Reductionism can feel like a really hard concept to teach well. Initially students seem to grasp the idea that some approaches are limited by the focus of the explanation of human behaviour. The term reductionism then becomes a popular stick with which to beat the numerous theories and explanations in A Level Psychology. It is, however, important not to mistake their eagerness to use the term critically, for an accurate understanding of levels of explanation.
In the most recent formulation the AQA specification (see 4.3.1. Issues and Options) requires students to learn about…
“Holism and reductionism: levels of explanation in Psychology. Biological reductionism and environmental (stimulus-response) reductionism.”
Examiner feedback from the previous specification often highlighted that students were using the term reductionism incorrectly in their evaluative writing. At best students were rote learning a “reductionism point” that they were attempting to shoehorn into their responses to gain analysis marks with little or no real comprehension. Rote learning is usually a response to confusion and can act as a form of damage limitation. I think the confusion for learners seems to centre around mistaking a reductionist approach for one that offer theories and explanations that “lack detail” or are “very simple” or “don’t take into account all the other approaches”, rather than focussing on the level of the explanation and whether that level is appropriate.
Using appropriate language
So do we just accept the confusion or try to address it? I think we should do the latter by focussing on the words that are used around this concept.
The language we hear when we first learn about an idea will shape our understanding. Furthermore, the language we choose to add as we try to elaborate on what we have learned will continue to mould that mental representation. It makes sense then that if we, as teachers, allow our learners to use language which is incorrect, or if we ourselves use language without clarifying the precise meaning of the term we are using, it is very likely to lead to the concept becoming distorted in the mind of the learner.
So here’s where I think the problem might lie. Reductionism definitions often refer to the basic or simplest components of human behaviour. Psychology teachers and textbooks use the word basic very differently to students. The word basic to a student more often means simple/easy and has a value judgement attached to it of being not good enough. Mark schemes and other assessment criteria often use the term basic to describe work at a low level. When a student hears the word basic they associate this with lacking detail and being too simple (why wouldn’t they?). In this context, however, the learners prior understanding is misleading. As an adjective, one online dictionary defines basic as: “forming an essential foundation or starting point; fundamental”, offering synonyms such as rudimentary, primary, elementary and root. With this understanding of basic the misconception about a lack of detail seems much less likely to occur. This might also decrease the chance that students continue to automatically criticise a theory for being reductionist because they think it is missing something and appears too simple regardless of the approach it is based on (and, therefore, the level of explanation).
In the classroom
Talk about it
I think it’s worth having a conversation with learners in small groups about what reductionism means, taking the opportunity to pay attention to the language your learners use and giving them examples and/or carefully selected analogies to feed their understanding. Throughout the conversation keep listening and be ready to bring them back to the precise language of the concept (and ultimately the mark scheme). Try swapping words like simple with fundamental and detailed with low/high level and talk about what the word basic means in this context from the start. This will help students to grasp the following:
- that a genetic explanation, for example, is reductionist because it focusses on our basic, fundamental biological makeup, reducing human behaviour to it’s constituent parts;
- that it doesn’t mean that biological explanations offer simple explanations that lack detail;
- that offering a higher level of explanation by taking into account the socio-cultural influences on behaviour might be more appropriate for the given behaviour;
- that not all theories/explanations that ignore the influence of another approach are reductionist.
Analogies and visual stimuli can really help understanding. In the image below I have represented the idea of differing levels of explanation with 3 shelves (a low shelf, middle shelf and a high shelf). The biological components (the fundamental components) are on the lowest shelf and the socio-cultural influences (e.g. the family) are on the highest shelf. Students might like to consider what might go on the middle shelf and what else might be missing.
Another way to consider the concept is to imagine an alien sitting on a faraway planet with a massive inter-galactic telescope wondering why humans do the things they do. The highest level of explanation, using this analogy, is the first they will see. Taking into account the whole view, the alien sees people in social and cultural groups and notes how this is influencing human behaviour. If the alien then sharpens their focus and drills down a bit further into humanity they might focus on the individual and start to wonder about the psychological basis of human behaviour. If the alien drills down to a lower level still, they are now looking at humans under a microscope of sorts and examining their basic (fundamental) make up and the influence biology has on behaviour. Reducing behaviour to the simplest constituents parts often makes for a very testable explanation, but this may be at the expense of consideration of the socio-cultural influences on behaviour, so zooming out to a higher level might be more appropriate. This analogy would make for a much better image than the shelves! [I’m sure someone else has already suggested this sort of analogy before me so I’m not claiming I thought of this!].
Obviously any analogy can start to unravel the more you try to make it fit, but if it helps the student think about the concept more deeply then it has been a worthwhile exercise. If the analogy starts to unravel and the student has understood why it no longer works and can explain this to you, then the exercise has been a resounding success!