80 The Misleading Abstractions of Social Scientists
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80 The Misleading Abstractions of Social Scientists JEROME KAGAN Five-month-old infants who stare at surprising events for a long time, 5year -old children with large vocabularies, and 50-year-old adults who invent new computer programs are all described as intelligent. The use of the same adjective implies that the same process is operating in all three situations. But we have no good evidence to support the idea that the psychological processes that produce an attentive infant are the same as those that produce a creative computer programmer. Moreover, a small number of psychologists -including J. P. GUilford, Howard Gardner, and Robert Sternberg-have argued persuasively against the usefulness of the notion of a single, general cognitive ability. The difficulty in defining intelligence illustrates a broad and serious problem with the kinds of words that social scientists use to describe their work. In psychology, sociology, anthropology, and economics, too many abstract concepts that describe social, emotional, and intellectual phenomena assume that the process operates the same way in all people. Thus, psychologists classify a person's decisions and actions as intelligent or not, without ever specifying the age or cultural background of the person, the type of mental activity involved, or the context in which it occurs. The rancor produced by The Bell Curve illustrates the mischievous consequences for public policy when social scientists assume the validity of an abstract notion of "general intelligence." The book stirred controversy because of its argument that black children score lower on intelligence tests than children of other ethnic groups do, and, therefore, that programs such as Head Start cannot permanently raise their intelligence. However, if intelligence is not a clear-cut characteristic in the same way that height and weight are, all conclusions about intelligence must be treated skeptically. The results of government programs such as Head Start and free meals for children typically are evaluated by research teams that base their conclusions on how the children score on standardized intelligence tests. These tests assume the validity of a characteristic called "intelligence." The investigators do not set out to assess a set of different skills-for example , the ability to convey one's thoughts, to invent a story, or to remember accurately events from the recent past. Because the evaluations of Head Start found that it made no permanent change in the I.Q. scores of children in the program, some of the early enthusiasm for the program waned. However, if Congress had asked for evaluations that assessed CHRON. HIGHER ED., January 12, 1996, at A52. Originally published in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Reprinted by permission of the author. Copyrighted Material 508 Jerome Kagan a half-dozen or more particular talents, I believe lawmakers would have seen some stable, permanent gains in children who participated in Head Start. The word"compete" provides a second example of a concept that social scientists too often use abstractly. They apply it to the actions of adolescent gangs, multinational companies , universities, and athletic teams, even though the motives, emotions, and strategies of each group are vastly different. Sociologists make the same error when they assume that being poor has similar consequences, regardless of a person's ethnicity, family history, or the region of the country in which he or she lives. For example, many poor whites living on welfare in the isolated hollows of eastern Kentucky may have a more coherent family and community structure than many poor African Americans living in large, urban ghettos . Natural scientists use terms that imply a specific object and a context when they describe their work. When biologists use the word "bleach," for example, their colleagues understand that it refers to pigment changes in sensory cells of the retina under the stimulus of light. No biologist would use "bleach" to describe the lightening of a salamander's skin under threat or the facial pallor of a tubercular patient. Everyday conversation often includes similar distinctions, especially when what is being described has strong emotional implications. For example, most speakers convey important information on the context, age, and intention of the people concerned when they select among the words "love," "seduce," "rape," or "abuse" to describe a sexual act. The habit of assuming that a particular process is the same in very different individuals and situations is holding up progress in many fields. Many scholars working on personality assume that the individual qualities called extroversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness , emotional stability, and curiosity are unities that are consistent, regardless of time and...


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