Friday, March 8, 2013

Reification and culture.

Reification is a fallacy of ambiguity, when an abstraction is treated as if it were a concrete physical entity or real event.  In other words, it is the error of treating as a concrete thing something which is not concrete, but merely an idea. .[link]


Culture is difficult to define but for a working definition : An integrated pattern of human knowledge, belief, and behavior that depends upon the capacity for symbolic thought and social learning.

Somewhat surprisingly, arguments involving culture can avoid the fallacy of reification.

Philosopher Gilbert Ryle [Link] famously denounced Descartian dualism as a category mistake caused by confusions of language : thoughts, ideas, emotions may not exist but they are still real because thinking is what a brain does. I believe a similar argument applies to culture : Culture may not not exist but is still real because it's produced by human beings living together.

In their paper 'Can Game(s) Theory explain culture?', [link] Jenna Bednar and Scott Page notes the importance of culture for behavioral economics and political science :

That culture exists and matters is indisputable. Across disciplines, scholars rely on culture as the basis for regional exceptionalism, and there are numerous empirical studies demonstrating culture’s impact on the choices made by individuals and communities. Cultural differences correlate with diversity in important activities, including values and goals (Inglehart 1977, 1990, 1997) and political participation (Almond & Verba 1963; Inglehart 1997).

[..]

Social psychologist Richard Nisbett and colleagues (2001) have found empirical
evidence that thought processes differ between people living in Asian and western communities. In experiments, as well as reviews of the historical and social records, Nisbett and colleagues find strong support that Asians tend to have more holistic interpretations of the world, while westerners tend to be more atomistic in their thinking. They hypothesize that the differences partly arise due to different social systems. Perhaps most compelling is the recent neurological research suggesting that human cultures influence the formation of neural architecture. Our genes may encode scaffolding for the neuronal connections that form but the particulars will be
partially determined by our experiences. In other words, our cognitive and social environments play a role in how our brains develop (Quartz and Sejnowski 2002).

 In anthropology:

Anthropologists are often concerned to show that social and cultural phenomena are results of underlying processes that we have a tendency to overlook, and that they are thus "something other than what they seem to be". Reification stands for the opposite: that we take phenomena for given, as they appear to us. It is often claimed, for example, that the concept of culture is a reification, since we have a tendency to think of "a culture" as a completed object, a "thing" we can "touch and feel", which all members of the culture share - rather than a complex aggregate of processes, which different people participate in, to a greater or lesser extent. [link]

In Social Psychology :

The individualistic approach to cultural psychology is correct in noting that individuals actively construct culture and assimilate cultural influences. Culture does not function apart from individuals. Terms such as culture, social institutions, social conditions, school, work, and government should be used with the understanding that they denote the activities (and the products of activities) of people rather than reified entities. To speak of schools affecting cognitive processes really means that educational activities of people stimulate and structure cognitive processes. [link]

Based on the studies cited above, culture should be viewed as what philosophers of science call a construct - an explanatory variable that is not directly observable :

A construct in the philosophy of science is an ideal object, where the existence of the thing may be said to depend upon a subject's mind. This, as opposed to a "real" object, where existence does not seem to depend on the existence of a mind. In a scientific theory, particularly within psychology, a hypothetical construct is an explanatory variable which is not directly observable. For example, the concepts of intelligence and motivation are used to explain phenomena in psychology, but neither is directly observable. [link]

The interesting thing about constructs is that the fallacy of reification does not apply :
The concept of a "construct" has a long history in science; it is used in many, if not most, areas of science. A construct is a hypothetical explanatory variable that is not directly observable. For example, the concepts of motivation in psychology and center of gravity  in physics are constructs -- they are not directly observable. The degree to which a construct is useful and accepted in the scientific community depends on empirical research that has demonstrated that a scientific construct has construct validity (especially, predictive validity).[6] Thus, if properly understood and empirically corroborated, the "reification fallacy" applied to scientific constructs is not a fallacy at all—it is one part of theory creation and evaluation in normal science.  [link] 

So putting it all together, I think we can talk about culture without running into the fallacy of reification providing we remember culture "denotes the activities (and the products of activities) of people".

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