Social Research Glossary

 

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Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012-17, Social Research Glossary, Quality Research International, http://www.qualityresearchinternational.com/socialresearch/

This is a dynamic glossary and the author would welcome any e-mail suggestions for additions or amendments. Page updated 2 January, 2017 , © Lee Harvey 2012–2017.

 

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Reification


core definition

Reification is the process of attributing concrete form to an abstract concept.


explanatory context

For example, a red rose may be a reification of the concept of love.


analytical review

Vocabulary.com (2013) states:

Reification is a complex idea for when you treat something immaterial—like happiness, fear, or evil—as a material thing. This can be a way of making something concrete and easier to understand, like how a wedding ring is the reification of a couple's love. However, reification is often considered a sign that someone is thinking illogically. For example, if you think of justice as something physical, you're confusing ideas and things, which can lead to problems.


The McGraw-Hill (2004) Sociological Theory site Glossary defines 'reify' as:

The process of coming to believe that humanly created social forms are natural, universal, and absolute things.

 


Petrovic (1965) provides a definitive account of the development of reification in Marxist thought:

The act (or result of the act) of transforming human properties, relations and actions into properties, relations and actions of man-produced things which have become independent (and which are imagined as originally independent) of man and govern his life. Also transformation of human beings into thing-like beings which do not behave in a human way but according to the laws of the thing-world. Reification is a ‘special’ case of ALIENATION, its most radical and widespread form characteristic of modem capitalist society.

There is no term and no explicit concept of reification in Hegel, but some of his analyses seem to come close to it e.g. his analysis of the beobachtende Vernunft (observing reason), in the Phenomenology of Mind, or his analysis of property in his Philosophy of Right. The real history of the concept of reification begins with Marx and with Lukács’s interpretation of Marx. Although the idea of reification is implicit already in the early works of Marx (e.g., in the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts), an explicit analysis and use of ‘reification’ begins in his later writings and reaches its peak in the Grundrisse, and Capital. The two most concentrated discussions of reification are to be found in Capital I, ch. I sect. 4, and in Capital III, ch. 48. In the first of these, on COMMODITY FETISHISM, there is no definition of reification but basic elements for a theory of reification are nevertheless given in a number of pregnant statements:

The mystery of the commodity form, therefore, consists in the fact that in it the social character of men’s labour appears to them as an objective characteristic, a social natural quality of the labour product itself ... The commodity form, and the value relation between the products of labour which stamps them as commodities, have absolutely no connexion with their physical properties and with the material relations arising therefrom. It is simply a definite social relation between men, that assumes, in their eyes, the fantastic form of a relation between things ... This I call the fetishism which attaches itself to the products of labour, so soon as they are produced as commodities, and which is therefore inseparable from the production of commodities ... To the producers the social relations connecting the labours of one individual with that of the rest appear, not as direct social relations between individuals at work, but as what they really are, thinglike relations between persons and social relations between things.... To them their own social action takes the form of the action of things, which rule the producers instead of being ruled by them.

In the second discussion, Marx summarizes briefly the whole previous analysis which has shown that reification is characteristic not only of the commodity, but of all basic categories of capitalist production (money, capital, profit, etc.). He insists that reification exists to a certain extent in ‘all social forms insofar as they reach the level of commodity production and money circulation’, but that ‘in the capitalist mode of production and in capital which is its dominating category ... this enchanted and perverted world develops still further’. Thus in the developed form of capitalism reification reaches its peak:

In capital-profit, or still better capital-interest, land-ground rent, labour-wages, in this economic trinity represented as the connection between the component parts of value and wealth in general and its sources, we have the complete mystification of the capitalist mode of production, the reification [Verdinglichung] of social relations and immediate coalescence of the material production relations with their historical and social determination. It is an enchanted, perverted, topsy-turvy world, in which Monsieur le Capital and Madame la Terre do their ghost-walking as social characters and at the same time directly as things. (Capital III, ch. 48.)

As equivalent in meaning with Verdinglichung Marx uses the term Versachlichung, and the reverse of Versachlichung he calls Personifizierung. Thus he speaks about ‘this personification of things and reification of the relations of production’. He regards as the ideological counterparts of ‘reification’ and ‘personification’, ‘crude materialism’ and ‘crude idealism’ or ‘fetishism’: ‘The crude materialism of the economists who regard as the natural properties of things what are social relations of production among people, and qualities which things obtain because they are subsumed under these relations, is at the same time just as crude an idealism, even fetishism, since it imputes social relations to things as inherent characteristics, and thus mystifies them.’ (Grundrisse, p. 687).

Despite the fact that the problem of reification was discussed by Marx in Capital, published partly during his life time, and partly soon after his death, which was generally recognized as his master work, his analysis was very much neglected for a long time. A greater interest in the problem developed only after Lukács drew attention to it and discussed it in a creative way, combining influences coming from Marx with those from Max Weber (who elucidated important aspects of the problem in his analyses of bureaucracy and rationalization; see Lowith 1932) and from Simmel (who discussed the problem in The Philosophy of Money). In the central and longest chapter of History and Class Consciousness on ‘Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat’, Lukács starts from the viewpoint that ‘commodity fetishism is a specific problem of our age, the age of modem capitalism’ (p. 84), and also that it is not a marginal problem but ‘the central structural problem of capitalist society’ (p. 83). The ‘essence of commodity-structure’, according to Lukács has already been clarified, in the following way: ‘Its basis is that a relation between people takes on the character of a thing and thus acquires a ‘phantom objectivity’, an autonomy that seems so strictly rational and all-embracing as to conceal every trace of its fundamental nature: the relation between people’ (p. 83). Leaving aside ‘the importance of this problem for economics itself’ Lukács undertook to discuss the broader question: ‘how far is commodity exchange together with its structural consequences able to influence the total outer and inner life of society?’ (p. 84). He points out that two sides of the phenomenon of reification or commodity fetishism have been distinguished (which he calls the ‘objective’ and the subjective’): ‘Objectively a world of objects and relations between things springs into being (the world of commodities and their movements on the market)... Subjectively—where the market economy has been fully developed—a man’s activity becomes estranged from himself, it turns into a commodity which, subject to the non-human objectivity of the natural laws of society, must go its own way independently of man just like any consumer article.’ (p. 87). Both sides undergo the same basic process and are subordinated to the same laws. Thus the basic principle of capitalist commodity production, ‘the principle of rationalization based on what is and can be calculated’ (p. 88) extends to all fields, including the worker’s ‘soul’, and more broadly, human consciousness. ‘Just as the capitalist system continuously produces and reproduces itself economically on higher levels, the structure of reification progressively sinks more deeply, more fatefully and more definitively into the consciousness of man’ (p. 93)....

 

 

A variant on Petrovic's account can be found in the Encyclopedia of Marxism: Glossary of Terms, including comments on Althusser's critique


associated issues

 


related areas

See also

Lukács

Marx


Sources

Encyclopedia of Marxism, 1999–2008, 'Reification', Glossary of Terms, available at http://www.marxists.org/glossary/terms/r/e.htm#reification, accessed 12 April 2013.

Löwith, K., [1932] 1982, Max Weber and Karl Marx.

Lukács, G., [1923], 1971, History and Class Consciousness, London, Merlin Press.

McGraw-Hill, 2004, Sociological Theory: Glossary , available at http://highered.mcgraw-hill.com/sites/0072817186/student_view0/glossary.html, accessed 15 May 2013.

Petrovic, G., 1965, 'Reification', in Bottomore, T., Harris, L., Kiernan, V.G and Miliband, R. (Eds.) 1983, A Dictionary of Marxist Thought, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, pp. 411–13, available at http://www.marxists.org/archive/petrovic/1965/reification.htm, accessed 12 April 2013.

Vocabulary.com, 2013, 'Reification', available at https://www.vocabulary.com/dictionary/reification, accessed 12 April 2013.


copyright Lee Harvey 2012–2017


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