Friday, 14 March 2008

Daft semantic argument I've dragged myself into

Ah, the joy of academia. I recently submitted a paper (for the second time...) to the Journal of Structural Geology, entitled "Evolution of geometry and architecture of synrift normal faults during upward propagation: the Nukhul half-graben, Suez rift, Egypt". It's based on the work I've been doing in Sinai for the last couple of years. Note use of the word 'architecture' in the title. Then I checked out the recently accepted papers to the journal, and found this one, [paywall] a letter to the editor that suggests use of the word 'architecture' should be abandoned in the geological literature. 'That's annoying,' I thought. It would be just my luck to have someone bring this up in review. So I read the article, and discovered that I didn't agree with it. I ended up drafting a response, and this has now been submitted to the journal. Here's the submitted version of it:

D.C.P. Peacock (2008) provides a useful caution against the unnecessary proliferation of synonymous geological terms. I am entirely in agreement that such proliferation should be avoided. However, I wish to take issue with his example of ‘architecture’. Peacock makes two arguments against the use of the term architecture; firstly, that it implies the existence of a (perhaps divine) architect, and secondly that it is synonymous with the term ‘structure’, and adds nothing but confusion to the literature.

While I would tend to agree somewhat with the first point, it seems that it is difficult to avoid such implications. Peacock mentions the term ‘tectonic’, one definition of which in the Oxford English Dictionary is ‘…pertaining to building, or construction in general; constructional, constructive: used esp. in reference to architecture and kindred arts.’ But a similar problem arises in the use of the term of structure: The Oxford English Dictionary provides two definitions of ‘structure’: i) the action, practice, or process of building or construction, and ii) manner of building or construction; the way in which an edifice, machine, implement, etc. is made or put together. Thus the term ‘structure’ also has connotations of building or construction. Peacock asks ‘Who is the architect?’, but one might just as well ask ‘Who imparted the structure?’ The answer in both cases is that natural processes created the ‘architecture’ or the ‘structure’: I would argue that neither term implies a divine ‘builder’.

It could also be argued that ‘architecture’ does have a usefully distinct meaning from ‘structure’. It has perhaps been poorly defined, but in the study of fault zones ‘architecture’ has been used to refer to the overall arrangement of structural elements (such as gouge zones or subsidiary brittle structures) within the fault zone (e.g. Caine et al., 1996; Heynekamp et al., 1999; Faerseth et al., 2007). It has also been used in sedimentology, in a similar way, to describe the overall arrangement of sedimentary facies elements within a depositional system (e.g. Dreyer, 1994; Boris and Thomas, 2007). In the case of fault zones, using ‘structure’ instead of ‘architecture’ would lead to the same term being used for the fault zone as a whole, for the subsidiary structures within it, and for the overall arrangement of elements within the fault zone. In sedimentology, it would lead to the use of the term ‘structure’ for sedimentary facies elements that are not normally thought of as ‘structures’ by structural geologists. So, I would suggest that replacement of the term ‘architecture’ by ‘structure’ could create as many problems as it would solve. To conclude, use of the term ‘architecture’ in the earth sciences is defensible, as long as it is adequately defined.


Boris, K., Thomas, A. Sedimentary architecture and 3D ground-penetrating radar analysis of gravelly meandering river deposits (Neckar Valley, SW Germany). Sedimentology 54, 789-808.

Caine, J.S., Evans, J.P., Forster, C.B., 1996. Fault zone architecture and permeability structure. Geology 24, 1025-1028.

Dreyer, T. 1994. Architecture of an unconformity-based tidal sandstone unit in the Ametlla Formation, Spanish Pyrenees. Sedimentary Geology 94, 21-48.

Faerseth, R.B., Johnsen, E., Sperrevik, S. 2007. Methodology for risking fault seal capacity: Implications of fault zone architecture. AAPG Bulletin 91, 1231-1246.

Heynekamp, M.R., Goodwin, L.B., Mozley, P.S., 1999. Controls on fault-zone architecture in poorly lithified sediments, Rio Grande rift, New Mexico: Implications for fault-zone permeability and fluid flow. In: Haneberg, W.C., Mozley, P.S., Moore, J.C., Goodwin, L.B. (Eds.), Faults and Subsurface Fluid Flow in the Shallow Crust. Geophysical Monograph 113, 27-49.

Peacock, D.C.P. Architecture, gods and gobbledygook, Journal of Structural Geology (2008), doi: 10.1016/j.jsg.2008.02.003.

Is this sort of thing really worth doing, I wonder?

Update: My comment has now published, and is available (behind a highly ridiculous paywall, unless you or your institution is a subscriber: who would pay $31.50 for this?) here. If anyone wants a PDF, drop me a line.

More Sinai fieldwork...

Over at Hawk/Handsaw...