The other day on Facebook, Mark Schneider asked a great question:

"Within the SDT/OIT concepts - what defines a “group” or “community”? Is it as loose as “what the person FEELS/perceives” to be part of? Or is there a more concrete idea that may have been used for the research on this subject?"

This question inspired me, so I did some digging to figure out if “community” has been defined as a term in the Self-Determination Theory literature. This was actually hard, because SDT does not directly research community: it’s a theory of motivation and community is more of a feature of the human condition that can impact motivation than a tangible variable that researchers can manipulate. So please keep that in mind; what follows is an exploration of how one community of researchers (see what I did there?) is using a single word in the contexts of their communications with each other, their study participants, and the public at large. This should not serve as some sort of “definitive” or “official” answer, but rather a window into the language-game at play at the heart of most social-science research.

Let’s look at how SDT researchers use the word, “community” and how that word is getting it’s meaning.

Ryan and Deci’s brand-spanking new, 756-page Self-Determination Theory: Basic Psychological Needs in Motivation, Development, and Wellness uses the word “community” on 57 pages, but none of them contain a definition. That’s pretty telling. It means that within the SDT research community, “community” has an assumed meaning(s). And keep in mind, this is an international community that speaks dozens of languages, each of which will have various meanings of the word “community” outside the context of this research.

So where is the meaning for this word coming from? How are researchers learning to use it in their papers and how can we triangulate the meaning of the word in their context and relate it to our own?

Now here’s the fun part: Social Science works by asking people questions about their world and then using the answers to those questions and observations about the behavior of those participants to make testable predictions about what will happen to either how they answer the questions in the future or future behaviors. That’s it. Throw in a lot of math, and that’s Social Science.

Like most of social psychology, in SDT these questions usually take the form of… well, forms. Printed out or on computers. These questionnaires are the beating heart of SDT research and the fancy-pants name for them are “measures.” One of the great strengths of SDT is the collection of short, well-validated, highly-predictive, measures that have strong cross-cultural and cross-language viability. These questionnaires are where what the researchers are trying to measure and the population that they are trying to measure it in smash into each other and we start to get meaning.

In order to see if researchers were “priming” participants with definitions of community/groups/etc. I looked a bunch of the most popular measures in SDT research to see what’s going on.

The largest inventory regarding community, and the one that’s used the most often for exploring Goal Contents Theory (one of the six SDT micro-theories) is the “Aspirations Index.” This questionnaire is used to assess people’s aspirations across 7 categories: wealth, fame, image, personal growth, good health, meaningful relationships, and community contributions. Now, painfully the creators of this measure never define “community” in either the questionnaire, or in subsequent papers that use it. But let’s look at what the researchers are asking participants about their community and relationships:

Meaningful Relationships Subscale

  • “How important is it for you to have good friends that I can count on?”
  • “How important is it for you to share my life with someone I love?”
  • “How important is it for you to have committed, intimate relationships?”
  • “How important is it for you to feel that there are people who really love me, and whom I love?”
  • “How important is it for you to have deep enduring relationships?”

Community Contributions Subscale

  • “How important is it for you to work for the betterment of society?”
  • “How important is it for you to assist people who need it, asking nothing in return?”
  • “How important is it for you to work to make the world a better place?”
  • “How important is it for you to help others improve their lives?”
  • “How important is it for you to help people in need?”

The AI looks at the answers to these questions in order to form subscales called Meaningful Relationships and Community Contribution. But the word “community” is not used in these questions! Instead, on the Meaningful Relationships Subscale we have the words, “good friends,” “someone I love,” “committed, intimate relationships,” “people who really love me,” and “deep, enduring relationships”. On the Community Contribution Subscale we have “society” “people” “the world” “others” and “people” again. I think it’s useful to see these two sub scales as contrasts that provide insight into how the researchers are codifying the world they are observing. The AI seems to divide relationships into two levels: friends/family and society at large. Interestingly though, none of these questions imply an “in-group/out-group.”

I kept looking and much to my chagrin (but not surprise), no other measures defined the terms, but these two basic buckets of “friends/famliy” and “society” seemed to hold up in the way the created the generic questionnaires. But what about activities that take place in more narrow contexts like work, classrooms, and fitness classes? Those a kinda “middle grounds” between “friends/family” and “society, ” right? Well, things got more interesting when I started to look at questionnaires used to determine Goal Contents in fitness, classroom, and work contexts. Here’s one example from fitness, because they’re all kinda like this:

The Motives for Physical Activities Measure – Revised asks how true is the statements, “I engage in Physical activity because:

  • I like to be with others who are interested in this activity.”
  • I want to be attractive to others.
  • Because I want to meet new people.
  • Because I enjoy spending time with others doing this activity.”

Like the AI, researchers use this questionnaire to determine intrinsic v. extrinsic goal contents (well, kinda, but I don’t wanna get lost in the weeds on this). What I see here (and this was true of all the measures-in-context I looked at) is the word “people,” modified by “others” 3 times and “new.” To me, all of that implies a kinda arm’s-length relationship as opposed to “friends/family.” But it’s also not complete strangers like “society” from the AI implies.

Now confusingly, and as opposed to the papers that use general Goal Contents questionnaires like the AI, the papers that use these “context-specific” measures (school, fitness, work) often refer to these contexts as “community.” So we have researchers using “community” to mean two things: society at large, and smaller (but widely varied) groups brought together in a specific context. And the only way to know the difference between the meaning that is being implied by the author is to read the papers and look at the questions in the measures.

But what about the larger conclusions that SDT makes about community? How can they draw conclusions about the impact of thing on people’s behavior when they don’t even define that thing??!??!?!!???

Well, this potential dual-use wouldn’t have impact on the conclusions of studies that use these common measures, because the dual-uses are contained to the contexts in which the measures are taken. SDT Researcher A using the MPAH-R to look at the impact of Goal Contents on exercise persistence at a YMCA in Canada can read SDT Researcher B’s paper on using the MPAH-R to look at exercise persistence at a gym class in Orlando and everyone is on the same page. Moreover, because all these “context-specific” measures seem to imply the same arm’s-length relationships in the way they ask their questions, researchers looking at exercise classes and sport classes and workplaces will all be speaking roughly the same languages when they say, “community.” (Fun fact: almost all of these context-specific measures are created just by asking the same questions and swapping out the contexts. “Gym” becomes “classroom” becomes “workplace.”)

They probably wouldn’t even result in confusion between the meanings the researchers are using and the participants are using because the researchers are learning the context-switching meaning of “community as society at large” and “community as a small group of people in a specific context together” from the way the participants are reacting to the words on the forms.

The meaning of the word “community” is flowing from the way that participants are understanding it in the context off how they are being asked about it, into the way that the researchers are using it in their papers. Kind of like how I learned that there’s a thing called a snatch that can mean two different things in two different contexts, so now when I say, “snatch” to a bunch of kettlebell trainers, we all know I mean “kettlebell snatch” versus saying “snatch” to a bunch of O-lifters. I learned the difference from the people using the word, and I can switch back and forth relatively easily in order to communicate to other people who also learned the word that way based on context.

And as for researchers having conversations about the the impact of society versus small, context specific groups when they call both “community” in different studies?

So here’s the thing about that…


There was something about the way that Mark asked this awesome question that made me want to dig extra deeply into this:

“Is it as loose as “what the person FEELS/perceives” to be part of? Or is there a more concrete idea that may have been used for the research on this subject?”

Loose v. Concrete. Soft v. Hard. This is often the way that people describe concepts in Social Science as opposed to Hard Sciences like physics and chemistry. And I wanna nerd out on that for a bit. Because I think using those terms without taking a minute to reflect on how science “knows” things and what we mean when we say a word “means” something has the negative side effect of making lay-people and practitioners draw what I think are incorrect conclusions about the value of recommendations that we draw from evidence in the Social Science literature (for the record, I think Mark is one of the smartest, thoughtful people I’ve ever met so I’m not saying he was implying anything, I’m just using his words as an excuse to write about something bigger).

Social Science is not like the Hard Sciences in many ways, but the most frustrating (or delightful for a Philosophy Major like me) is that defining terms is a lot fuzzier in psychology than physics. Simple example: what is a meter? Currently it’s defined as “ length of the path travelled by light in a vacuum in 1/299,792,458 of a second.” That’s pretty clear, but that’s not the whole story. Mathematicians have been trying to settle on a definition for “meter” that everyone can use since 1789. The history of how we define the word “meter” has a whole a wikipedia page! At the end of the day, a meter is what 18 elected experts from the International Committee for Weights and Measures says it is, but on a day-to-day basis, every scientist who says, “meter” doesn’t really have to know that. The learn the definition of a meter in the context of their work. And just because one scientist says “meter” and means he used a ruler in his lab that was based on the National Prototype Metre Bar No. 27 and another calibrated her equipment using the speed of light definition will only impact their ability to communicate in really extreme cases.

Why am I talking about meters? Because I want to show that even “hard science” words like units of measurements are fuzzier than we often know. And because I think it’s important to know what is happening when we say a word “means” something in the context of a researchers throwing it around in papers. As you’ve seen in this post, it would seem like SDT researchers don’t really know what the hell “community” means when they say it. In fact, it seems to have two entirely different uses just within the context of SDT research. But that doesn’t mean that no meaning is being made. This can be confusing for us lay-people, but it’s also just how language works. In P_hilosophical Investigations_ Wittgenstein calls it, “the language-game.”

“It is not only agreement in definitions but also (odd as it may sound) in judgments that is required… agreement not in opinions, but rather in form of life.”

Granted, “forms of life” is pretty much the most contested thing Wittgenstein ever wrote, but Biletzki & Matar (2014) define them pretty well for our purposes as, “changing and contingent, dependent on culture, context, history, etc.”

What this means from a semiotic standpoint, according to Wittgenstein, is that the meaning in language is inexplicably tied to agreements that all parties are making about the nature of life itself. These “forms of life” heavily influence the meaning of language as we switch from one context to another.

I think the most common mistake that we lay-people make is thinking that when a bunch of researchers say “Word A” we assume it means the same thing that we mean when we say “Word A.” But it’s not often the case. There’s a lot of words whose meanings get transmogrified through use in narrow contexts and take on very narrow definitions in those contexts. In SDT, “autonomy” means something very specific (the belief that one is choosing to act in accordance with one’s values), but this is not how people outside SDT use it and that breeds a lot of confusion. So much in fact, that Richard Ryan has a whole hour-long lecture called, “what autonomy isn’t.”

The second mistake we make when we are trying to understand the language of scientists is that we think that if we are confused about the use of words, then the researchers must be as confused as we are.

But this is usually not the case. The scientists are steeped in their own language-game. They learn the “forms of life” as a part of their education reading thousands of papers that use words in context hundreds of thousands of times. It’s easy to make the mistake that thinking if a word is never defined that it has no definition. Or that if it’s used two ways that the people using it every day could get them as easily as confused as we do. The reality is, all language is “loose” and science is non-dogmatic by it’s very nature. Scientists learn their language through use, not dictionaries and definitions change as we learn more about what we mean when say a thing. It took 200 years for a meter to become a meter, and in another 200 years a meter will be something else. And just because science is not definitive, does not mean we can’t speak with certainty about it’s conclusions.

And if you ever think there’s no way that these researchers could keep all these context-specific definitions of words in their heads and how can we trust any conclusions that come out of this messy, imperfect process that depends on millions of people writing things down with words in hundreds of languages and OMG how can we know that anything means anything and what if we’re all in the matrix??!?!??!?!?

Take a deep breath and remember the word “snatch.”