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Social Impact: The Use of Language and Why It Matters


Wednesday, 1st March 2017 at 8:05 am
Alan Kay
As language is increasingly used to obscure truth, Alan Kay, coordinator of the UK’s Social Audit Network, explains why the meaning of social impact is also at risk.


Wednesday, 1st March 2017
at 8:05 am
Alan Kay


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Social Impact: The Use of Language and Why It Matters
Wednesday, 1st March 2017 at 8:05 am

As language is increasingly used to obscure truth, Alan Kay, coordinator of the UK’s Social Audit Network, explains why the meaning of social impact is also at risk.

In this world of a Trump presidency in the USA and Brexit in the UK – where facts and “truth” are being stretched to a frightening degree, I am reminded of George Orwell and his concept of doublethink. In 1984 he writes:

War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength. The very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world. Lies will pass into history.

This idea of words and language being used to manipulate thinking is at the heart of Orwell’s work. He recognised that language and words are crucially important.

As we enter a world of post-truth and increasingly instantaneous information and communication, we are going to have to be more scrupulous in filtering out fact from a tidal flood of fiction which has been designed to influence the way we think.

Of course, language can be used to explain and clarify things. The late James Cameron in an article in the Guardian in the 1980s wrote about how he did not really know or understand his opinion on things until he had tried to express it in words. He relates how he became surprised at the opinions – often strong opinions – that he held which only really come to light when he put his thoughts into words.

This resonated with me at that time – and it still does – as it reveals the strong link between our culture – the way we think about things in the world, and the language we use to explain it to ourselves and to others.

But language can also be used to confuse and obfuscate the truth intended in the meaning.

Often there is a difference between what people say they are doing and what they are actually doing. This lack of a clear link with reality may just be the absence of clear thinking, but it may be deliberate to manipulate how others think about things and what they do about it.

In the world of social enterprise, words are used in ways that intend to influence. Indeed, the term social enterprise originated from the French, economie sociale, and its early use was not to explain the impact of economic activity in “social” ways or in benefitting people. Rather the term was used to explain that the economic activity was owned by people. For me this is an interesting distinction, and one that is often forgotten. But, of course, the term has evolved from its roots into what we understand social enterprise to mean today, that is, the impact on people.

Another example from the history of social enterprise…

A precursor to social enterprise in the UK was the Scottish community business movement that started in the 1970s with rural community co-operatives supported by the then Highlands and Islands Development Board (now Highland and Islands Enterprise).

The idea of community ownership of economic activity spread to urban areas with community-owned businesses supported by local authorities using Urban Programme funding. This movement flourished, became established and mainstream. In the early 1990s it came in for a lot of criticism (some of it quite valid) but this led to people changing the terminology – if not the concept. They started to refer to these types of organisations as “community enterprises”. Not the old guard, “community business”, but the fresh and new, “community enterprise”’.

Similarly, in the early 1990s a range of versions of community-owned businesses emerged. In my view, they were more or less the same thing but with a new twist: “development trusts”, “social firms” – to name but two. Old wine in new bottles. The newly formed terms implied a new concept.

Turning to the world of “social impact” there are similar things happening.

I have been actively involved in social accounting and audit for many years. We started to use this term in the early 2000s replacing “social audit” as we felt the longer term more accurately described the two parts of social accounting and social audit. As you can imagine it is not a particularly popular term and we thought of changing it into something more immediately appealing like, SEE Visioning or similar.

It was thought that a change of name might attract those that associated accounting and audit with arduous and stressful connotations. For better or for worse we stuck with the accuracy of social accounting and audit. You get what is says on the tin.

More recently I have become aware of a subtle change of word usage in the social impact field.

A few years ago, the term impact measurement was on everyone’s lips. We were being encouraged to “measure” the change that happens on people, the environment and on the local economies. If we could not, the argument was that the impact could not be managed – or so we were told.

The Social Audit Network has always disputed this and said that just because one cannot measure something, one can still put a value on it. In fact, many of the things that most people personally would value in their lives, cannot be measured – like love, close friendship, the warmth of company, the delight in a beautiful view, the exhilaration of achievement, and so on. Others in this area of social impact insisted that measurement was key.

Inevitably, those who insisted on measuring things and often reducing the good things in life to a financial value are now recognising that they may have been wrong. But instead of accepting that – yes, you are right – they change the words. “Impact management” has been introduced. Recognising the absurdities of trying to measuring everything, which one cannot sensibly do, let’s change it to managing and understanding our impact.

Perhaps what is not so strange is that those advocating impact management now are not a million miles away from what social accounting and audit has been suggesting for decades.

So the use of language may just be a minor skirmish within the social impact. But it is arguably a reflection of something much more important – that is, the way we use language and what we really mean.

I can see that in a future more nationalist, more fearful, more defensive and exclusive world, the connection between language and “truth” will become more divergent.

The writing of Orwell will no doubt come back to haunt (or is it taunt us?). In his work, Politics and the English Language, he writes:

The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns, as it were, instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish squirting out ink.

I am not sure what a cuttlefish is, but there seems to be a lot of them about.

About the author: Alan Kay is a founding board member of the UK’s Social Audit Network a not-for-profit organisation that facilitates the exchange of information and experience between practitioners of social accounting and audit in the social economy and voluntary sectors. Kay has more that 30 years of experience in community development and social enterprise support in the UK and overseas. He co-authored the 2005 Social Accounting and Audit Manuals and more recently wrote the New Guide to Social Accounting and Audit.


Alan Kay  |   |  @ProBonoNews

Alan Kay is a founding board member of the UK’s Social Audit Network (SAN).

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