Blob and anti-blob

‘Lump and label’ name-calling is a poor substitute for real debate in education as elsewhere.

The use of the term ‘blob’ is a classic example of ‘lump and label’ thinking or inappropriate use of agglomeration and reification. A wide and varied set of arguments are lumped together because they have something in common, in this case that the speaker disagrees with them, and then they are given a single overarching label; in this case the ‘blob’, which creates a single target to aim all criticism at.

The scientist Steven Rose, writing about neurogenetic reductionism, identifies a number of steps in faulty reductive reasoning applied to complex social phenomena and human behaviours such as violence, sexuality and ‘intelligence’.

One such step is reification; this is when complex, diverse and dynamic processes are described as a single phenomenon which can be studied and measured in isolation. So, for example, the wide range of violent interactions between people are described in terms of a single fixed property; aggression which can then be isolated and studied away from the dynamic social world in which people sometimes behave violently.

A further step is agglomeration which takes things further by lumping together many different reified interactions as if they are all examples of the same thing. Aggression is used to describe a man abusing his lover, people fighting at football matches, demonstrators resisting police, racist attacks on black people, acts of war etc. Agglomerating these very different social processes assumes they all come from one single underlying property of aggression which can then be measured and potentially linked to genetic causes.

‘Lump and label’ thinking is not always wrong and reductionism has its place in the scientific method. Scientists need to group their observations together or split them from each other in order to look for patterns, differences and commonalities. But any lumping and labelling needs to be justified at the level of the phenomena being studied and any evidence that it isn’t must be taken seriously.

Back to the ‘blob’…

While we may allow politicians some rhetorical licence in debate, ‘lumping and labelling’ one’s critics too readily can backfire; whether because it is obviously over the top or because it allows them to do the same back to you. If you seek to establish a Manichean dualism by claiming to embody all that is right while your critics are the incarnation of all that is wrong, the tables can easily be turned. Many excellent, committed and rigorous educators could be driven to describe themselves ironically as proud members of the ‘blob’ or ‘enemies of promise’. Any strengths of your original position will be overlooked and the possibility of having a nuanced, rational debate is reduced.

So, we need to question the use of terms such as the ‘blob’, the ‘enemies of promise’ or any other gross examples of ‘lump and label’ whether in science, politics or education.


About Eddie Playfair

I am a Senior Policy Manager at the Association of Colleges (AoC) having previously been a college principal for 16 years and a teacher before that. I live in East London and I blog in a personal capacity about education and culture. I also tweet at @eddieplayfair
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3 Responses to Blob and anti-blob

  1. nivekd says:

    Thanks again. I offer “hard-working families”! But I guess George Orwell had quite a bit to say on this. For example, “Political chaos is connected with the decay of language… one can probably bring about some improvement by starting at the verbal end.”


  2. Thanks Kevin, I agree and I think the corruption of language betrays a corruption of thought.
    You might also be interested in this excellent post from Mary Evans about the cult of “hard working families”:


  3. nivekd says:

    Thanks. Excellent article, reinforced by today’s story about the Tory MP who claimed 55p for a cup of Horlicks whilst lambasting a food bank charity and last night’s wonderful performance by Salma Yaqoob on Question Time:


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