Demographic valence

« previous post | next post »

In the New Yorker article discussed in an earlier post about leaf-blower noise, Tad Friend wrote that "a Berkeley psychiatrist [...] addressed the problem's demographic valence", describing an attempt to rebut the idea that anti-blower activists are "just some fat-ass fussy busses, rich white people in the suburbs, worrying about a little noise". Mark P noted in the comments that

I have never seen the term "demographic valence." I'm familiar with the term "valence" in chemistry and home decor. I can see how it could mean something like "attractiveness." But in this context, I have to assume that it means the tendency of noise to be a problem within different demographic groups.

Valence actually has a broader and more interesting history, and Tad Friend's use seems to be an extension of an existing class of meanings that Mark P may not have encountered before.

The original source was Latin valentia meaning "bodily strength, vigor" or "capacity, endowment". According to the OED, in the 15th century it was  borrowed into English as valence meaning "an extract or preparation (of some herb) used in medicine". In the 17th century, it appeared as both valence and valency, meaning "valour, courage" or "might, power, strength". In the late 19th century, both valence and valency were used (along with quantivalence and atomicity) to translate German Quantivalenz, meaning "The power or capacity of certain elements to combine with or displace a greater or less number of hydrogen (or other) atoms".

In the early 20th century, the psychologists stepped in, using valence to mean (in the OED's gloss) "Emotional force or significance, spec. the feeling of attraction or repulsion with which an individual invests an object or event". Merriam-Webster's gloss for this sense is "the degree of attractiveness an individual, activity, or thing possesses as a behavioral goal", related to another sense given as "relative capacity to unite, react, or interact (as with antigens or a biological substrate)".

And at some point, linguists made a play as well, using valence to mean something like "The number of grammatical elements with which a particular word, esp. a verb, combines in a sentence". That gloss comes from the Google dictionary.

Encarta reorganizes this in terms of a shared notion of "combining power":

1. combining power of atoms: the combining power of atoms or groups measured by the number of electrons the atom or group will receive, give up, or share in forming a compound

2. combining antigenic determinants: the number of different antigenic determinants with which a single antibody molecule can combine

3. combining power of verb: the ability of a verb to combine grammatically with noun phrases in a given clause

The psychologists' meaning is left out, and can't easily be expressed as a fourth clause in this pattern. "The combining power of behavioral goals" isn't quite right as a way of describing the (positive or negative) degrees of attractiveness that psychological valence denotes.

Tad Friend's usage — "the problem's demographic valence" — apparently means, as Mark P inferred, something like "the degree to which the problem affects or concerns different demographic groups".  This may represent semantically bleaching causation out of the notion of "combining power", leaving simply "pattern of association". (Though it's possible that Friend really did mean "the problem's demographic combining power" rather than "the problem's demographic pattern of association".)

As for the putative role of valence in home decor, Mark P has merged two historically separate words here. The conventional spelling for "a short drapery or wood or metal frame used as a decorative heading to conceal the top of curtains and fixtures" is valance.  The etymology of this word is obscure, according to the OED, but may come from Old French avaler "to descend", which would make it a relative of avalanche; in any case, L. valentia is not in the picture. (Earlier particular interpretations of the same core concept are glossed by the OED as "A piece of drapery attached lengthways to a canopy, altar-cloth, or the like, so as to hang in a vertical position", and "A border of drapery hanging round the canopy of a bed; in later use, a short curtain around the frame of a bedstead, etc., serving to screen the space underneath".)

[Update -- a bit of search suggests that valence has come to be used in academic writings about literary topics to mean something like "association", "connection", or "interpretation", often with modifiers like religious, political or ideological. This is probably where Friend picked it up. Some recent examples from articles in the journal Studies in the Novel:

Arguably, he is simply attempting to illuminate an unacknowledged religious valence within certain widely accepted literary and critical gestures, but McClure's concept of the religious at times seems too broad, so as to relinquish all specific meaning.

Resistance is as far as she was able to go, and though we cannot make her do more, we have yet to register the political valence of her susurrous grotesque.

Further, we can-and I think should-read Member as a "lesbian coming of age" novel (Kenschaft 229; see also Lynch) while also reading it as queer-affirmative in its contemporary, "multipl[y] valence[d]" sense (Adams 554).

Thus, trauma is both an immediate experience, a wounding, and the belated effects of that wound. This double valence of the term "trauma" lends it the potential for an expansive temporal longevity.

A girl who can build a church is admirable, but she is not a pattern-card of "ladylike" behavior. The unstable ideological valence of the church-building project is symbolized through the associated trope of vision that runs throughout the novel.

I searched Studies in the Novel from 1973 forward, and the first of 27 instances of valence was in 1991, used in what might be the psychologists' sense:

Though the return to the Manse exiles the narrator from a carefree life united with nature, he argues for its necessity, that is, the necessity of a sense of self as a subject, bound to social institutions. After his return from nature he insists upon transforming the valences of the experience by making a case for a new socialized status. "How sweet was it," he declares, "to return within the system of human society, not as to a dungeon and a chain, but as to a stately edifice, whence we could go forth at will into statelier simplicity!"

However, the chronologically second hit, in 1994, seems to be the new litcrit "association" or "interpretation" sense:

Godbole's unsolicited awareness of Mrs. Moore articulates a narrative method according to which an event transpires in a transcendentally significant way (a "telepathic appeal") and at the same time takes place for totally insignificant reasons (the result of "chance," a mere "trick of his memory"). [...] In every case, the narrative events which have this double valence of the supernatural and the aleatory are attached to Mrs. Moore.

And the next 24 are similar. Perhaps it's time for a "sense induction ceremony" at the OED.]



  1. Mark P said,

    October 26, 2010 @ 11:05 am

    My computer's dictionary fooled me. I was using the Mac's Dashboard app and entered "valence". The dictionary apparently does not have "valence" and so assumed I meant "valance." I didn't notice the different spelling. The definition did not include the chemistry definition, but since I was already familiar with that, I ignored that clue. I suppose this counts as being cupertinoed.

  2. Dominik Lukes said,

    October 26, 2010 @ 11:18 am

    It might be worth pointing out that in European linguistics the term is used for verbal argument/complement structure following the metaphor from chemistry. On this view the verb is the core of the sentence to which obligatory and potential complements attach.

  3. Dominik Lukes said,

    October 26, 2010 @ 11:19 am

    Here's a more detailed explanation:

  4. Dick Margulis said,

    October 26, 2010 @ 11:31 am

    Hmm. Never noticed the spelling difference before myself. Thanks for that.

    But while valence may be a relatively uncommon word in English, equivalence is common enough. Odd, when you think about it, that we're all familiar with the notion of equal combining power expressed by equivalence but have mostly lost touch with the root it's based on.

  5. Coby Lubliner said,

    October 26, 2010 @ 11:33 am

    Could it be a coincidence that some prominent linguists (Pompeu Fabra, William Labov) began professional life as chemists?

  6. Ian Preston said,

    October 26, 2010 @ 12:05 pm

    I believe political scientists use the term to distinguish issues which everyone agrees on from issues on which there is no agreement as to which direction it would be good to move. Honesty and competence in office are "valence issues", for example, assuming all voters agree that it is better if office holders are trustworthy and competent.

  7. Dan Lufkin said,

    October 26, 2010 @ 12:13 pm

    [W]e have yet to register the political valence of her susurrous grotesque sounds straight out of Steven Potter.

    It would, in my opinion, be a grave mistake not to give this phrase wide currency in this election season, particularly in re certain senatorial candidates.

  8. Spell Me Jeff said,

    October 26, 2010 @ 12:16 pm

    It has long been impermissible to write lit crit without a lot of European words or English words redefined in ways that no sensible person can recognize. I once had a lit crit professor who insisted on referring to the humanities as the human sciences. I knew he was a pompous ass, but it took me a few years to realize he was also a fool.

    [(myl) In (many contexts in?) French, "sciences humaines" (= "human sciences") corresponds to English "humanities and social sciences". This is clear, for example, in the bilingual name of the Canadian SSHRC-CRSH ("Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council / Conseil de Recherches en Sciences Humaines").

    The "Human Sciences" idea has some merit, it seems to me. There are many areas of history and political science whose classification as "humanities" or "social science" is not clear. And this also gives us a place to put linguistics, which is otherwise a sort of disciplinary Balkans, with parts variously tied to the humanities, to the social sciences, and to the natural sciences.

    Of course, the question of whether humanists (and for that matter social scientists) ought to be "scientific" (or even simply rational) is a vexed and vexatious one.]

  9. Coby Lubliner said,

    October 26, 2010 @ 1:15 pm

    The concepts of "humanities" and "human sciences" actually have very different origins. The latter, originally formulated in French, refers to the study of mankind as opposed to the "natural" and "exact" sciences. "Humanities," originally "humane letters" (humanae litterae, still found in honorary degrees), comes from the Middle Ages and refers to the study of matters which are not divine (i.e. theology).

  10. J. W. Brewer said,

    October 26, 2010 @ 1:30 pm

    I love myl's phrase "disciplinary balkans," which googling shows to be previously attested only in this somewhat bizarre page full of seeming nonsense collocations:

  11. J. W. Brewer said,

    October 26, 2010 @ 1:32 pm

    Oops. Actually in a prior google-cached version thereof, which you can find by googling "disciplinary balkans."

  12. Coulter George said,

    October 26, 2010 @ 2:33 pm

    Does anyone else think that "resonance" comes a little bit closer to capturing the sense "valence" seems to have in the quotations from _Studies in the Novel_? If so, I'm wondering whether this use of the word is (subconsciously) a sort of blend of "value" and "resonance".

  13. groki said,

    October 26, 2010 @ 4:23 pm

    "combining power"

    I'd say valence is more a "combining inclination" or "capability."

    Tad Friend's usage – "the problem's demographic valence" – apparently means, as Mark P inferred, something like "the degree to which the problem affects or concerns different demographic groups".

    "affects or concerns" still isn't quite right. Dr Fussy Bus–worried that it might be argued that only some people are in a position to even have the problem or think of it as one, with those people falling into certain demographic categories (say, the "rich white people in the suburbs" he mentioned)–"addressed the problem's demographic valence."

    but "affects or concerns" in myl's definition leaves out the dimension of inclination. I read Friend's phrase in the unbleached sense, meaning something more like "the degree to which different demographic groups are drawn to the (or to considering the problem a real) problem."

  14. Rodger C said,

    October 26, 2010 @ 10:11 pm

    Having been first a chemistry major and then an English major, I always assumed that the two uses of "valence" were independent borrowings from Latin. I could well be wrong about that, but I'd still resist the assumption (not the first time to have appeared on this blog) that every term shared by science and the humanities was lifted from science and then "misused."

  15. Spell Me Jeff said,

    October 27, 2010 @ 9:56 am

    This post is past its prime, but I did want to clarify my earlier post. I do understand that many of what are called the humanities operate in a more or less scientific fashion. I don't know if the classification is one of administrative convenience, history, or whatnot. I've always thought of linguistics in particular as a social science, related to anthropology, that has a few areas where empiricism must yield to . . . something else.

    I was thinking of "human sciences" being used specifically in the context of literary criticism, which is anything but scientific. The study of tropes and genres and similar matters can be handled in an empirical fashion, but all that is rather out of fashion.

  16. Aaron Davies said,

    October 27, 2010 @ 11:38 am

    it's used in computer science (or at least in q, the language i'm working in at the moment) to refer to the number of parameters a function takes (negative is univalent, plus is bivalent, etc.), more or less freely interchangeably with the "monadic", "dyadic", etc. "adicity" series. (not to be confused with functional programming monads.) this is presumably directly from linguistics courtesy of the overlap from people like chomsky.

  17. Rodger C said,

    October 27, 2010 @ 12:36 pm

    Within 24 hours of posting that I was once a chemistry major, I get an email (my first ever) from a chemical supply company. This is beginning to be eerie.

  18. KevinM said,

    October 27, 2010 @ 2:01 pm

    When I hear "human sciences" all I can think of is the great Bill Broonzy's comment when someone tried to drag him into the "folk music" controversy that preoccupied the purists in the early sixties.
    "I guess all songs is folk songs. I never heard no horse sing 'em."

  19. Peter G. Howland said,

    October 30, 2010 @ 10:44 am

    I know I’m late with this, but that’s because unlike you bright students and brilliant scholars, I don’t always have studied opinions, incisive observations or scholarly insights right in the front of my muddled mind or at the tips of my dancing fingers when stuff comes up. I’ve gotta get out the dictionaries and unearth the reference materials and make copious notes and compose scribbled drafts and take a couple a naps and all that other time-consuming crap before I’ll even chance posting a comment. So, here you go…finally!

    re: “valance / valence” – Without re-hashing definitions, clearly stated by others before me, my observations are in regard to pronunciation. (Please note that I am not conversant in IPA symbols and am therefore constrained in accurate representations of sounds by my own primitive concepts of phonetic spelling).

    In my exposure to the physical sciences (somewhat limited) and to architectural drafting and specification writing (rather extensive), the two terms are pronounced differently, thus:

    valence: (the atomic phenomena or strong intersocial capability) is pronounced /VEY-lence/ with a long “a” as in “vale/vail/veil”.
    valance: (the device(s) that hide the messy mechanics, supporting structures or ugly unfinished ends at the tops of window coverings) is pronounced /VAHL-ence/ as in “value” or “valley”. (I even heard it whiz past my ear-bones a few times as /vuh-LANCE/, but I suspect that these were merely attempts at precious sophistication.)

    It is, of course, possible that the physics and chemistry instructors I heard or the architects and window covering suppliers I talked to were wrong…or simply repeating the cant of erroneous insider jargon…but I don’t think so.

  20. Mark P said,

    November 1, 2010 @ 12:20 pm

    @Peter G. Howland -
    Your observation about pronunciation is consistent with my recollection. My mistake was in not noticing that the two words are actually spelled differently.

RSS feed for comments on this post · TrackBack URI

Leave a Comment