Using the Higgs Boson to explain society

July 15, 2012

Image from BoingBoing (cc-by-nc).

In the midst of all the excitement about the Higgs Boson, I’m not the only one who has been fascinated by the metaphors that different people use to try to explain what’s going on to us non-physicists.

Depending on who you ask, the Higgs field might be better imagined as a giraffe or paparazzi or a swimming pool. The best explanation anybody’s encountered was a hand-drawn animation. Meanwhile, the Higgs particle itself has been compared (figuratively) with God. The research project itself has even been set to song .

All of this led me to think a little more about the fact that metaphors are among the best linguistic tools you can imagine when it comes time to explain a complex idea to someone who is (relatively speaking) clueless about the topic in question.

So that (and the more general notion that academics ought to put Malcolm Gladwell out of business <link>) got me thinking about some big sociological ideas that could do with a bit more metaphori-ification (?) in order to make them more intelligible.

First on my list is the notion of social structure – or maybe any of the big, structural social forces that contribute to the reproduction of social inequality (e.g. class, race, gender, etc.).

Even though it’s important to continue to think and argue about exactly how these phenomena operate, it’s critical to communicate that, in general, social forces are often invisible and never equally experienced by everyone, even though they effect everyone to some extent or another.

In other words, socioeconomic structure could be thought of as a sort of Higgs field in its own right — conditions of birth, early childhood, culture, and socialization impart a certain, relative amount of “mass” (poverty? oppression?) to individuals, who are then generally able to move more or less easily through the social world as a result.

Does this make sense? Are there other, better ways to explain complex sociological notions in a manner that do not involve the words habitus, governmentality, hegemony, institutions, etc. but that also do not deviate too far from the way sociologists use them? For someone who has never encountered such theoretical jargon, these terms can be literally meaningless and it’s up to someone else who understands them to provide some sort of conceptual bootstraps so that the rest of us can haul ourselves up.

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2 Responses to “Using the Higgs Boson to explain society”


  1. While it’s true that scientific fads can seem to have an abstract yet popular nature, comparing the Higgs Boson – heretofore an undiscovered cornerstone of physics and the way we conceptualize the universe – to sociological phenomena seems to blur the boundary between experimental “hard” sciences and more qualitative or philosophical avenues of inquiry.

    • aaron Says:

      Interesting point, Rocky. I obviously disagree to some extent given that I’m arguing that metaphors are an incredibly powerful and useful tool for making abstract concepts accessible to a wider audience (either in the context of physics or sociology). More to the point though, it seems like you’re trying to make a claim that physical phenomena have some special discursive or ontological status that should prevent us from comparing them to social phenomena or vice versa, and that doesn’t make any kind of sense to me. I definitely think it’s important to be clear about when we’re using metaphors versus when we’re arguing that there’s actually some connection between two distinct phenomena, but you seem to want to maintain a much clearer and stricter boundary between the two. What’s the justification for that?


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