Academic journal article Canadian Psychology

How Psychology Got Its Variables

Academic journal article Canadian Psychology

How Psychology Got Its Variables

Article excerpt

How Psychology Got Its Variables(f.1)



A content analysis of four psychological journals for 1938, 1948, and 1958 showed that over this period there was a considerable increase in the use of the term "variable", especially in the domain of social psychological and personality research. Some of this increase is attributable to a growing tendency to describe psychological research in terms of the manipulation of variables. However, there was also a transposition of the term from the description of procedure to the description of that which was being investigated. Functions and limitations of this process of reification are discussed in terms of the cohesion of the research community and the consequences of a non - reflective research style.

The term "variable" is woven into the very fabric of contemporary psychological discourse. When they speak of the things that they investigate, psychologists are very likely to refer to them as "variables." Whether it is a matter of specifying features of the social or physical environment, or a matter of categorizing dispositions, actions or attributes of individuals, the psychological research literature can be relied upon to define them all as "variables." A.S. Winston (1988) reports a survey of 66 introductory text books of psychology published between 1960 and 1986; all but one of them described psychological experiments in terms of independent and dependent variables.

Like all concepts that are deeply embedded in our everyday practice the notion of "psychological variable" has a self - evident, taken for granted, quality that is incompatible with viewing it as a product of history. Yet a product of history it is, for modern experimental psychology seems to have flourished for at least half a century before much was heard of "psychological variables." Only in very rare instances does the term "independent variable" occur in psychological texts published before 1930, and there certainly is no hint of systematic usage. The ultimate source of the concept of a variable lies in nineteenth century mathematics, but how it got from there into mid - twentieth century Psychology, and what happened to it along the way, remains something of a mystery.

What has been established (Winston, 1988; 1990) is that variables first began to play a significant role in psychological discourse in the early 1930's, when the term made its appearance in the writings of prominent figures like Tolman (1932), Boring, (1933), and Woodworth (1934). Among these Tolman was not only the first, but also the one who used the concept of a variable in the most systematic way. In the final section of his Purposive Behavior in Animal and Men he uses the concept as the basis for a framework within which to compare his own neo - behaviourist system with the theories of the Gestaltists, Titchener, and Spearman. In other words, the linked concepts of independent, dependent and intervening variables provide him with a conceptual scaffolding for metatheoretical comparison. (In parenthesis we might note that it was not a neutral scaffolding but one that clearly favoured his own system.) In the years following publication of Tolman's book the metatheoretical discussions of neo - behaviourism increasingly adopted his usage, especially the new term "intervening variable", which he had introduced.

The background and the ramifications of Tolman's deployment of "variable" as a metatheoretical construct are of considerable historical interest and have been explored elsewhere (Danziger, 1997). In this paper, however, we will follow another part of the historical trail left by the concept of the variable. Psychologists were also engaged in other activities than "theory construction"; more particularly, they were engaged in empirical research. As we know from studies in the history of science, developments in the practices of empirical research do not simply reflect changes in theoretical discourse but are relatively autonomous (Hacking, 1983; Lenoir, 1988). …

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