maybe people in academia aren't all full of crap! Who knew? What is it with "I don't know something, therefore it must be worthless?" Does anybody see the flaw in this common stance?

Hey, he's just making a normative statement. ;)
posted by eastlakestandard at 10:44 AM on May 21, 2004


The emphasis is different. "Normal" simply means it's nothing out of the ordinary. "Normative" means it specifically conforms to a particular "norm". Wearing pants, for you, is probably normal. A Martian who lands on Earth and starts wearing pants because he wants to assimilate into Earthling culture would be attempting to be "normative" even though it would not me "normal" for him to do so.
posted by 4easypayments at 10:46 AM on May 21, 2004


Thanks, callmejay, it's a peeve of mine too. When someone with specialized knowledge--whether "academic" or otherwise (imagine an auto mechanic for highly specialized knowledge which may not be considered "academic")--uses a technical term from the field, 99% of the time it's not just to obfuscate things and make them difficult to understand for the layperson. It's because the technical term has a precise meaning which is not adquately captured by more common words.

Example: why do biologists refer to "deleterious" mutations, rather than just calling them "bad" mutations? Well, "bad" would raise the question, "bad for whom?" A mutation which reduces the viability of a disease-causing bacterium might be bad from the bacterium's point of view, but good for the human who is potentially infected with it. Calling it a deleterious mutation, rather than a bad one, removes that ambiguity. No doubt grumblebee uses technical terms in his/her own field of specialty which would be equally confusing to the layperson, possibly without even realizing it.

Disclaimer: as far as I'm concerned, the above does not apply to business-speak, which in my experience often does serve no other purpose than obfuscation.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 10:47 AM on May 21, 2004


...would not me be "normal" for him to do so.
posted by 4easypayments at 10:48 AM on May 21, 2004


Jargon is only useful when it makes an argument more precise or more concise. Jargon has a price: it obscures your ideas from people who aren't already part of your in-group, and often the jargon supposes a consensus about meaning that needs to be questioned.

grumblebee's question is the best test to distingish between useful technical terms and obfuscatory jargon: can the meaning be explained clearly without the jargon? Some academics (and technologists, and business people) will insist that their ideas simply can't be explained without the jargon, which is a good sign that they don't really understand their ideas themselves.
posted by fuzz at 11:29 AM on May 21, 2004


,grumblebee's question is the best test to distingish between useful technical terms and obfuscatory jargon: can the meaning be explained clearly without the jargon? Some academics (and technologists, and business people) will insist that their ideas simply can't be explained without the jargon, which is a good sign that they don't really understand their ideas themselves.

Except that it's clear that "normative" and "normal" aren't the same, so his question actually distinguished nothing. Also, your last statement is a false generalization in the same sense the original question was.

I undestand your final point, but it depends what you mean by it. A lot of jargon-filled academia can be explained simply without the jargon, but it will lose the subtle nuances that the academic is attempting to achieve. In many cases, an academic is only writing for other academics in a field, because they're attempting to further knowledge of a certain subject through academia. Clearly one cannot expect all academics to dumb down the papers they publish in their own circles if it detrimentally effects the works. The problem only arises when something of general interest from an academic field is filtered into the mainstream, where the jargon is lost on much of the viewing public. In these situations it is best to simplify, but that hardly means the initial jargon was meaningless--it's only too difficult for the new context.

This sort of thing occurs in all walks of life, however. We could probably all get by with vocabularies one third the size of those we use, but in an attempt to be both precise and interesting we have other words we use. To do otherwise would be injurious to the arts and would, I think, do the world (in this case the english-speaking world) a great disservice: language is a beautiful thing and certainly isn't immutable.

Of course, there are those academics (often grad students) who obfuscate themselves into oblivion. It's a fine balancing act one has to attempt and there are some interesting texts on the topic if you wish to look into it further (my knowledge is limited, but I did take an academic writing class a few years ago).
posted by The God Complex at 11:51 AM on May 21, 2004


First of all, thanks for clarifying "normative" for me. I get it now.

Now, in my experience whenever a specialized field develops its own lingo, two things tend to happen within that community:

1) some of the lingo becomes very useful to clarify concepts that need special attention within that field (whereas in general usage, this level of specificity isn't all that useful).

2) some of the lingo is used to make simplistic ideas that ANYONE could understand seem more special and complicated than they really are.

Both of these dynamics occur in any social group, because people are people. #2 is used also to define who's in and who's out.

Personally, I think #1 is great and #2 is pretty awful (and should be rooted out and guarded against). And having spent 14 years in academia, I've seen a lot of both.

I will also admit that I have much less time for specialized lingo in art appreciation classes (lit crit, drama, etc.) than I do in the sciences on in art-creation classes. I can see the word for special words in a music (or poetry) composition class.

And I can also see SOME need for specialized words in an appreciation class. One might need to delve deeping into a topic than the "general public" does, and there might not be any standard-usage words to help you do that. Only in this circumstance should you resort to coining (or using) a non-standard word. Anything else simply shuts out non-specialists for no reason.

Having said all that, I didn't mean to offend in my front page post. I was just being flippant and attempting some (lame) humor.

I certainly don't think that anything I don't understand is meaningless. If I did, I never would have posted the question.
posted by grumblebee at 12:07 PM on May 21, 2004


,grumblebee's question is the best test to distingish between useful technical terms and obfuscatory jargon: can the meaning be explained clearly without the jargon?

Except that it's clear that "normative" and "normal" aren't the same, so his question actually distinguished nothing.


Huh? I asked what "normative" meant. People answered clearly. So that proves it IS a useful technical term -- this distinguishing it from obfuscatory jargon.

No?
posted by grumblebee at 12:10 PM on May 21, 2004


Well, as a graduate student in English lit. I see both sides of the coin. Grumblebee, I think you're too hasty in your idea that specialized words aren't as useful in literary criticism. Once you start surveying 150 years of writing on literature you end up really happy that there are so many specialized words: it's a good thing that critics don't use the same terms from decade to decade, subtly changing their meaning, as they go, and losing the ability to recover ideas from past generations of critical work.

Another way of putting it: jargon in a field like literary criticism is important because it helps create a fairly stable set of technical terms that can be used in discussion. Since a lot of what literature professors do is examine the way that words work and the ways their meanings change, it's really important to try to establish a separate, stable group of terms that you can use, in a sense, apart from the language itself. With that principle in mind literary jargon starts to seem more excusable.

That said, I too lose patience when simple ideas are expressed in an unclear way, which happens with a fair bit of regularity. This is more, I think, because writing is hard: jargon makes writing easier and faster. Honestly I think it has less to do with exclusivity than with laziness.
posted by josh at 12:44 PM on May 21, 2004



Huh? I asked what "normative" meant. People answered clearly. So that proves it IS a useful technical term -- this distinguishing it from obfuscatory jargon.

No?


I was referring specifically to fuzz's implication that your question distinguished some problem with academia (or what's how I interpreted what fuzz said), not your question specifically. Sorry for the misunderstanding.


That said, I too lose patience when simple ideas are expressed in an unclear way, which happens with a fair bit of regularity. This is more, I think, because writing is hard: jargon makes writing easier and faster. Honestly I think it has less to do with exclusivity than with laziness.


Yes. One more thing I'd like to ass is that a lot of academic writing isn't unclear because of the jargon; often, jargon can be easily explained within the confines of a particular paper (if the jargon is new), or the reader can easily search for earlier works to define the jargon for him/her. Rather, unclear academic writing is often a result of poor sentence structure, not jargon. People writing in academic fields should strive to use sentences that read easily, since the content of the sentence is often difficult enough to process. In most cases, this involves nothing more than following the usual subject (noun) -- action (verb) sequence whenever it is applicable; in some cases such a structure may not work, but this is something of a rarity--more often than not, it is possible and will make the complex ideas put forth more understandable.
posted by The God Complex at 1:24 PM on May 21, 2004


add, not ass.

(curses!)
posted by The God Complex at 1:25 PM on May 21, 2004


Jargon is just fine, in the right time and place. When it sucks is when the proles get ahold of it and start using it inappropriately.

Like the sign I saw at a coffee shop: "If you wish to utilize your debit card, you will be charged a 35c transaction fee." Gah!!
posted by five fresh fish at 1:35 PM on May 21, 2004


My dislike of jargon in lit crit and similar fields has to do with some prejudices that I have, which I don't ask anyone to share.

To ME, the value of fiction is to feed emotion. To excite me, to scare me, to sadden me, to fill me with joy...

I've never had much time for novels-of-ideas, though very occasionally I will like one. If I do, I'd better not be able to sense an author trying to use characters as mouth-pieces. The ideas better seem like totally natural things that the characters would come up with themselves.

If I wanted to make a non-subjective argument about this, I would suggest that if you want to convey an idea, there are GENERALLY (not 100% of the time) better ways (and more honest, direct) ways to do so than within a novel (I LOVE non-fiction by the way). But I'd rather not pursue this line too deeply here, so I'll just say it's a preference.

What I REALLY loath is when people discuss an emotive work of fiction (one that is NOT an idea book) as if it was one.

Which was what happened in most of my lit classes. It was all about theme, and the point of reading seemed to be to figure out what the hidden theme was -- as if a book was a kind of intellectual puzzle. The theme would always be an idea -- some sort of proposition (i.e. Men are better than women), and then the class would be about agreeing or not agreeing with that idea and debating how well the author backed up the claims of that idea.

If you tried to talk about plot or character (which to my mind is what fiction does best), you'd be belittled, as if you were reading in a childish way.

Many people told me that plot and character is too subjective for academic study. I disagree. There are many was to study plot and character. But that's too long a discussion for here.

In my experience, jargon mostly helped the study of ideas in fiction, and since I don't like that (remember, it's MY preference -- I'm not dissing people who feel otherwise), I don't like the jargon...

...when it's used in lit classes.

Maybe I just had bad luck in my classes. My college experience might not be representative.
posted by grumblebee at 2:02 PM on May 21, 2004


In W3C standards documents, what is normative is required to comply with the standard.
posted by joeclark at 3:48 PM on May 21, 2004


grumblebee - have you tried reading frank kermode's work? he's a critic (mainly of shakespeare) that i've always meant to read, and i share your aversion to much of what i see of lit crit (i should add that i'm spectacularly poorly informed on the subject, so this is purely personal prejudice). there's a short article here on empson's poetry (with my bestest poem ever) and an article from the lrb here that i read years ago (when i used to subscribe - the joys of living in a civilised country) that sets out his philosophy (and which gave me the desire to read more of his work, although i haven't done so yet - did i say i was poorly informed?).

on the other hand, i should add that maybe it's just that a lot of lit crit is crap, just as a lot of any kind of writing is crap, because edward said's "orientalism", which very much is about the kind of things i would normally object to, is one of my all time favourite books. and kermode might come across as rather stuffy if he wasn't so entertaining and right.

</derail>
posted by andrew cooke at 6:30 AM on May 22, 2004


Rather, unclear academic writing is often a result of poor sentence structure, not jargon.

It's even more often a result of a writer who's ignorant, stupid, or both. Academics aren't any smarter than anybody else, they've just chosen the academic path. Sturgeon's Law applies: 90% of everything is crud.

MetaTalk: One more thing I'd like to ass
posted by languagehat at 7:09 AM on May 22, 2004


I'm mystified by the intense hostility academia and literary criticism manages to incite in people. Where are people encountering all of this terrible academic writing? If it's in the papers, or in articles by Terry Eagleton or David Lodge in the NYRB, or in 'reports' by physicists making fun of literary criticism, or in excerpts written up in AL Daily, then bear in mind that you're getting second-hand exposure to a very wide and deep field. Critics, thinkers, and professors like Frank Kermode abound. Critics like Kermode are deeply respected. I read a ton of literary criticism every year, and a lot of it is very well-written and very smart. If your view of literary criticism is that it's all jargon-laden, postmodern, unintelligable, and about 'signs' and 'signifiers' then you've been dragged into a political debate from the '80s that is, to a great extent, now over. In many ways it was never even a debate: it's always entertaining to make fun of professors and their ideas.

Instead, read: Frank Kermode, Lionel Trilling, Helen Vendler, Philip Fisher, M. H. Abrams, Eli Zaretsky, Walter Benjamin, Raymond William, J. Hillis Miller, Louis Menand, Henry James, Walter Benjamin. (Just a few of my favorites).

There are so many great literary critics. Sure, some of them talk about novels and the ideas contained within them: ask any novelist, novels *do* contain ideas, they often *are* about politics, about the world and life. Literature is not just entertainment, it is art -- I should hope that that's obvious. You will be able to find great, sensitive, clear, illuminating writing on writing. Not everything is Derrida, marxism, gender, and theory.

I've also read a lot of _bad_ criticism and, like languagehat says, 90% of everything is -- or, I would say, can be -- crap. I think 90% is, maybe, a little high; but you're still going to read things you disagree with. If you disagree with a writer, disagree with them, but don't throw out the baby with the bathwater and blame a whole branch of learning. Keep reading: you will find writers you agree with. Criticism has been around since the Bible. Academics -- way to generalize there, I must say -- aren't all geniuses, but, on the whole, they know a lot about their subjects. To say that "lit crit is crap" is to be a little prematurely dismissive. And to say that 90% of academics are, in effect, ignorant, stupid, or both is just being nasty.

I don't know how many of the people reading this thread are in the sciences, but even if you're not, it's worth putting out their the fact that literary criticism is not unlike science, in a Thomas Kuhn sort of way. It's a big collective enterprise. Articles make nitpicky, small points, and prove them laboriously. But you wouldn't read a random scientific paper, find it uninspiring, and say 'science is stupid -- 90% of scientists are stupid.' You would say, 'it's a paper written for people in the profession; it's a work in progress; maybe I'll go read Stephen Hawking, Stephen J. Gould, Richard Feynmann, or James Gleick." Go read "The Art of Shakespeare's Sonnets" by Helen Vendler, or "The Vehement Passions" by Philip Fisher: you'll be pleasantly surprised.
posted by josh at 11:51 AM on May 22, 2004


Actually, josh, you'd be amazed how often I hear, "Math is dumb," or one of a thousand variations thereon. To which I usually respond with, "Oh, well it's good to know that I've wasted my life," which usually gets the student to focus on the work (hopefully with the new insight that it can actually be interesting) instead of their dislike of it.
posted by kaibutsu at 5:24 PM on May 22, 2004


It all reminds me of that time that I saw some bricoleurs positing a deconstruction of a differance.
posted by bingo at 12:24 AM on May 23, 2004


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