Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Why I use that word that I use: Problematic

A cartoon speech bubble with a question mark in quotation marks inside it.

Unlike the previous entries in this series, problematic is not an unfamiliar term for most feminists - in fact, it's a cliche. I named this blog after a professor who overused the phrase "deeply problematic". My intent with my title was humorous, but these days I use it earnestly, frequently. and without irony. Problematic is not a specific word, but it's an excellent way to briefly and broadly note the universal fact of imperfection.

Problematic is an adjective that admits plural flaws. It is applied to nouns that are not perfect to point out that they are not perfect. Problematic suggests a series or pattern of problems - it states that there are more issues with whatever it's appended to than can or will be immediately recognized.

Problematic is a diagnostic, general term - a term for introductions. A term to point out a fact that is true of all - that it's not perfect, that it has problems. Problematic sets a critical tone when used broadly, indicating that all is not well and that some of what is not well will be identified and articulated in the following paragraphs.

Problematic can be a qualifier. It acknowledges that something is not perfect without going in depth. In praise of media, individuals, or actions for their social values, noting that they're problematic denies blanket endorsement to the less virtuous acts of the subject of praise. Simply noting that X is problematic allows for legitimate dissent to praise of X. It reminds the reader that even the things we like are created in a kyriarchy, and thus even those things we like will reflect some of the oppressions we fight.

Use of problematic as a qualifier can be a cop-out - a way to avoid critique rather than a thoughtful acknowledgement of legitimate concerns. But a well-placed link or short elaboration can remedy this without breaking word count limits. (Example: "Though Glee has problematic elements, particularly on the axis of disability, I find the relationship between Kurt and his father to be anti-homophobic.")

Some folks have described problematic as "lazy" or obfuscating. It is neither, when used correctly. Any term can be used in a thoughtless or confusing way. Problematic is just not a word for specifics.

Problematic is a universal term - it is simple, and applies to literally everything. Pointing out that something is problematic is value neutral. Perfection is a cruel farce; everything has problems,even if we personally cannot see or articulate them. Describing something as problematic is just explaining that it is imperfect, of nature. And sometimes that is as a radical as saying that marginalized groups are human, too - it's a clear fact and commonality, but it's sometimes forgotten.

Problematic is a broad word and one that can be applied to everything. Problematic is a part of this blog's name because it opens up the subject matter to critique of unlimited sources - from news to media to language and everything else, since everything is problematic. For my purposes, it's an admission of guilt - that this space, too, is deeply problematic.


Feminist sociologist Dorothy Smith utilized this term globally in her book, "The Everyday World as Problematic: A Feminist Sociology". I have not read the book, but I found this description of her work and use of the term to be helpful:
Problematic is a term used by ethnomethodology and put to effective use by Dorothy Smith to describe as a problem of interest that which is normally not seen as a problem because it is taken for granted. Smith argues that, “the everyday world is problematic”. She argues that the everyday world is neither transparent nor obvious. That social relations are organized from “elsewhere”.
By bracketing one's own membership in the world a researcher makes the commonsense and taken-for-granted world problematic.By making the everyday and ordinary problematic a researcher is able to uncover the structure and dynamic of the everyday.
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This and other "Why I use that word that I use" posts are a 101 space - if there's something that you're not getting, you have greater room than usual to ask basic questions.


  1. All humans, it seems are naturally inclined toward being, acting, and interacting in ways that are deeply problematic. What's somewhat sane is recognizing that fact. i like the quote by Salvador Dali: "Have no fear of perfection. You'll never achieve it."

  2. Thanks for the relevant quote, Panty Buns! I agree with the sentiment, buuuut I try to avoid equating sanity with perceptiveness - it's a tad ableist - I'm not 100% sane, after all! :)

  3. I love the word "problematic" because it defuses a lot of potential defensiveness: this thing is not wrong, or bad, or broken. It is simply imperfect, not just in the way that nothing is perfect, but in specific ways that can be addressed or at least discussed.

    Before it entered my vocabulary, I found too many discussions ended up debating the overall worth of a thing, rather than actually looking at the details.

  4. I like the word, too!

    But my spellchecker does not.

  5. problematic vs. cisperfection?

    PS...feel better this Labouring Day.


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