Monday, March 07, 2011

A Paradox of Reification – A Tool or a Fallacy?

Reification – Making some idea into a thing [Wikipedia]

Reification is a process (or is an essential element) of modeling – a process of reducing a problem involving multiple variables into single or few variables (For example say “drinking some brand of health drink makes you grow high or makes super intelligent”). If you see a complex (say meaning something that involves many interacting variables) problem made simple (reduced to a single variable problem), be sure to find “reification” hiding around. I would say it is a form of “reductionism”

Strangely enough, the life of Sales/marketing professionals, I think, involves nothing but reification. They can’t sell anything if they become aware of reification and start thinking about model vs. reality. A salesman selling insurance policy would say “Buy this policy – your health is secured – health is reified in terms of money you will get to pay for illness as and when it happens.

Politicians are another group of people who live by reification (I am not sure how many of them are aware of this term, though they might be aware of its effects). A politician is constantly required to create simple models of social life and impose them on his target electorate so that she can win votes. How else you think one can make promises to bring social equality, eradication of poverty by distributing rice at 2 Rupee per Kilogram or provide 70% or so reservations to certain class of people? It is reification @ work. Can any politician dare to think about (giving up) reification fallacy?

See the paradox in the act of reification. As a manager you need to support (and possibly create many new ones) reifications like “Continuous improvement”, “Customer focus (yes this is a reification), “SMART goals”, “Consistent Processes”, “Best practices”, “Metrics”, “objectivity”, “Predictability”, “knowledge transfer”, “business value”, “customer satisfaction”, “transformation” and so on. But when you become the target (rather a victim) of such reifications – you suddenly become aware of the problems of reification – while you may not know or identify by this name or label. How many of us and how often we disagree on appraisal ration ratings given by our managers (yes – your appraisal ratings are biggest and most influential reifications in our professional/corporate life).

Try asking a director, CTO, Head of Testing of a software organization – what is testing? He is most likely to talk about best practices, consistent process, business transformation, customer focus, continuous improvement etc. This person needs to reify ideas and abstractions so that he can do his job. He would not let complexities at the deep-down disturb him and simple picture is what he needs to work with.

Now, note that reification is not simplification. It is a process of abusing “simplification”, resistance to think beyond the world of abstractions. Thus, depending upon which side of the fence you find yourself in most of time, reification becomes a tool or a problem or fallacy.

In short the paradox is – you can use reification to work (mostly managers and people who need work with simple abstractions) as a tool. When it bites back to you as a victim (as in appraisals) – you would hate it and fight it as a type of “logical fallacy”.

Why wouldn’t Sales/Marketing folks think about reification as a fallacy? Do they?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great piece... good closing question for politicians and managers (or consutants that get rich by it)... and a good thing to learn to business students...