Robert Samelson argues that we should stop using the word ‘reform’. I’ve grappled with this question for a long term, having been generally critical of the neoliberal policies generally referred to as “microeconomic reform”. I’ve tried all sorts of devices, such as the use of scare quotes and phrases like “so-called reform”, before concluding that the best thing is just to use the word in ways that make it obvious that I am not attaching positive connotations to it.

Over the fold is an old post on the subject (I needed to repost to fix broken links).

As Raymond Williams points out in his excellent little book Keywords, from which I got the idea for this series, reform originally meant ‘restore the original form’ of something. In particular the Reformation was supposed to sweep away the abuses of the Papacy and restore the church to its original purity. As this example indicates, the worldview associated with this usage was one of decline rather than progress. The best one could hope for was to get back to things as they were in the good old days. This view was dominant in Western thinking from Plato to the 17th century.

From the 18th century onwards, reform underwent something of a reversal, since it now typically implied forming something new. But since the associated worldview was now one of progress, the assumption remained that reform entailed change for the better.

From the 18th century to the 1970s, the term reform was typically used to describe policies favored by the moderate left, in opposition to advocates of revolutionary change on one side and of conservatism and reaction on the other. From the 1970s to the end of the 20th century, though, the direction of policy change was reversed, with the rise of neoliberalism. However, the term reform continued to be used, even when the policies it described consisted of the dismantling of earlier reforms.

As a result, critics of neoliberal policies have frequently resorted to the use of “scare quotes”, as in my recent reference to ‘workplace reform’, or to similar alerts like “so-called”. While the automatic assumption prevails that the term reform applies only to desirable changes, such devices are necessary.

Where it’s feasible though, the best approach is to define reform as “any program of systematic change in policies or institutions” and make it clear that there is no implication of approval or disapproval.

3 thoughts on “Re-form

  1. Given that both left and right engage in “program[s] of systematic change in policies or institutions” and both think that their programs improve things I can see little rationale for either group thinking the word is their own. The scare quotes and the “so-called” qualification merely encourage the idea that a reform is inherently good, which makes them a poor rhetorical strategy. I certainly don’t use the word to imply that the reform is a good idea.

  2. For someone who works in higher education policy, Andrew Norton is being both cryptic and disingenuous. He seems to be saying: “Here in the higher education cockpit, we simply drive change, and make no representations or warranties whatsoever concerning whether this change is positive or negative”. Personally, I see just about every change made to higher education policy in the last seventeen years as a negative one. Am I to take it that Andrew could well agree with me here, and I – living outside the cognoscenti – have been unduly influenced by the fact that such policy changes have been invariably trumpeted as “reforms”?

    Otherwise, I agree with John that “reform” (without the scare quotes, of course) is often ill-suited to describe negative or regressive change. Help is at hand, though. In the US, “deform” (pronounced dee-form) appears to be in reasonably common usage as a descriptor of negative policy change:

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