Post-positivist social sciences typically name a set of characteristics that describe key features of the topic under question. This has the effect of making the subject under scrutiny a ‘thing’ whose attributes can be refined, named and renamed, discussed and debated.
Take an example from the field of leadership. This kind of social science has produced a plethora of types of leadership – transactional, transformational, servant and so on (the list is seemingly endless). This linguistic construction – leadership as a noun to which adjectives can be added – is sometimes called ‘thingifying’, the act of creating an abstract concept and then proceeding as if it were a material entity, subject to physical laws, and having the properties of a physical thing (see Halliday & Martin, 1993 for an explication of this linguistic terminology).
Critics of ‘thingifying’ suggest that such reification obscures agency, context and actions. It also homogenises everything that is classified as the thing, obliterating the notion of difference within the category, while at the same time suggesting that the ‘thing’ shares nothing with other ‘things’.
Critical management scholar Barbara Czarniawska argues that administration and business scholars who have ‘thingified’ the organization into a substantial body of theory fail to put under sufficient scrutiny the different kinds of organizations that exist, and largely ignore the actual ‘organising’, namely, what actions are involved, what and who is involved, and why things happen in the way that they do. Czarniawska goes so far as to say that ‘The Organisation’ has in fact become a Golem, something originally intended to act as a measure of defence of a field of scholarship, but which has now become a monster. [i]
Applying this argument to leadership scholarship then, it might be said that the focus on ‘thingifying’ leadership takes the speaker’s/reader’s attention away from the leader who is doing, as well as what they are doing, why and how they are doing it, and how their actions are shaped by who they are and where they are.
Making agency and activity invisible has consequences not only for what it is possible to understand, but also, and importantly, to actually do. If leadership is ‘thingified’ to become, for argument’s sake, about the importance of school vision, then this does not say anything about whether some visions are better than others, what leaders do and say, to whom, where and when in order to build one, nor does it address how their school, policy context and personal biographies shape what kinds of vision they might wish to construct.
One thing to do then with a text is to look to see what is being thingified and what this means in terms of what is left out and whose agency is being obscured.
Halliday, M., & Martin, J. R. (1993). Writing science. Literacy and discursive power. London: Falmer Press.