Thursday, January 8, 2009

Buzzwords (1): "Reification"

reify [from the Latin res (thing) + -fy]: to treat (an abstraction) as substantially existing, or as a concrete material object.
As the dictionary suggests, to reify is to thing-ify: to treat what is not a thing as a thing. (This is the sense the word carries in Marx's definition of commodity fetishism: reification of persons, anthropomorphizing of things.) In academic writing, however, "reify" and "reification" have become vague, almost catch-all terms of disapproval, used to indicate disagreement with whatever the author doesn't like.

So many examples of this usage are available that to single out one is unfair, but there is one example that's fresh in my mind. Recently I was glancing through an article that draws on Marxian work in international relations "to recast the socio-historical conditions of emergence and diffusion of the modern national form" (F.G. Dufour, "Social-property Regimes and the Uneven and Combined Development of Nationalist Practices," European Journal of International Relations 13:4 [2007], pp.583-604).
This article says there's a need to "move beyond the reification of a collective domestic identity" (p.588). I'm pulling this phrase out of context, because to supply the context would be rather tedious. But it is illustrative, I think, of the basic procedure: take an abstraction, assert that it's being reified, and you have a criticism that's often difficult if not impossible to refute, because it usually boils down to "I don't like the way scholar X is using this concept."


Talleyrand said...

I'm sure that many do use the term merely as a way of expressing dislike, but it need not be an empty criticism. In IR especially, treating social phenomena as if they were things that had existence separate from what they mean to people is rampant and screws up analysis all over the place.

LFC said...

I agree with Wendt when he writes (in Social Theory of International Politics, pp.111-112):
"Even when...stripped of their social content,...brute material forces...can still have independent effects.... Material forces are not constituted solely by social meanings, and social meanings are not immune to material effects. On the other hand, it is only because of their interaction with ideas that material forces have the effects that they do; the material fact that Germany has more military power than Denmark imposes physical limits on Danish foreign policy toward Germany, but those limits will be irrelevant to their interaction if neither could contemplate war with the other. So the relationship between material forces and ideas works both ways, but we can only properly theorize this relationship if we recognize that at some level they are...different kinds of independently existing stuff."

Some social phenomena of relevance to IR have both an obvious material/physical and an ideational aspect; these aspects are ontologically distinct but interact with each other. So, for example, a border crossing at a recognized boundary between two nation-states has a physical basis: the sentry box, the checkpoint, the concrete boundary markings (if present) are all things; their meaning and their effects are a result of the interaction of their thing-iness and the ideas that people attach to them.

While some territorial boundaries, as in the example just given, are social phenomena with an obvious material/physical aspect, other social phenomena do not have such an obvious physical basis: collective identity, the subject of the quotation in the post, is an example. But collective identity can have physical manifestations (war memorials, e.g.). It would be difficult for a scholar (as opposed to a propagandist) to reify a collective identity, since it is obviously not a "thing" in the physical sense. That's partly what bothered me about the quote in the post.

Talleyrand said...

I'll agree that the way the chap used it in the quote from the post (i.e. stated it and then moved on as if the point was made) can be annoying. However, if true, the charge of reification can have some force. Why? Reification does not mean thinking that a social (or mental) entity is a physical entity. It means treating social things as things with essential features. Doing this means that those essential features cannot change. Reification can be a useful analytical strategy - like in a game-theoretic model where preferences are treated as invariant - but it means that any theory which does this cannot explain change in those essential features. The problem is that many social phenomena are in flux, especially once you start talking about long time periods. Jackson and Nexon (EJIR 5(3), 1999, 297) give an example that they think illustrates this. The definition of a state for neorealists depends on the coercive power of the state (the monopoly of (legitimate) use of force means the power to stop other states from doing things) so shifts in power can be changes in the nature of the units.

That said, I do think that certain pomo types sometimes use it when they have nothing helpful to say.

LFC said...

Fair enough; I take your point that reification (often) means treating social phenomena as having essential, unchanging features when that assumption isn't justified.

The Jackson/Nexon piece you mention ("Relations Before States" is somewhere in its title, I seem to recall) is something I read quickly a while ago, so I hesitate to get into a discussion of it. Suffice it to say that I don't entirely share their "relational" perspective (though they're probably right on the point you cite them for). I'd have to read it again to say more.

Thanks for your comments.