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The Cosmopolitan Expert: Dancing with Numbers and Narratives

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Clearly, this pull between a weak and strong Whorfian perspective is important when we turn to the use of words to understand all modes of realty Semantics play a critical role in the assignment of labels to particular phenomena==particular in the domain of human behavior. For example, we seek to find remedies for the emotional and mental problems afflicting those who are classified as “psychopathological.” Is our concern about and “valuing” of specific domains of psychopathology (such as anxiety and substance abuse) reflected in finer semantic differentiations of these domains? In the culture of science, we are included to measure that which we value, and in the culture of the humanities we tend provide fine differentiations of words to realms that we deem most important (such as human behavior). There are gorillas in both cultures that we often ignore through the way we use (and don’t use) both words and numbers.


It is not just the words being used that seem to form social constructions in the world of narration and the culture of the humanities. It is also the way in which these words are arrayed. Some languages, for instance, are “right-branching” whereas others are “left-branching” These two terms refer to the way in which a sentence is structured. The language in which this essay is written (English) can be identified as “right branching”—for the modifiers are placed after the subject. For instance, as the author of this essay (and as a psychologist), I can write that “psychopathology is a domain in which there is considerable confusion and in which a great deal of money is at play.” The emphasis in this statement is upon the word “psychopathology” – while the modifiers are what I have to say about psychopathy. You, as the reader, are directed to attend first to the main topic: psychopathology. I then take you in one or more directions from this main subject.

A left-branching structure is less commonly used in English—though it is quite common in certain other language groups. When an English sentence is structured with left branching, then the subject comes after the modifiers. Our sentence would now read: “A great deal of money and considerable confusion is at play when we consider the domain of psychopathology.” As the reader, you must wait for the “punch line.” What is the writer leading us to with this concern about money and clarification? There is drama in the use of left-branching structures (this sentence itself is left-branching). However, the left-branching structure can also produce quite a bit of misunderstanding (this is a right-branching sentence).

Many readers (residing in the humanities culture) will recognize that the distinctive between right and left branching is perhaps nothing more than the distinctive made between active voice (right branching) and passive voice (left branching). It is more complicated than this; however, in the present analysis we will consider the terms active and right (and passive and left) to be essentially equivalent. The term “right branching” usually refers to the preponderance of (and preference for) active voice in a particular language group, with “left branching” similarly referring to the preponderance of (and preference for) passive voice.

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