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Writing social psychology: Fictional things and unpopulated texts


Correspondence should be addressed to Michael Billig, Department of Social Sciences, Loughborough University, Lougborough LE11 3TU, United Kingdom (e-mail:


This paper presents the author's position on the question how to write social psychology. It reflects the author's long-term interest in rhetoric and his more recent concerns about the writing of social scientists. The author argues that social psychologists tend to produce unpopulated texts, writing about ‘fictional things’ rather than people. Social psychologists assume that their technical terms are more precise than ordinary language terms. The author contests this assumption. He suggests that when it comes to describing human actions, ordinary language on the whole tends to be more precise. The paper analyses why this should be the case, drawing on ideas from linguistics and Vaihinger's notion of fictions. The author presents examples to show how psychological writers, by using passives and nominals, can omit information about the agents of action and the nature of the actions that they are performing. Although their texts may appear impressively technical, they can, in fact, be highly imprecise. Moreover, social psychologists, by using this nominal style of writing, tend to write about processes as if they were things and then attribute actions to these things. In so doing, they create ‘fictional things’, which they treat as if they were real things. The author offers six recommendations for writing in simpler, clearer ways.