Thingification: Bad Writing Leads to Bad Theory

Repression, according to Freud, is a common phenomenon. Note repression is a noun here. People don’t repress. Rather repression is the name of a state that seems to happen all on its own. This is the point that Michael Billig makes in his book Learn to Write Badly: How to Succeed in the Social Sciences. Billig points out that Freud’s theory turns the verb to repress into the noun repression. Freud does this to make his theory sound scientific. But in doing so we lose a heap of important theoretical information. Who does the repression? How does it happen? What processes result in it?

My colleague in my writing circle calls this thingification. But in keeping with the theme of this post I suppose I should talk about when researchers thingify an abstract process.

I see this is my field a lot. “Growth mindset is associated with persistence”. This sounds like a sufficiently science like expression that we let it go by unexamined. We then expect the scientist to collect survey data on growth mindset and persistence and then test their relationship to determine the strength and direction of the association. But the statement “growth mindset is associated with persistence” leaves so much unsaid. 

A better statement would be: children who believe their ability is fixed, and thus cannot change, are unlikely to persist in overcoming obstacles to their learning. Notice how I replace the weak term associated with richer causal language? See how this language specifies a process for the association? The child is now an actor in the sentence who believes things and acts accordingly. 

In the original statement, it is the variables doing things to each other. But as John Goldthorpe states “variables don’t do things, people do”. Notice further that this sentence invites further specification? We can now ask:

  • How did the child come to believe this? 
  • Do they believe only their ability is fixed or everyones? 
  • What do such children make of a school system that demands they practice, practice, practice?

Social scientists thingify to sound more scientific. But in doing so we have created a myriad of under-specified theories and a science about people that is almost entirely absent of people.

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