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The use of “isms” to denominate communities that share certain practices is a common procedure, with a long historical tradition. Philosophy, the root of all systematic forms of investigation and reflexion, is ripe with such labels, but they are also pervasive in the scientific realm. In this essay we have two goals: (1) to present a behavior-analytic interpretation of the processes that give rise to “isms”; (2) to point out positive aspects of the use of “isms”, but also to warn against the perils of such use, suggesting some ways to soften or prevent them. Regarding goal (1), we conclude that “isms” are verbal operants under the control of features of the behavior of members of certain communities, which emerge from intra-class generalization and inter-class discrimination processes. Regarding goal (2), we argue that the “isms” allow the identification of the usual practices among the members of the various verbal communities, granting an “identity” to those communities and facilitating collective work toward common objectives. The complexification and ramification of the “isms” may contribute to a more precise identification of such practices. However, the “isms” may also cause us to “forget the differences” between individuals and groups, thus treating them in a homogeneous way and simplifying complex behavioral relations. Such simplification may give rise to social prejudices and stereotypes, also promoting isolation (creating “ideological bubbles”) and harming scientific and intellectual advance. We suggest that it’s possible to soften or prevent such perils by recognizing intellectual diversity and complexity, fostering the diversity of perspectives, refraining from definitions of “isms” based on essentialism or authority, specifying which proposals of any “ism” we are criticizing when doing so, recognizing that a well-based criticism to some “ism” is a collaboration to it, promoting empathy and courtesy in academic debates and, finally, fostering collaborative interactions between the “isms”, as long as theoretical coherence remains preserved. To behavior analysis in particular, such conclusions suggest that the contributions of other behavioral sciences must be evaluated under the control of their practices, not the “isms” that they represent. Skinner insisted upon the complexity of behavior as a scientific subject matter, and although behavior analysis has made an original and maybe crucial contribution to the understanding of such complexity, there are many other behavioral sciences - biological, psychological and sociological. Clearly, we shouldn’t accept all the practices of such sciences without criticism, but we must recognize that there are many ways of producing relevant data that can help us understand behavior - and all of them, with no exceptions, has their own limitations.
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