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I often hear the words "granular" or "granularity" being used around colleagues at my office to specify level of detail. For example:

  • Does the running category have to be more granular?
  • We need to see these reports with more granularity.

Is this an appropriate use of the word "granular"? Most dictionary references online indicate the word being used for scientific contexts to grain size.

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Granularity has of late become something of a buzzword with middle management who like to request reports. They think it sounds more knowledgeable to ask for more granularity than more detail in the reports. –  FumbleFingers Jan 1 '12 at 3:28
    
Granularity is not a synonym for specificity, but as @FumbleFingers says, it's sometimes used as one. My best guess as to why is that managers in computing companies grabbed onto the technical definition of data granularity, misunderstood it, and started using it to try to make themselves sound smarter. –  Peter Shor Jan 1 '12 at 13:35
    
@Peter: In my experience there are two kinds of "middle managers". The ones who always complain every report has too little detail, and the ones who want every report condensed down to a single-digit score out of ten telling them whether the company is doing okay or not. –  FumbleFingers Jan 1 '12 at 13:50
    
@FumbleFingers: Granularity, other than in its purely technical sense as in photography, seems to have really taken off post-1984. [books.google.com/ngrams/graph?content=granularity&year_start=1800&year_end=2008‌​&corpus=0&smoothing=3] –  Kris Jan 2 '12 at 11:59
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@Kris: Like salesmen, middle managers have a special affinity for certain buzzwords. Another one they seem to have really taken to in the last couple of decades is metrics - by which they usually mean simple numbers in reports, which they can easily interpret as "company doing well" or "company doing badly". I guess it helps them decide whether they should ask for a raise, or look for another job! :) –  FumbleFingers Jan 2 '12 at 16:15

5 Answers 5

up vote 11 down vote accepted

Granularity is a measure of the degree of specificity at issue. As Henry points out, this is a metaphor.

How big a grain size do you want? You can speak of fine-grained, medium-grained, or coarse-grained analyses or details. Fine-grained means that many minor details are accounted for; coarse-grained means it's a Big Picture, with lots of generalizations and few details.

Being specific is not always so important as having just the right granularity.

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This is the use of grain size as a metaphor for detail.

So you might have data for world population or something similar: more granularity might be for continents, still more for individual countries, and going into more detail might take you to regions, states, provinces, communities or municipalities within countries.

Curiously in my view, granulated sugar has quite large crystals (about 0.5 mm), compared say with caster sugar (about 0.35 mm).

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They are different but related: "specific" is concerned with scope whereas "granular" is concerned with depth, or level of detail.

Perhaps a good analogy to consider is a calendar. A calendar for 2012 might consist of just the number 2012 and a box (not a very good calendar), a box for each month, or a box for each date. These are different levels of granularity, but none of these are more specific - the scope of each calendar is the same (the whole year).

However if we were to consider a calendar that just dealt with a single month, that would be more specific - the scope has been narrowed. Of course the calendar for the month could go into less detail than the one for the year, so something can be more specific but less granular, and vice versa.

In many situations there is a requirement to make an entity more specific or less specific (more general). The calendar for the year can only be converted into a calendar for a specific month if it is sufficiently granular, i.e. if the year is divided into months in the calendar.

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What is wrong with using words we already have available, like specific versus general and detailed versus summary? There is no good reason to posit another meaning of "granular" simply in order to sound more attuned to the latest fad in management. If we adopt this meaning for granular, I suppose we are left to choose between describing something "at a high level," or getting "granular." This impoverishes the language.

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in my opinion, using "granular" to mean "fine-grained" is a mis-use of the word.

granularity as an attribute does not behave like many/most attributes where the relationship between the abstract attribute and the comparative/superlative use of the same term as an adjective is semantically clear. consider a property like density. if you say an object is more dense, the meaning is clear. likewise for many similar attributes: transparency, reflectivity, ductility, etc.

granular means "consisting of small grains or particles". among antonyms for granular merriam's dictionary lists: dusty, fine, superfine, ultrafine.

therefore, it seems incorrect to use granular to mean fine-grained and even more obviously illogical to use the comparative adjective form, e.g. "more granular" to mean "more fine-grained". if something becomes more "fine-grained", this typically means moving towards a condition of being not granular. therefore, it actually makes more sense (though is still not really semantically valid) for "more granular" to mean "more coarse-grained" instead.

my recommendation would be as follows: if you really want to say "more fine-grained", say exactly that instead of "more granular". in the (rare) case where you really want to say something is more grainy - irrespective of the size of granules - then go ahead and say "more granular", but be prepared to be misunderstood.

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