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Translating between regular language and Economics

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When I posted these on my Facebook, Nabeelah suggested that I write something for 'Tower of Babel'. The column is welcome to repost this. You can comment the entry on Have you ever noticed that the best compliment students give their professors is something along these lines: “S/he is capable of explaining complicated things in such a simple manner”?

Teaching and research, as well as the media, is often about translation: from specific to abstract, from sound/view to words, from one culture to another. And some scientists work very hard to translate everyday language to the language they share with their colleagues.

Two examples from Economics:

1. You take a simple sentence, such as “People migrate if it’s worth it and if they want it” and translate it into

Source: Eurofound. 2007. Factors determining international and regional migration in Europe. Dublin: European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions.

2. You take an everyday concept, such as “higher salary”, and translate it to “higher rental rate on a unit of human capital stock”. Other examples: human language: “emigrees are caught in a dilemma: staying in the host country and earning more money, or returning and spending the money already saved” -> economics language: “each unit of time spent abroad increases his lifetime utility by raising his total consumption possibilities, but it decreases lifetime utility by reducing the time available for consumption at home”.

On the other hand, other social sciences, such as Sociology and Anthropology, are not immune to such translations either. For example, “[Research subjects] actively engage with, negotiate and redefine [research topic] as they exercise their agency” means “Hey, I’m not claiming that people’s actions are determined by impersonal powers and structures, got that?” Something like “In some cases/ contexts X may be interpreted as Y” translates as “Don’t blame me for making generalisations about X”. Also, it’s a must to start an article with something like “X can be very diverse and is experienced depending on one’s individual background. The experience of X can be A or non-A”. This also means “Did you think I would dare to generalise about X or people’s experience of X? But since we’re doing science here, just a little…”