Context #1 (Spring,
1999, pp. 9-10); copyright 1999 by The Nature Institute
Seduced by AbstractionsThree Seductive Ideas
Jerome Kagan (Harvard University Press, Cambridge; 1998).
Reviewed by Craig Holdrege.
One of the most significant difficulties for researchers is to become aware of their own assumptions and the boundaries of their ways of viewing and methodologies. When this attention is lacking, it is all too easy to make claims and draw conclusions that go far beyond the implicitly set limits. Such general, all-encompassing concepts often become popular guiding notions, which the lay person ends up accepting as "scientific facts." Jerome Kagan has chosen to critique three such "seductive ideas" in the behavioral sciences:
"Most psychological processes generalize broadly." For example, psychologists speak of intelligence or aggression regardless of whether they're dealing with rats or humans in experimental or natural situations.Kagan, a renowned developmental psychologist, shows with a wealth of examples how such conceptions ignore important aspects of the whole phenomenon in question. As a consequence certain distinctions are not made that would be essential to real understanding. For example, he writes:
Words like cooperate, communicate, steal, murder, and selfish were invented millennia ago to describe human behavior, and the sense and referential meanings of these words are appropriate only to humans. The fact that two monkeys behave as if they are cooperative, simply because both animals benefit from the interaction, is of scientific interest and invites study and explanation. But it is not at all obvious that this behavior possesses the defining features of human cooperation, namely, the agent's simultaneous awareness of both the need of the other and of his ability and obligation to help. A honey bee is not being "cooperative" with a plant when it carries the plant's pollen to another flower. A single, objective similarity between cooperative, aggressive, or selfish behavior in humans and an action in another animal species is extremely easy to detect. But if the psychological foundations of the animal and human behaviors are different, we should reflect carefully before using the same word.
Kagan's careful analysis is a call for scientists to wake up to their own processes of conceptualization and to attend more seriously to the concrete context of their work. It provides catharsis for all of us whose minds are captured in webs of vacuous abstractions. I highly recommend this very readable book.
Original source: In Context (Spring, 1999, pp. 9-10); copyright 1999 by The Nature Institute
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