Featured Articles
Jenny Baker
/ Categories: 593

Foundation Spotlight: What’s in a Word?

Milt Hakel, SIOP Foundation President

Back in the 1940s, my mother told me, “Sticks and stones can break your bones, but words can never hurt you.” I was pretty sure at the time that words are powerful and that some can be harmful. A lifetime of observing their impacts continues to affirm that early judgment.

I’ve just read The Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles. I liked it very much, especially the series of events that took place, and in particular how differently each one looked when reported from the perspective of each participant telling his or her version of what happened.  The time spent with Emmett, Billy, Duchess, Woolly, Sally, Ulysses, Sarah, “Dennis,” and others was well worthwhile. Even Schrodinger’s cat got coverage. I was delighted when Woolly burnt his thesaurus; likewise was Billy’s appointment as the compliance monitor for run-duck-and-cover drills. I experienced those absurd drills in the 1950s.

Today we live in an era of contentious uncertainty. There is no need here to reiterate the litany of social, political, organizational, cultural, institutional, medical, technological, and economic issues that grab the headlines, but I do want to point out the human penchant for weaponizing words and call out one in particular: postmodernism.

I trace much of the current tendency to regard all personal opinions as being equally valuable, that is, reliable, valid, and trustworthy, to the influence of postmodernism in higher education:

One currently influential philosophical movement goes under various names such as postmodernism, deconstructionism, and structuralism, depending on historical details that are unimportant here.  It claims that because all ideas, including scientific theories, are conjectural and impossible to justify, they are essentially arbitrary: they are no more than stories, known in this context as “narratives.”  Mixing extreme cultural relativism with other forms of anti-realism, it regards objective truth and falsity, as well as reality and knowledge of reality, as mere conventional forms of words that stand for an idea’s being endorsed by a designated group of people such as an elite or consensus, or by a fashion or other arbitrary authority.  And it regards science and the Enlightenment as no more than one such fashion, and the objective knowledge claimed by science as an arrogant cultural conceit.

Perhaps inevitably, these charges are true of postmodernism itself: it is a narrative that resists rational criticism or improvement, precisely because it rejects all criticism as mere narrative.  Creating a successful postmodernist theory is indeed purely a matter of meeting the criteria of the postmodernist community–which have evolved to be complex, exclusive, and authority-based.  Nothing like that is true of rational ways of thinking: creating a good explanation is hard not because of what anyone has decided, but because there is an objective reality that does not meet anyone’s prior expectations, including those of authorities.  The creators of bad explanations such as myths are indeed just making things up.  But the method of seeking good explanations creates an engagement with reality, not only in science, but in good philosophy too–which is why it works, and why it is the antithesis of concocting stories to meet made-up criteria. (David Deutsch, The Beginning of Infinity: Explanations That Transform the World, 2011, p. 314)

David Deutsch’s two paragraphs draw attention to some factors that contribute to variation in the quality of opinions. Are all opinions equally reliable, valid, and worthy of trust? Of course not. Clearly, some opinions are better than others. So whom do you trust? Whom and what do you believe? How do you know what to believe and what to do?

Deutsch offers “rational ways of thinking” and “explanation,” pointing out how difficult it is to achieve good explanations. He does not claim rationality as the bedrock of human behavior, however, and concedes that scientific theories are conjectural and impossible to justify.

So where does that leave us?

I-O professionals embrace the scientist–practitioner model. Also known as the Boulder model, it is an ideal about graduate training in applied psychology or, as reported in its Wikipedia article, an ideology. Regardless of its historical roots and current status, as noted in the most recent Foundation Spotlight column, it is what makes I-O unique: We value application and science equally without giving greater status to either. 

Unfortunately, “scientist–practitioner” has too many syllables for inclusion in an “elevator speech.” It doesn’t fit on a bumper sticker or T-shirt. Uttering it in conversation risks losing one’s audience, unless the audience comprises self-identified scientist–practitioners.

Even less fortunately, “scientist–practitioner” appears as though it is a pairing of opposites, such as true versus false, good versus bad, or heredity versus environment. This in turn invites zero-sum framing of comparative judgments, such as “which is better?” and “which is more important?” Thus, one occasionally sees “practitioner–scientist” as a self-description.

Ever since encountering the 1949 Boulder model while in graduate school during the 60s, I’ve been drawn to its uniting of scientific practice and practical science. Also since that time, I’ve lamented its seven syllables and wondered whether there was a better and more suitable descriptor for the way we do I-O. Well, such a word exists, and it’s been around for ages.


In ancient Greek the word praxis (πρᾶξις) referred to activity engaged in by those who are free. Aristotle identified three types of knowledge: theoretical (theoria), for which the end goal is truth; poietical (poiesis), for which the end goal is production; and practical (praxis), for which the end goal is action.

The strategic and organizational usage of the word “praxis” emphasizes the need for a continuing cycle of conceptualizing the meanings of what can be learned from experience in order to reframe strategic and operational models.  That cycle forms the core of what we embrace as the “scientist–practitioner model.”

As a reader of this column, you may recall seeing “praxis” used to introduce the Jeanneret Symposium on Assessing the Leaders of Leaders. I had come across “praxis” as a name on a series of teacher tests published by ETS. Upon discovering its Greek root, I saw it as a fitting descriptor for the culture of I-O. Next, because Paul Green made a comment that, among the awards and recognitions in his office, the one that always drew attention from visitors was a statue, a quest began for a way to depict the place of I-O in the world of work. Given a nudge by Eden King, that quest culminated at the 2019 SIOP Conference in Washington DC, with the presentation of praxis statues to the winners of the individual achievement awards. Modeled after the structure of DNA and embedded in transparent crystal, the double helix symbolizes the equivalence and interdependence of truth and action.









Moving I-O Ahead

Praxis will be a continuing theme for the SIOP Foundation. We’ve renamed the Fund for the Future as the Praxis Fund, adding it as a destination for contributions.

The Jeanneret Symposium was the first in what was intended to be a series of praxis conferences, and thanks to a provision in Dick Jeanneret’s estate, there will be a second, with its topic yet to be decided.

Last April, “paying it forward” was addressed in this column, and I am delighted to announce the creation of the Robert and Anne Morrison Creativity Fund. Projects to be supported in whole or in part with proceeds from this praxis (term gift) fund may be grants, scholarships, awards, or other creative scientific, educational, or cultural projects proposed to the trustees in response to their call for proposals, such as but not limited to these:

  • support for pro bono and volunteer projects,
  • grants for doctoral dissertation research replications,
  • grants for constructive and registered thesis-replication studies,
  • support for master’s and doctoral I-O psychology graduate programs,
  • off-campus internships,
  • dollar-for-dollar matching incentives to encourage donations,
  • field research on individual differences,
  • longitudinal studies,
  • development of quantitative analysis techniques,
  • small group meetings,
  • preparation and distribution of best practice compendia for public consumption.

Much more will be forthcoming from the SIOP Foundation. In the coming months, watch for a pair of pro bono webinars about financial planning.

The SIOP Foundation’s mission is to connect donors with I-O professionals to create smarter workplaces.  Let any of us know your ideas, suggestions, or interests via email. Or text or call me at the number below. We invite your trust. The world of work needs I-O-informed evidence-based praxis as never before.

Milt Hakel, President, mhakel@bgsu.edu, 419-819-0936

Rich Klimoski, Vice-President, rklimosk@gmu.edu

Nancy Tippins, Secretary, nancy@tippinsgroup.com

Leaetta Hough, Treasurer, leaetta@msn.com

Adrienne Colella, Communications Officer, acolella@tulane.edu

Mirian Graddick-Weir, Trustee, mgraddickweir76@gmail.com

Bill Macey, Trustee, wmacey9@gmail.com

John C. Scott, Trustee, JScott@APTMetrics.com

The SIOP Foundation
440 E Poe Rd Ste 101
Bowling Green, OH 43402-1355
419-353-0032   Fax: 419-352-2645
Email: SIOPFoundation@siop.org

612 Rate this article:
Comments are only visible to subscribers.


Information on this website, including articles, white papers, and other resources, is provided by SIOP staff and members. We do not include third-party content on our website or in our publications, except in rare exceptions such as paid partnerships.