How Psychology Got Its Variables

By Danziger, Kurt; Dzinas, Katalin | Canadian Psychology, February 1997 | Go to article overview

How Psychology Got Its Variables


Danziger, Kurt, Dzinas, Katalin, Canadian Psychology


How Psychology Got Its Variables(f.1)

KURT DANZIGER KATALIN DZINAS York University

Abstract

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). …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA 8, MLA 7, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Note: primary sources have slightly different requirements for citation. Please see these guidelines for more information.

Cited article

How Psychology Got Its Variables
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen
Items saved from this article
  • Highlights & Notes
  • Citations
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA 8, MLA 7, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Search by... Author
    Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

    Oops!

    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.