current projects

How Reification Works:

A Case Study in Psychological Explanations of Politics

Abstract:

This paper explores the gains and limits of psychological explanations of political phenomena by asking how reification works. Reification – the process by which social constructions are experienced as objective and natural – plays an important political role in providing ideological support for extant relations of power. The paper shows that psychology can now identify the cognitive mechanisms by which reification occurs, confirming, in retrospect, Marx’s merely functional assertion that humans have a strong psychological tendency – famously, a ‘religious reflex’ – to experience the social constructions that surround them as real. The paper then extracts insights from the deep critiques of capitalism, modernity and social scientific inquiry built on the concept of reification, and uses them to identify reifications in the methodological culture of psychology itself. Reification here emerges as a valuable critical concept that challenges disciplinary assumptions about power, ideology, universalism and methodology, and serves to stress the bi-directional causality of the social world. As such, it provides lessons for scholars of both psychology and politics. The paper argues that the psychological tendency to attribute objectivity to our social constructions entails a complex dance of automated cognitive bias and external ideological deception. Reification is no mere cognitive mistake, but one that ‘fits’ a world distorted by power. To ask how reification works is thus to examine the continued struggle for interdisciplinary resources with which to address our political problems.

‘What Quantification Does: Rationalisation, Reification & the Psychological Effects of Algorithmic Rule,’

Abstract: 

This paper examines the coming wave of quantification, its nature, functions and psychological effects. It presents quantification in an historical context and locates critical resources for its analysis. This wave – perhaps you have already observed it in your place of work, in seeking social care or in claiming benefits – is now driven by a unique combination, a ‘perfect storm,’ of three social processes. These include Weberian rationalisation, Lukácsian reification and the digital revolution. The paper shows how previous waves of rationalisation have used quantification to increase efficiency in markets and social control in politics. It then examines critiques of quantification – noting the stark inability of the current political left to contribute – and recovers the concept of reification, or ‘thingification’ (Eagleton, 1991, p. 3), to show how metrics are social constructs that come to appear objective. Finally, quantification – now driven by rationalisation and hidden by reification – gains the tools offered by the digital revolution. Here, our greatest triumph will be the building of an artificial intelligence far greater than our own. The paper concludes that the psychological effects of quantification are such that, far from machines mimicking human intelligence, it is our own intelligence that becomes artificial. As the tsunami of total quantification breaks over us, and assuming we survive, we will gaze with transformed eyes upon a virtual world where there never was a tsunami and the artificiality of human intelligence goes unnoticed.

The Democracy Field Manual: Organisation and Cognition in the Rolling Apocalypse

– Book forthcoming, London: John Hunt, 2016.

The Democracy Reader

– 2nd Edition forthcoming 2016, New York: Columbia University Press.

‘Transparency and the need for public involvement in animal research’

– under review at  Alternatives to Laboratory Animals.

Rolling Apocalypse

– Joint authored website charting the gathering effects of social degeneration on everyday experience.

Minds Lost and Found: Assessing Advances in Psychology and their Application to Politics

– in preparation for submission to Political Studies.

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