Language, psychology and who gets to publish

A few people asked me to comment on a new article by three clinical psychologists (here is a link). They report on their linguistic analysis and argue that instead of addressing ‘real’ issues, MH professionals use rhetorical devices. In this blogpost I offer a few comments on the piece.

Let me declare my hand. This is not a good article and I’m surprised that it got published. The authors do not do a ‘linguistic analysis’, they only comment on a few words which they chose to make their preconceived points. And it is disappointing to see such a paper.

In the introduction we read some comments about “language of confrontation” (I really would like to know what it might mean), valence, then pronouns. Then the authors move to computational linguistics and stigma and end with a couple of points on qualitative research. These comments are truly random and do not gel into anything coherent. Indeed, when you look at the methodology section, the authors offer no insight into what ‘linguistic analysis’ might mean to them. They claim to analyse ‘rhetorical devices’ but offer nothing on what a rhetorical device might be for them. You would think that 2.5 thousand years of human reflection on rhetoric would deserve a comment from the authors. And you would be wrong. There is nothing and I truly don’t understand how an article analysing rhetorical devices which has nothing on rhetoric could be published. Much more could be said about how poor the methodological framing of the article is.

What is really disappointing in the text are the analyses. Let me offer a couple of examples. Here is the first analysis, a fragment from a blog by Psychiatrist A.

“It’s quite strange, quite sad I think, that after decades of anti-stigma campaigns, work by charities like Mind, so many confessions of mental illness and progressive government policies, that some people still doubt mental illness even exists.” However, the use of the word ‘sad’ is not a disclosure of personal emotion by the author, but is rather a rhetorical attempt or tactical concession to claim the status of humane regret in service of an argument.

That’s it? Just a comment on one adjective makes for an analysis.

First, the claim as to whether the fragment is a disclosure of ‘personal emotion’ (are there any other kind?) is extraordinary. On what evidence is it made? What kind of insight do the authors have into ‘personal emotions’ of the psychiatrist? And crucially, in contrast to what the three psychologists seem to suggest, there isn’t a canonical way of expressing sadness. You don’t have to say

I am sad.

in order to express your sadness. You really don’t. And I would hope clinical psychology already understands this.

Moreover, the repetition ‘quite strange, quite sad’, which the authors miss, might well be a reinforcement of an author’s attitude expressed in the text. And it’s nicer than saying: I am negatively surprised and I am sad. Indeed, as the authors don’t offer any context, we don’t know that the words which are quoted are in fact the beginning of a blogpost (here is a link) and that the rest of the paragraph is written in the first person singular suggesting that the author might be style-aware and want to introduce some variation into his writing. Crucially though, you must read the ‘strange and sad’ phrase in tandem with the next (complex) clause and especially, ‘confessions’ and ‘progressive’, both with positive connotations. You will understand that the negative surprise and the sadness frame the positivity of confessions and progress later on in the sentence.

It’s also interesting how quantifiers are used, what kind tense is used, how the dependency relationships between clauses are constructed, their modality. Only then do you get a full picture of what was written and, possibly, its rhetorical aspect.  So, it is sad that the authors selectively focus on one word and decide to make quite unsubstantiated claims shoehorning them into their argument. And please don’t tell me that I haven’t now disclosed sadness just because you don’t like the way I did it.

Both this and other analyses in the article follow a similar pattern. The authors focus on a word, ignore its context and run away with their interpretations.  It’s really quite irritating, for example, that one blogger is accused of manipulation because they don’t clearly identify the identity of the pronoun ‘we’. This is nonsense.

Yet, what I was mostly interested in was how the three authors wrote the article. Is what they write purely focusing on ‘real issues’ and with no devices prompting their readers to interpret what’s written in a particular way. Let’s have a look at the bloggers’ introductions:

Psychiatrist ‘A’ falls strongly on the side of psychiatric diagnostic language, stating firmly that mental illnesses are just that – illnesses – and that a diagnosis is necessary for patients to optimize treatment.

‘B’ is also an assertive advocate for psychiatry. In the first paragraph of the selected text, ‘B’ notes that “maybe” people may get a wrong diagnosis or “maybe” their diagnosis has changed over time, indicating a less driven argument.

‘C’ is a psychiatrist with a more middle-grounded stance towards diagnosis – possibly reflecting his own moderate opinions, but perhaps also taken as a rhetorical or strategic position. In the first paragraph of selected text, ‘C’ writes that there has been a “crisis” taking place within psychiatric diagnoses.

The clinical psychologist ‘D’ is another ‘middle grounded’ stance member, and states frankly that they are a “long term critic” of psychiatric diagnoses, adopting a position seemingly more moderate than Psychiatrists ‘A’ and ‘B’.

‘E’, a psychiatrist with pronounced ‘critical’ views (at least in the blog analysed), states that; “Sadness is a normal emotion, and low mood is a common experience found in which we all have to deal with”.

Psychologist ‘F’ is a clinical psychologist: their blog highlights the more protective tone of the argument against over-diagnoses. True to the rhetoric of polite and reasonable concession to the other side, ‘F’ states that they have the “utmost respect” for medical colleagues, “but the medicalisation of childhood has gone too far”.

Let me introduce my comments with: if you don’t see who the authors like most and where their allegiances are, you were not paying attention. The differences between the introductions are perhaps not staring you in the face, but are quite clear.

It’s quite fascinating, for example, that persons A and B are represented as active. A ‘falls strongly’, you can almost hear a thud. B, on the other hand, is an ‘assertive advocate’ (‘assertive is such a weasel word). In contrast to their belligerence, you have persons E and F, the former only has views, the latter doesn’t even have those, so fluffy, agreeable and kind they are.

Furthermore, person A supports ‘diagnostic language’ (this phrase has no reference in any known reality) and ‘states firmly’. This is not someone to be messed with. Person B only notes, but the authors conveniently put the word ‘maybe’ in between quotes, so you know what to think about this little so-and-so. Luckily, C is a little more likeable – they are represented as having some thinking process. They reflect, but, alas, only ‘possibly’. As D speaks frankly, you immediately wonder about the previous three. How the authors know D spoke frankly, I have no idea, but then I am not a psychologist and I can’t read people’s minds.

Person E, with ‘pronounced views’ (how the authors assess pronouncing of the views will also remain their secret) only states, but when we get to Person F, fluffiness embodied, they highlight, but, as expected, only good things.

So, from A to F is from bad to good, and I must admit that I chuckled when I saw this in an article criticising others for their rhetorical devices which get in the way of ‘real issues’. Let’s have a look at a few other phrases which I took from the conclusions:

In general, polemical language was seen to have been used repeatedly within the blogs examined, creating a potential barrier for communicative purposes between the authors.

Please define ‘polemical language’, how repeatedly is repeatedly (twice enough?) was it seen and by whom, and what is the evidence for the barrier?

In each blog, conceptual shifts or concessions were visible.

Were they only visible (to whom?) or do you have evidence too?

There was, however, evidence of a more genuine, less rhetorically strategic, middle ground, a holding ground for multiple thoughts and the complex relations between them, as shown particularly with clinicians “C” and “D

Please would you refer me to the scale of genuinness and rhetorical strategicness and how exactly you measured those dimensions. Or were they just visible?

In these accounts, polemical tones tended to override the fundamental arguments

This sentence doesn’t mean anything. But I am grateful the three authors think they managed to get through the overriding thingies and did get the arguments. Self-confidence is important!

There is a temptation to see the ‘middle ground’ of an emotive debate as almost automatically balanced and wise.

Bloody hell, it’s getting worse and worse, innit? Whose temptation, for pity’s sake? The authors’? What doesn’t mean that there is ‘the temptation to see’? Where is it?

I could go on. But I hope that I’ve made the point that the article pillorying others for being too rhetorical, offers little more than rhetoric in its conclusions. This high moral ground the authors take in the article, attempting to lecture others, quickly vanishes when you read the text which hardly focuses on ‘issues’ and mostly serves to prove a point. How the article was published is beyond my ken (probably also beyond my barbie too).

The way the authors write, however, wouldn’t be particularly notable, if their text were a blog entry. They seem to miss altogether that they analysed blogs. Not formal debates, not academic articles, not even academic conferences. Blogs! Personal musings of people who want to share their writing with others, much like I do. That means the bloggers might not edit their posts much (I don’t), they simply want to write a post (I do), probably negotiating their busy schedules (like I do).  But they also want their blogs to be attractive (I do!), so they make their points more forcefully, sometimes with a little sarcasm and an expletive (I do). The authors seem to criticise the blogs for being blogs! In other words, you cannot understand the ‘rhetoric’ if you don’t understand the genre which you analyse. And this is probably the most irritating part of the article. As ever (yes, it’s an exaggeration), psychologists don’t understand that what you write has a context and simply analysing blogs as if they were ‘texts’ is nonsense.

And the little quip at the end of the article that the blogs:

succumb to the lowest common denominators for public debate in this genre.

is as tendentious, as it gets. And I will be merciful in not linking a few blogposts of mine where I analyse other texts of one of the authors – they’re also so tendentious, my teeth ached (if you spotted a ‘rhetorical device’, reader, you’re right; I do hope, however, you will be able to understand the not so subtle a point I make).

However, the article the three authors published is a different genre, much more formal. And one would expect a different way of writing, without the acrobatics of ownerless temptations and classifying text into languages of something and other just because it suits us.

It’s time to conclude – it’s a very long post. Linguistic analysis is not about commenting on a few words, just because you don’t like them. Those words, further, are used in a context. What comes before or after the fragment quoted can change the reading of the text completely. Do remember that quoting and harshly criticising the author of

‘White lives don’t matter’,

but omitting the next sentence ‘As white lives.’ cost a newspaper a significant amount of money. The authors of the article seem oblivious this, sometimes quoting only parts of sentences. In fact, the article by Garner, Kinderman, and Davis is contributing to the very issue it fights against. It is strange (wink, wink), it was published in its present form.

So, let me end with an academic issue: peer review. How can you possibly publish an original article that doesn’t describe the methodology of the study?! What was the peer review? I have absolutely no doubt that if I had submitted the article, it would have been desk rejected. And, frankly, rightly so – the level of linguistic analysis in the paper is very poor. There is no doubt, I think, that if (IF!) the paper had been reviewed, the reviewers had either nothing or very, very little to do with language/discourse analysis. What’s the point then?

All in all, the paper is a disappointment. Both in terms of what it brings, but also in terms of what publishing it tells me about the journal and publishing practices in mental health/psychology. It also tells me that if this is a linguistic analysis that is expected, I stand no chance.

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