Words and Meaning in Peacetime and War

We’re all busy writing funding applications here at ESRI so not much time to write blog posts. Such is the life of the jobbing academic. So I’ve just got time for a quick post.

While reading about the mind-bendingly accomplished Rory Stewart MP (read here), I was interested in what he said about the language of post-war reconstruction:

Ten years ago he would have listed 10 things Afghanistan needed to build a new state: rule of law, financial administration, civil administration and so on. “And, then you would say, well, how do you do that? Well, I’d say, by a mapping of internal and external stakeholders, definition of critical tasks – all this jargon talk. And I’ve only now just begun to realise these words are nonsense words. I mean, they have no content at all. We should be ashamed to even use them.”

They are nothing more, Stewart now acknowledges, than tautologies. “They pretend to be a plan, but they’re actually just a description of an absence. Saying ‘What we need is security, and what we need to do is eliminate corruption’ is just another way of saying: ‘It’s really dangerous and corrupt.’ None of that actually tells you how it’s done.”

 In my research I’m fascinated in how buzzwords such as culture change, leadership and collaboration are deployed in public sector policy and practice in similar ways to mask things that we don’t really know what to do. Like Stewart, I’m always more interested in ‘how it’s done’.

When the bids are in we’ll be back with something a little more substantial.

James Duggan

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