Zero-variable theories in the analysis of social phenomena


  • Robert A. Wicklund

    Corresponding author
    1. University of Bielefeld, FRG
    • Abteilung Psychologie, Universität Bielefeld, Postfach 8640, 4800 Bielefeld 1, FRG
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Are the background and context of complex social behaviour neglected in theory-building? This sweeping question is handled here in a highly specific way. First, the character of the everyday ‘explainer's’ theories is examined, and it is found that the explainer's accounts of social behaviour can go in different directions. These directions, which are regarded here as opposite ends of a continuum, are: (1) the explainer takes into account the manifold personal and contextual factors that bear on psychological accompaniments of behaviour; (2) the person whose behaviour is to be explained is first categorized (e.g. ‘aggressive type’), whereby reference to the category then serves as the explanation. While an optimistic view of progress in psychological theorizing (cf. Lewin, 1931; Wegner and Vallacher, 1977) would lead one to think that the scientific psychologist would steer away from such simplified, ‘aggressive type’ explanations, a glance at widespread, current accounts of complex social behaviour reveals that these modes of explaining are indeed a dominant mode. The primary aspects of this paper are then devoted to several observations on this direction of theorizing, and it is proposed that such theorizing (a) reduces one's theory to a list of behaviours; (b) results in no antecedent, psychological variables; (c) depends on a trivial, circular form of research for support; (d) develops in the direction of trying to claim all of the variation within the behaviour realm being studied; and (e) precludes theoretical integration, in that the criterion of success within such endeavours is the uniqueness of the theorist's own classification system.