The study takes over – the rise of anthropomorphism (Teresa Iacono)

Mask/photo by Joel Cooper |
There has been an insidious rise in an entity that, at one point in the history of academia, did not have  a life form of its own.

Now, however, with echoes of HAL 9000 from Arthur  C. Clarkes’ A Space Odyssey, it has pushed aside authors to take control and attribution of their work.

I refer here to the study, which previously was something that human beings designed, conducted, and reported.

Not so now!

To my great dismay, it seems that studies now have the ability to aim, understand, find, test, collect, report, conclude, and - with a tautological twist that should remain the topic of another blog - investigate.

Researchers – that is, human beings trained in the science of the study -  used to be given attribution for these activities, most likely because the study wouldn't exist without them (a fact that seems to have become lost).

Now, they have been delegated to a label, controlled by their master, the study.

Take the following as Exhibit A:
“The Bloggs et al. (2015) study found that persimmons provided a much higher source of vitamin C than previously has been reported” (by fellow studies, rather than research colleagues, no doubt). 
Perhaps Bloggs and her colleagues had the good fortune to have given the study full reign over their lab and left it to the work required!

This form of anthropomorphism has become common place, perhaps to the delight of Systemic Functional Linguistics (because it seems that even a theory, and no doubt the models based on them, can now experience such emotions).

Does common usage rule? It seems so, and pedants like this article (noting that the article has taken on the status of the study) must bow to the dynamic forces of language use. Attributing human qualities and abilities to the inanimate has been spreading through the work of even the most learned and well published. Sadly, I note that the publication has pushed the author from centre-stage.

I continue to correct this and other examples of anthropomorphisms in the work of my students (and, it must said, colleagues), but am increasingly disheartened in light of the deluge of examples and the inability of students to detect them.

Anthropomorphisms pervade all written material, academic and beyond. I, or perhaps this article, offer you Exhibit B, a quote from the side of a margarine container:
“This spread uses only the finest quality olives.”
If, upon examining Exhibit B, you are wondering what the problem may be, then, truly, I am defeated and must stop the tirade.

Or perhaps I can leave this article to deal with the despondency?

The views expressed by this article were influenced by Teresa Iacono, Ph.D.


Teresa Iacono is Professor of Rural and Regional Allied Health in the La Trobe Rural Health School (LRHS).

With a background in Speech Pathology, her clinical and academic interests have been in severe communication impairment in people with developmental disabilities, as well as health and mental health issues faced by this group.

Teresa is a member of the Living with Disability Research Centre and theme leader of Enabling Mainstream Systems. Current projects address hospital encounters of people with cognitive disability, organisational factors that embed Active Support in accommodation services for people with intellectual disability, developing and maintaining Person Centred Active Support for people with neurotrauma living in supported accommodation, services for ageing people with intellectual disability and those who care for them, and use of telehealth to support early intervention for children with autism.

Teresa also tweets at @Tami_tagged.