Contents Preface to the second edition page ix Introduction 11 Knowledge in context 12 Some misconceptions about knowledge—Knowledge, work and communicative interaction—The relationship between subject and object—Some implications of sub- ject-object relations—Verstehen—Critical theory and the relationship between subject and object—Conclusions2 Theory, observation and practical adequacy 45 Knowledge and object—‘Theory’—The conceptual media- tion of perception—Sense and reference and the concep- tual and the empirical—Truth and practical adequacy— Relativism, inter-theory disputes and discontinuities in the development of knowledge—‘Theorizing’ and the development of knowledge—Conclusions3 Theory and method I: abstraction, structure and cause 85 Abstraction and structural analysis—Structure, agency and reproduction—Contentless abstractions—Generali- zation—Causation and causal analysis—Conclusions4 Theory and method II: types of system and their implications 118 Stratification and emergent powers—Closed and open systems and regularities—Laws in science: causal and instrumentalist—Prediction—Rational abstractions and ‘chaotic conceptions’—From abstract to concrete: the example of marxist research—The theoretical and the vii
viii Contents empirical revisited—Spatial form and abstract and con- crete research—Conclusion5 Some influential misadventures in the philosophy of science 153 Atomism and the problems of induction and causation— Necessity—The accusation of ‘essentialism’—The limits of logic—Popper and deductivism6 Quantitative methods in social science 175 Quantification—Mathematics: an acausal language— Accounting and quasi-causal models—‘Theoretical’ and ‘empirical’ models and closed and open systems—The role of assumptions in models—Statistical methods— Conclusions7 Verification and falsification 204 Philosophical criticism—Existential hypotheses—Predic- tive tests—Causal explanations and explanatory tests— Interpretations—beyond evaluation?—Conclusions8 Popper’s ‘falsificationism’ 2269 Problems of explanation and the aims of social science 232 Explanation and the question of difficulty: I orthodox conception—Research design: intensive and extensive —Explanation and the question of difficulty: II critical theory conception Appendix: Notes on realism, writing and the future of method in social science 258 Narrative versus analysis—The neglect of description— The influence of rhetoricNotes and references 267Bibliography 299Index 310
Preface to the second editionIn the 1980s, the ideas of realist philosophy began to make animpact on social science. Yet the gulf between the morephilosophical debates and the literature on how we should do socialresearch remains wide, spanned by only the most rudimentary ofbridges. Sadly, many social scientists can still only think of ‘method’in terms of quantitative techniques, and even though these are nowcommonly supplemented by qualitative techniques such asparticipant observation and informal interviewing, the basicactivity of conceptualization—which no one can escape—remainsunexamined. Of course realism has not had a monopoly ofinnovations in philosophy and methodology in recent years.Particularly important has been the growing interest in language,writing and rhetoric, for these affect not merely how we re-presentideas for others but the very terms in which we think.Unfortunately these advances have been affected or infected byidealist currents which appear to rule out the possibility of any kindof empirical check on social science. In view of this situation I believe that realism and the question ofmethod remain very much on the agenda and that there is still farto go in developing a constructive discussion of method informedby realist philosophy. This remains the task of this second edition. The book is intended both for students and researchers familiarwith social science but having little or no previous experience ofphilosophical and methodological discussions and for those whoare familiar with them but are interested in realism and method.These two audiences have different interests and preferencesregarding style and content. The style and organization areemphatically geared towards the first group (reviewers pleasenote!). I have therefore deliberately avoided spattering the text with ix
x Preface to the second editionname-droppings that would only alienate the first group even ifthey reassured the second. Issues are selected on a need-to-knowbasis rather than on one of fashion; philosophical doctrines areonly discussed if they have had or are likely to have a majorinfluence on the practice of social science. At the same time I feelconfident that the cognoscenti will find the realist ideas developedhere radically different from those dominant in the literature. The two possible audiences are liable to ask different questionsand raise different objections. Those likely to come from the firsttype of reader are anticipated and answered in the main text.Answers to probable objections from the cognoscenti are restrictedto Notes and to Chapters 5 and 8, which provide critiquesspecifically directed at certain orthodox ideas. The point of thisform of organization is to avoid the usual academic’s habit oflapsing into writing only for specialists (including reviewers!). Ishould also perhaps point out that although its arguments are oftenphilosophical, this book is primarily about method in socialresearch, rather than about the philosophy of social science. Manyfine books on the latter already exist.1 While they offer excellentphilosophical critiques they offer little constructive comment on thepractice of social science. It is this imbalance that I aim to redress. A few words about revisions for those familiar with the firstedition. Second editions are an opportunity to update and anotherchance to get things right and this is no exception. It’s commontoday to acknowledge that texts and the way they are interpretedcan never be fully controlled by their authors, and often I have beentaken aback as much by supporters’ readings as by opponents’. Butauthors do have some responsibility for the reception of theirbooks, so besides adding new material I have tried to correct myown errors and to block some of the misreadings apparent inreactions to the first edition. The chief surprise to me about the reception of the first editionhas been the selectivity of interest. First, for reasons I still do notfully understand, the necessary-contingent distinction introduced inChapter 3 seems to have overshadowed much of the rest of thebook. In this second edition I have tried to clarify this distinctionbut I remain unconvinced that it warrants the prominence withinrealism that some interpreters of the first edition gave it. Thesecond kind of selectivity involves a tendency to identify realismwith extraordinarily limited tendencies in social theory (e.g.particular angles on marxism) and highly restricted areas of social
Preface to the second edition xiresearch (e.g. research on localities). Whatever judgements weremade of this research—good or bad—seemed to have rubbed offonto perceptions of realism. Let me therefore stress that, as anyscan of the literature will show, realism is a philosophy of and forthe whole of the natural and social sciences. Reactions from students have made it clear that a new and fullerIntroduction was needed. Apart from this, the main additionsconcern the nature of theory and its relation to empirical research,practical knowledge, space and social theory, interpretiveunderstanding, research design and an appendix on realism andwriting. Further revisions have been made in the light of theexperience of empirical research carried out in the last six years.Numerous minor changes have been made to correct and clarifyarguments, to add illustrations and to improve accessibility.AcknowledgementsThe University of Sussex for sabbatical leave; the University ofCalifornia, Los Angeles, Ohio State University, the universities ofCopenhagen, Roskilde and Lund and the Copenhagen BusinessSchool, for their hospitality in providing me with new horizons; themany graduate students in those places and the Sussex Concepts,Methods and Values’ students for enduring my obsession withmethodology; and John Allen, Bjørn Asheim, Roy Bhaskar, EricClark, Kevin Cox, Simon Duncan, Steen Folke, Frank Hansen,Torsten Hägerstrand, Peter Maskell, Doreen Massey, KevinMorgan and Dick Walker, for their support, encouragement andcriticism. Finally, my love and thanks to Lizzie Sayer and HazelEllerby.
IntroductionThe status of social science is seriously in doubt. Outsiders’attitudes towards it are often suspicious or even hostile, and socialscientists themselves are deeply divided over what constitutes aproper approach to social research. The uncertainty has beenheightened by increasing doubts in philosophy about traditionalviews of scientific objectivity and progress. Arguments aboutwhether social science should be like natural science no longer takeplace on the basis of agreement about the nature and methods ofthe latter. However, recent developments in realist philosophy haveoffered new and productive perspectives in both areas that changethe whole basis of discussion. In this book I shall try to explainthese and show how they can resolve some of the problems thathave troubled social scientists. One of the main difficulties of the existing literature on socialtheory and the philosophy of the social sciences is that fewconstructive contributions have been made on the subject ofmethod in empirical research, while texts on methods havereciprocated this lack of interest by ignoring developments at thephilosophical level and in social theory. For example, much hasbeen written on theories of knowledge, but little about theirimplications for empirical research. The result is that even wherethe philosophical critiques have been accepted in principle theyhave failed to make much difference in practice; indeed, the lack ofwork on alternative methods has actually discouraged some of thecritics and their supporters from even venturing into empiricalresearch. Meanwhile, many of the empirical researchers whosework has been under attack have been content to conclude that thedebate is not really relevant to them, or else that philosophicaldiscussions in general threaten empirical research and should 1
2 Method in social sciencetherefore be avoided. To get beyond this impasse we must decidewhether the critiques imply that we can continue to use the usualempirical methods of hypothesis formation and testing, the searchfor generalizations and so on, or whether these must be displaced orsupplemented by quite different ones. One of the chief aims of thisbook is to answer these questions. So much depends in social research on the initial definition ofour field of study and on how we conceptualize key objects.Examples of these initial orientations include the adoption of laycategories and classifications in sociology, the equilibriumassumption in economics, the concept of the subject in psychology,concepts like ‘interest group’ in politics, and the selection of spatialunits in human geography. All such starting points are fraught withproblems which, whether noticed or not, shape the course ofresearch long before ‘methods’ in the narrow sense of techniquesfor getting and interpreting information are chosen. Once thesequestions of conceptualization are settled—and frequently theanswers are matters of habit rather than reflection—then the rangeof possible outcomes of research is often quite limited. Thesematters are all the more difficult in social science where ourconcepts are often about other concepts—those of the society thatwe study. In view of this it is quite extraordinary to compare the attentiongiven in social science courses to ‘methods’ in the narrow sense ofstatistical techniques, interviewing and survey methods and thelike, with the blithe disregard of questions of how weconceptualize, theorize and abstract. (‘Never mind the concepts,look at the techniques’ might be the slogan.) Perhaps some wouldbe content to dismiss these matters as questions of paradigms,social theory or intuition, not method, but it is my belief that thereis method not only in empirical research but in theorizing, and thatwe need to reflect on it. A second major impediment to the development of effectivemethod in social science concerns causation. So much that has beenwritten on methods of explanation assumes that causation is amatter of regularities in relationships between events, and thatwithout models of regularities we are left with allegedly inferior, ‘adhoc’ narratives. But social science has been singularly unsuccessfulin discovering law-like regularities. One of the main achievementsof recent realist philosophy has been to show that this is aninevitable consequence of an erroneous view of causation. Realism
Introduction 3replaces the regularity model with one in which objects and socialrelations have causal powers which may or may not produceregularities, and which can be explained independently of them. Inview of this, less weight is put on quantitative methods fordiscovering and assessing regularities and more on methods ofestablishing the qualitative nature of social objects and relations onwhich causal mechanisms depend. And this in turn, brings us backto the vital task of conceptualization. Social scientists are invariably confronted with situations inwhich many things are going on at once and they lack thepossibility, open to many natural scientists, of isolating outparticular processes in experiments. Take an apparently simplesocial event such as a seminar. It involves far more than a discussionof some issues by a group of people: there is usually an economicrelationship (the tutor is earning a living); students are also there toget a degree; their educational institution gets reproduced throughthe enactment of such events; relations of status, gender, age andperhaps race are confirmed or challenged in the way people talk,interrupt and defer to one another; and the participants are usuallyalso engaged in ‘self-presentation’, trying to win respect or at leastnot to look stupid in the eyes of others. This multi-dimensionalityis fairly typical of the objects of social science. The task of assessingthe nature of each of the constituent processes without being ableto isolate them experimentally throws a huge burden ontoabstraction—the activity of identifying particular constituents andtheir effects. Though largely ignored or taken for granted in mosttexts on method I believe it to be central. I shall therefore take a broad view of ‘method’ which covers theclarification of modes of explanation and understanding, the natureof abstraction, as well as the familiar subjects of research designand methods of analysis. The terrain of the discussion is thereforethe overlap between method, social theory and philosophy of socialscience. In view of this overlap many of the arguments have aphilosophical character, involving thinking about thinking. Butwhile I believe social scientists can learn from philosophy theyshould not be in awe of it, for they can also inform it. (Muchdamage has been done by prescriptions made by philosophers whohave little or no knowledge of what social science involves.)Methodologists need to remember that although method impliesguidance, research methods are the medium and outcome of
4 Method in social scienceresearch practice;1 the educators themselves have to be educated—with frequent refresher courses. Therefore philosophy andmethodology do not stand above the substantive sciences but serve,as the realist philosopher Roy Bhaskar put it, as ‘underlabourer andoccasional midwife’ to them.2 And social scientists should certainlynot fear that philosophical thinking will subvert empirical research,though it may be heavily critical of certain kinds. Method is also a practical matter. Methods must be appropriateto the nature of the object we study and the purpose andexpectations of our inquiry, though the relationships between themare sometimes slack rather than tight. If we imagine a trianglewhose corners are method, object and purpose, each corner needsto be considered in relation to the other two. For example, what dodifferences between the objects studied by social and naturalsciences imply for the methods they use and the expectations wehave of their results? Is the goal of prediction appropriate to anobject such as an ideology? Can social scientific method ignore theunderstandings of those whom it studies? How far would aninterpretive, ethnographic method be appropriate for assessingmacro-economic change? To answer such questions we shall haveto consider all three corners of the triangle. Although methodology needs to be critical and not merelydescriptive I intend to counter various forms of methodologicalimperialism. The most important kind, ‘scientism’, uses an absurdlyrestrictive view of science, usually centring around the search forregularities and hypothesis testing, to derogate or disqualifypractices such as ethnography, historical narrative or explorativeresearch, for which there are often no superior alternatives.Another kind of imperialism, formed in reaction to this is thatwhich tries to reduce social science wholly to the interpretation ofmeaning. A critical methodology should not restrict social scienceto a narrow path that is only appropriate to a minority of studies. The variety of possible objects of study in social science stretchesbeyond the scope of a single model of research. Consequently, whilethis book is about method it is not a recipe book, though it isintended to influence the construction of recipes for research, bysuggesting ways of thinking about problems of theorizing andempirical research. Examples are therefore intended as just that—not as unique restrictive moulds to which all realist research mustconform. But what is realism? First of all it is a philosophy not a
Introduction 5substantive social theory like that of Weber or neoclassicaleconomics. It may resonate more with some social theories thanothers (e.g. marxism more than neoclassical economics) but itcannot under-write those with which it appears to be in harmony.Substantive questions like ‘what causes inflation?’ are differentfrom philosophical questions like ‘what is the nature ofexplanation?’ Things get more difficult when we try to define the content ofrealism. When confronted with a new philosophical position for thefirst time it is impossible to grasp much of what is distinctive andsignificant about it from a few terse statements of itscharacteristics. Particular philosophies are not simple and self-contained but exist through their opposition to a range ofalternative positions. They involve loose bundles of argumentsweaving tortuously across wider fields of philosophical discourse.Nevertheless, readers may prefer to have at least some signpostsregarding the nature of realism, or rather my own view of it, evenif their meaning is limited at this stage. Some of the followingcharacteristic claims of realism may seem too obvious to be worthmentioning, but are included because they are in opposition toimportant rival philosophies. Some may seem obscure, but theyprovide at least some orientation to newcomers to realism. Fullerexplanations will come later. The wordings represent a compromisebetween what would be acceptable to those familiar withphilosophical discourse and what is likely to be accessible to thosenew to it.1 The world exists independently of our knowledge of it.2 Our knowledge of that world is fallible and theory-laden. Concepts of truth and falsity fail to provide a coherent view of the relationship between knowledge and its object. Never- theless knowledge is not immune to empirical check, and its effectiveness in informing and explaining successful material practice is not mere accident.3 Knowledge develops neither wholly continuously, as the steady accumulation of facts within a stable conceptual framework, nor wholly discontinuously, through simultaneous and universal changes in concepts.4 There is necessity in the world; objects—whether natural or social—necessarily have particular causal powers or ways of acting and particular susceptibilities.
6 Method in social science5 The world is differentiated and stratified, consisting not only of events, but objects, including structures, which have powers and liabilities capable of generating events. These structures may be present even where, as in the social world and much of the natural world, they do not generate regular patterns of events.6 Social phenomena such as actions, texts and institutions are concept-dependent. We therefore have not only to explain their production and material effects but to understand, read or interpret what they mean. Although they have to be interpreted by starting from the researcher’s own frames of meaning, by and large they exist regardless of researchers’ interpretations of them. A qualified version of 1 therefore still applies to the social world. In view of 4–6, the methods of social science and natural science have both differences and similarities.37 Science or the production of any other kind of knowledge is a social practice. For better or worse (not just worse) the conditions and social relations of the production of knowledge influence its content. Knowledge is also largely—though not exclusively—linguistic, and the nature of language and the way we communicate are not incidental to what is known and communicated. Awareness of these relationships is vital in evaluating knowledge.8 Social science must be critical of its object. In order to be able to explain and understand social phenomena we have to evaluate them critically.Amplifications of these points could fill many books but the listshould provide some orientation. No book of this kind can expect to be exhaustive in its coverageof the range of methodological issues of interest to social science orof the types of social research to which they might be relevant. Asregards the latter, it is quite extraordinary how sociology has hadthe lion’s share of attention in the literature. (Some authors give theimpression that social science is reducible to sociology andsociology to the work of Durkheim, Weber and Marx!) This hasproduced a deafening silence on the social research practice ofthose in other disciplines such as economics, development studies,psychology and human geography. While I cannot address all ofthese I shall try to counter the usual sociological imperialism foundin most books on method in social science.
Introduction 7 Any author in this field works with implicit exemplars ofparticular areas of social research. Mine are somewhat differentfrom those of existing texts; they come mostly from politicaleconomic theory and interdisciplinary studies of industry and urbanand regional systems, in which researchers tend to come fromgeography, sociology, economics, political science andanthropology. However, no special knowledge of these is needed tounderstand the examples I have used and indeed many of themcome from everyday arguments and events. I have deliberatelyavoided the philosopher’s irritating habit of using trivial examples(‘the tree in the’quad’, etc.). If a philosophical point is worthmaking it may as well be illustrated by an example which not onlygives clarification but suggests its social and practical significance. A few words are needed on terminology. At the centre of socialscience’s internal crisis have been attacks on orthodox conceptionsusually termed ‘positivist’ or ‘empiricist’. So many differentdoctrines and practices have been identified with these terms thatthey have become devalued and highly ambiguous, or even purelypejorative. Those who want to continue using them increasinglyfind that they have to preface arguments with tiresome digressionson ‘the real meaning of positivism’ and these often generate moreheat than what follows. I have therefore avoided using these termsfor the most part. This need not prevent one from discussing someof the issues covered by them and indeed it is liberating to avoid theusual burden of unwanted associations that the terms bear. Ingeneral I have minimized the use of technical terminology. (That’swhat they all say, I know, but at least the intention was there!) The word ‘science’ needs special comment. There is littleagreement on what kinds of methods characterize science beyondthe rather bland point that it is empirical, systematic, rigorous andself-critical, and that disciplines such as physics and chemistry areexemplars of it. Most users of the term obviously consider it tohave strong honorific associations for few are willing to cede its useto opponents. Those who want to stand apart from the futileacademic game of trying to appropriate and monopolize thisdescriptively vague but prized label for their own favouredapproaches are liable to be accused of the heresy of not caringabout science and, by implication, rigour and other virtues. Whileno one is likely to be against virtue, the coupling with exemplarslike physics is particularly unhelppful. Not only is there littleconsensus on what their methods are, it is also not self-evident that
8 Method in social sciencethey are appropriate for the study of society; indeed, that veryquestion has been at the heart of the philosophical debates. The useof the word ‘science’ in this strong sense has allowed many authorsto prejudge precisely what has to be argued. I therefore want tomake it clear that ‘science’, ‘natural science’ and ‘social science’ areused in this book simply as synonyms for the disciplines that studynature and society. At the most, these subjects might be said todistinguish themselves from everyday knowledge by their self-examined and inquisitive character; but that does not say verymuch and proponents of the humanities may want to includethemselves in this description. In other words, my lack ofcommitment in the use of the word ‘science’ does not, of course,entail any lack of commitment to the search for rigorous andeffective methods of study; rather it is intended to clear away animportant obstacle to their discovery. In view of my attacks on the insulation of discussions of methodfrom social theory and philosophy of science, readers will notexpect me to plunge immediately into a discussion of particularmethods or techniques. In Chapter 1 we look at knowledge incontext, situating social scientific knowledge in relation to otherkinds and to practice. Any theory of knowledge is handicappedfrom the start if it ignores this context for it is likely to ignore howthe internal structure and practices of science are shaped by thisposition. And it is a particularly important consideration for studiesof society, for everyday knowledge is both part of their object anda rival source of explanations. A discussion of the nature of therelation between subject and object in social and natural sciencethen provides a basis for an introduction to the necessarilyinterpretive and critical character of social science. Having looked at the context of knowledge, Chapter 2 examinessome dominant views of its status and reliability. The time whenscience was thought to involve the steady accumulation of objectiveknowledge through a neutral medium of observation has long sincegone. In its place there has been a crisis of confidence in whichrelativism and doubts about the possibility of empirical evaluationand scientific progress have been rife. We begin from the point atwhich most popular discussions confront the problem -the natureof facts, observation and theory and the relationship between them.To make any progress on this, and in order to say anything sensibleabout method, particular attention has to be paid to the meaning of‘theory’ (woefully underexamined in the philosophical and
Introduction 9methodological literature), and to the linguistic and practicalcharacter of knowledge. Traditionally doubts about objectivity andthe status of scientific knowledge have involved arguments aboutthe nature of truth and how it might be established. In our case weshall approach these matters differently, attempting to counter theneglect of the linguistic and practical character of knowledge,arguing that the concept of truth (and falsity) is incoherent, andthat knowledge needs to be evaluated in terms of ‘practicaladequacy’. The chapter ends with an assessment of the problem ofrelativism and the resolution of inter-theory disputes. This prepares the ground for a more focused discussion ofmethod in the ensuring chapters. In these we move continuallybetween the three points of our triangle of method, nature of theobject and purpose of study. Following our emphasis on the activityof conceptualization and theorizing we begin in Chapter 3 at themost ‘primitive’ level with an important but under-analysed aspectof it—abstraction and the relation between abstract and concreteresearch. We then consider the nature of social relations andstructures and how abstraction can illuminate them. We thenclarify the nature of generalization, with which abstraction iscommonly confused. The chapter ends with a discussion of therealist concept of causation in social science and its implications formethods of causal analysis. Chapter 4 considers method in relation to ontology or the natureand structure of the social and natural world: first, in so far as it is‘stratified’ so that certain objects, such as institutions, have powersemergent from, or irreducible to, their constituents; second, in sofar as it consists of ‘open systems’ in which regularities in events areat best approximate and transitory. The implications of thesecharacteristics for the possibility of discovering laws and forexplanation and prediction in social science are then assessed.Further implications of ontological matters for method are thenexamined: ‘rational abstraction’ and the need to make abstractionssensitive to the structure of their objects; the relationship of theoryand empirical research to the discovery of necessity in the world;and the consequences and dangers of the abstraction from spaceand time in social science. Chapter 5 is a digression from the main argument of the book.It is included for those readers who are familiar with moreorthodox positions in philosophy and methodology and who mayrequire answers to certain objections which these raise before
10 Method in social scienceproceeding any further. Others may wish to ‘fast forward’ toChapter 6. The main issues concern a connected set of problems inmainstream philosophy of science, many of them particularlyassociated with the work of Karl Popper, who has been particularlyinfluential in social science: induction, atomistic ontology,causation, necessity, essentialism, logic and deductivism. In Chapter 6 we turn to quantitative methods. As before, and incontrast to the usual treatment in texts on method, these areevaluated in relation to their appropriateness to the nature of theobject of study, the scope for quantification and the implications ofopen systems for modelling. The discussion then opens out into acritical assessment of the use of models themselves and the role ofassumptions. Lastly I examine the resonances between the use ofquantitative positions and particular views of society as atomisticand views of method which misguidedly focus on the search forregularity and neglect conceptualization and interpretiveunderstanding. The evaluation, or verification and falsification, of socialscientific accounts and theories is the subject of Chapter 7. Inaccordance with our emphasis on the diversity of appropriatemethods, we argue that evaluation is a complex and differentiatedbusiness, varying according to different objects of study and typesof claim. Chapter 8 is a second digression for readers familiar withorthodox philosophy of science, presenting a critique of Popperianviews of falsification. In Chapter 9, we return to problems of explanation in socialscience. Explanations are shown to be characteristically incompleteand approximate and to vary according to the relationships of ourtriangle of method, object of study and purpose of research. Yetresearchers often over-extend particular approaches, for example inexpecting too much of generalization. I therefore discuss the limitsand interrelations between key types of research, and try toilluminate them by comparing the capabilities of different kinds ofresearch design. The chapter concludes by returning to the widercontext of knowledge with which we began: ultimately ourjudgements about problems of explanation depend in part onwhether we accept or try to resist the critical and emancipatory roleof social science. Finally, in the Appendix, I comment on some implications ofrecent interest in the fact that scientific knowledge is usuallypresented in the form of texts. Arguably, the rhetoric we use and the
Introduction 11form in which we present knowledge are not neutral carriers ofmeaning but influence the content. Ways in which this can happenare illustrated briefly. Contrary to many commentators, I argue thatwhile these concerns do indeed require further attention, they neednot threaten realism.
1 Knowledge in contextWe feel that even when all possible scientific questions have beenanswered, the problems of life remain completely untouched. (Wittgenstein, 1922, 6.52)1‘Method’ suggests a carefully considered way of approaching theworld so that we may understand it better. To make judgementsabout method it helps considerably if we have some idea of thenature of the relationship between ourselves and that which weseek to understand. Yet it is at this fundamental level that manyarguments about method go wrong, for they fail to considerknowledge in its context. How does social science relate to everyday knowledge in societyand to natural science? Does it merely mystify or reproduce theformer? Should it emulate the latter? Some of those who haveattacked social science for the alleged triviality of its findings andfor lacking relevance to practical matters have argued that this isdue to its failure to use the ‘proven’ methods of natural science.Others have argued that triviality is precisely the result of usingsuch methods. There is disagreement about whether it should adopta ‘disinterested’ stance with respect to practice or be activelyinvolved in the process of social development. Some see socialscience as a natural science of society which can be applied throughsocial engineering. Others see their role as having more in commonwith a therapist than an engineer, their aim being the developmentof greater self-understanding. Still others consider the role of socialscience to be the critique of society. In this chapter, I shall examine in abstract terms2 the context inwhich knowledge, especially social science, develops and how itrelates to practice and to its objects. This, I hope, will provide abasis upon which the above problems can be discussed in this and 12
Knowledge in context 13later chapters. Some of the questions posed here might seemstrangely broad, even for philosophical discussions, andsuperficially some of the answers may appear obvious. But if suchpoints are ignored or taken for granted, we may fail to notice howthey challenge some of the underlying assumptions of socialscience’s practice. Indeed, their significance goes beyond academiato everyday life, for they suggest that in certain ways societysystematically misunderstands itself. One of the most extraordinary features of the literature on themethodology and philosophy of science is the extent to which itignores practice and the way in which knowledge is involved inwhat scientists and lay people do. If, as is the custom of thisliterature, we reduce practice to knowledge, knowledge to science,and science to observation and contemplation, then it is smallwonder that it should prove difficult to assess the relation betweenthe social and natural sciences and their objects. Although there isfar to go in working out the implications of the practical context ofknowledge, I wish at least to set out on this road.3Some misconceptions about knowledgeI shall start by combating the following (interrelated)misconceptions:1 that knowledge is gained purely through contemplation or observation of the world;2 that what we know can be reduced to what we can say;3 that knowledge can be safely regarded as a thing or product, which can be evaluated independently of any consideration of its production and use in social activity;4 that science can simply be assumed to be the highest form of knowledge and that other types are dispensable or displaceable by science.1 and 2 are highly interrelated and together constitute the‘intellectualist fallacy’ or ‘prejudice’. All four misconceptions helpto make the relationship between social science and societyproblematic. Against 1, I shall argue that knowledge is primarily gainedthrough activity both in attempting to change our environment
14 Method in social science(through labour or work) and through interaction with otherpeople, using shared resources, in particular a common language.4Although the development of knowledge may be furthered throughpassive contemplation of the world, it always presupposes theexistence of these two contexts, which provide a kind of feedbackor test for our ideas and a language in which and with which tothink. Individuals cannot develop knowledge independently of asociety in which they can learn to think and act. The nearestapproximation to the unsocialized individual in human experienceis the ‘wolf-child’ who, having largely been brought up outsidehuman society, is often scarcely able to walk on two legs, let alonespeak or perform the simplest tasks of reasoning. In so far as people and their ideas are included among ourobjects of knowledge, the relationship of knowledge to practicemay be interactive rather than passive and purely reflective. It isparticularly clear with self-reflection that in thinking aboutourselves, we can change our ‘object’. Under certain conditions,social science can have a similar effect on its object. Moreover, thesearch for truth, the attempt to rid social knowledge of illusion,puts reflective, examined knowledge into a critical relationshipwith false beliefs and their effects in society. In this sense the role ofsocial science and perhaps also the humanities may be critical,therapeutic and even emancipatory. For example, arguments aboutthe meaning of masculinity and femininity, about the nature ofeconomic recession or about international politics don’t take placeoutside society as competing external descriptions: they are part ofthe social process itself. I will develop these points shortly. Another aspect of the contemplative view of knowledge is theassumption that the only function of knowledge and language is‘prepositional’ 5 (to make propositions about the world) or‘referential’. What is overlooked in this view is that knowledgeconcerns not only ‘what is the case’ or ‘knowing-that’ but ‘know-how’, that is knowing how to do something, whether it be physicalbehaviour or communicating successfully with others. Misconception 2, the second component of the intellectualistfallacy, follows this closely. It concerns the tendency to pedestalspoken or written forms of knowledge and to imagine that these arethe only ways in which meaning can be communicated andknowledge can be ‘carried’ and applied. With this goes a tendencyto derogate those types of practical knowledge which do notrequire much linguistic competence, but which nevertheless involve
Knowledge in context 15practical skills. Much of everyday knowledge takes this practicalform: a young child learns a great deal before it acquires alanguage; we have many skills which we are aware of and yetcannot describe verbally and also many of which we are usuallyunaware. Not all social behaviour is acquired and mediatedlinguistically, even in the form of talk internalized in our heads.Much of what we do does not proceed on the basis of a model of‘rational choice’but involves a learned accommodation to familiarcircumstances which, as Bourdieu puts it,[is]. . .neither the outcome of the explicit aiming at consciously pursuedgoals, nor the result of some mechanical determination by external causes. . .[but]. . .guided by a practical sense, by what we may call a feel for thegame.6Social scientific knowledge is primarily prepositional or referential,rather than practical, and this should immediately provide someclues as to why it seems unable, except very indirectly, to help usdecide how to live. No doubt the common fear of the allegeddanger of ‘value intrusion’ in social science also inhibits its practicalapplication. There are also material circumstances which reinforce thisintellectualist prejudice. Academics generally occupy a place in thesocial division of labour in which the development of knowledge inprepositional forms, in a contemplative relationship to the world,has unusual primacy. Within this restricted but privileged context,the activities of speaking and writing are elevated above those ofmaking and doing, as if it were possible to live on prepositionalknowledge and linguistic communication alone. Not surprisingly,as we shall see, social scientists, philosophers or intellectualsfrequently project these characteristics onto society as their objectof study, underestimating the extent to which social behaviour isguided by a vague and unexamined practical consciousness.7 Socialscientists may examine it but the results of that examination shouldnot be confused with the original and projected back onto it, ordivorced from its practical setting. We shall have more to say aboutthese problems in Chapter 3. Despite the extent of the freedom ofacademics to reflect upon almost anything, the restricted horizonsof their place in the social division of labour encourage a blind spotwhere practical and tacit skills are concerned. The slanting of oureducational system towards a one-sided emphasis of an
16 Method in social scienceintellectualist and linguistic view of intelligence and skill is partlyattributable to this. Having written this, in a book I can obviously only combat thisprejudice from within! Misconception 3 concerns the common tendency to think ofknowledge as a product or thing which exists outside of us, whichwe can ‘possess’ and which is stored in finished form in our headsor in libraries. We tend not to think in terms of knowing, which isin the process of becoming, ‘in solution’, as consciousness, but as athing already ‘precipitated’. 8 Despite the work involved indeveloping and sharing knowledge, this active side (perhaps againas a result of the intellectualist prejudice) tends to be overlooked.As such, it is an instance of the common tendency to reify the socialworld; that is, to turn active, conscious social relationships andprocesses into things which exist independently of us so that wethink of them in terms of ‘having’ rather than ‘being’.9 Although,for the sake of accessibility, I have used the reified noun-form‘knowledge’ in preference to the unreified but unfamiliar andambiguous ‘knowing’, I shall try to counteract the misconceptionswhich it can encourage. To combat this static view it is imperative to consider theproduction of knowledge as a social activity. 10 To develop‘knowledge’ we need raw materials and tools on which and withwhich we can work.11 These are linguistic, conceptual and culturalas well as material. In trying to understand the world, we useexisting knowledge and skills, drawn from whatever culturalresources are available, to work upon other ‘raw’ materials—knowledge in the form of data, pre-existing arguments, informationor whatever. It is only by this activity, this process, that knowledgeis reproduced or transformed: it is never created out of nothing. Toparaphrase Bhaskar, knowledge as a product, a resource, a skill, inall its various forms, is ‘both the ever-present condition andcontinually reproduced outcome of human agency’.12 Science is nota thing but a social activity. The fourth common misconception about knowledge concernsscientism.13 Despite the fact that philosophy is generally taken toallow no limitations on what it can question, there is a strikingtendency in Anglo-American philosophy of science and socialscience simply to assume that science is the highest form ofknowledge, to which all should aspire. Again, this resonates withand reinforces the intellectualist prejudice. A large number of texts
Knowledge in context 17on the philosophy of science take this as their point of departureand immediately pass on to the description or prescription of itsinternal procedures. But this unquestioning attitude towards thestatus of science and how it relates to other kinds of knowledge canprejudice the whole discussion of the internal questions ofprocedures of empirical study, modes of inference, models ofexplanation and testing etc. I shall argue that different types of knowledge are appropriate todifferent functions and contexts; for example, engineering for thetask of making nature move to our designs, ethics to theharmonization of the conduct of people in society. But thesecontexts are not mutually exclusive but overlapping. Scientificpractice embraces several types of knowledge, including somewhich are generally excluded as non-science or even anti-science byscientism. For example, many philosophers who have adopted thisstance of ‘scientism’ have treated ethical decisions as a-rational,purely emotive and not part of science, which by contrast dealspurely with matters of fact, with rational and objective questions of‘what is the case’. Yet science is also a specialized type of socialactivity and as such it requires rules governing what is proper andimproper conduct; without ethical principles such as thoseconcerning honesty of reporting and refusal of illogical argument,science could not exist. In other words, scientific knowledgepresupposes among its very foundations a kind of knowledge which‘scientism’ has sought to deny, exclude or derogate.14 We will returnto other excluded but overlapping forms of knowledge shortly. Having discussed some of the different kinds of knowledge, letus now look at the context in which it develops and see what effectit has.Knowledge, work and communicative interactionKnowledge is developed and used in two main types of context—work (or ‘labour’) and communicative interaction.15 These contextsare highly related but neither is wholly reducible to the other. By‘work’ or ‘labour’, I mean any kind of human activity which isintended to transform, modify, move or manipulate any part ofnature, whether it be virgin nature or nature that has already beenextensively modified; that is, whether it be mining, transport,making and using machines, or putting letters in envelopes. All of
18 Method in social sciencethese activities involve the manipulation of matter for humanpurposes. Human labour, unlike the behaviour of animals, is conscious; theworker has some conception of the goal, the end product of thelabour.16 Even where the labour has become thoroughly habitual,this goal can be recovered. We can not only monitor the progress ofour material works; we can record and reflect upon ourmonitorings, discuss them with others and generate new methods,goals or projects to work on. The process of ‘knowing’ in thiscontext derives a certain kind of check through feedback from theresults of the work—not just through observing the world passivelyas if it were external to us, in order to see if our knowledge‘mirrors’ it successfully—but from the results of material activity asone of nature’s forces, operating within nature. Natural scienceitself is by no means just a matter of observation andconceptualization; its practitioners spend most of their timeintervening in nature, doing things to it, trying to makeexperiments work.17 In monitoring and checking the practicalknowledge that we use in work, what is at issue is the success orfailure of this transformation—this active ‘objectification’ ofknowledge—rather than a passive ‘mirroring’ or ‘representation’ ofthe world. This, in turn, should affect how we evaluate or testknowledge: The question whether objective truth can be attributedto human thinking is not a question of theory but a practicalquestion. In practice man must prove the truth, i.e. the reality andpower…of his thinking.’18 Given that human life depends on it, work, as thetransformation of nature for human purposes, gets surprisinglylittle attention in philosophy and even in social science. This mightbe an instance of the academics’ projection of their own way of lifeon to the lives of those they study. It is not only films and popularfiction that tend to neglect the means by which people earn theirliving. Many social theories pay great attention to how society isorganized and how it coheres, without considering how people(re)produce their means of life. Yet work is the most transformativerelationship between people and nature. It is both a materialprocess and a conscious one: it cannot be reduced either to purephysical behaviour or passive contemplation.19 It is a ‘missing link’that bridges the gap between knowledge and the world—a gapwhich has been widened both by the intellectualist prejudice andthe real separations of work and ‘living’ of capitalism.
Knowledge in context 19 Labour is also central to an understanding of humandevelopment or ‘self-change’. In changing our social and naturalmilieux we change the forces and conditions which shape thecharacter of society and its people. As new kinds of work and socialrelations develop, people develop new needs. In other words,human beings have a capacity for ‘self change’, for making theirown history, though as Marx noted: ‘they do not make it just asthey please, they do not make it under circumstances chosen bythemselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, givenand transmitted from the past’.20 In other words, history not onlyhappens to people but is made by them, consciously orunconsciously. Any conception of society—whether lay orscientific—which treats people as passive objects of history andmere carriers of knowledge, rather than agents or producers, isdoomed to misrepresent both its object and itself. The second basic context of knowledge is ‘communicativeinteraction’. By this I mean any kind of interaction between peoplewhich involves the sharing or transmission of meaning. It is by nomeans limited to spoken or written communications, but includesmany kinds of activity which presuppose understanding themeaning of signs, conventions, concepts, pictures, rules andactions. Even where the communication is linguistic, there is oftenan important non-verbal dimension. An obvious example is in jobinterviews, where both interviewer and interviewee draw upon awide range of social skills of interpretation, self-presentation and‘impression-management’ 21 in addition to those involved inspeaking. Paradoxically, while it has been common to ignore knowledgewhich is not expressed in language, until recently social scientistsand methodologists have taken the linguistic character of their ownknowledge for granted, as if language were nothing more than atransparent and unproblematic medium. On reflection it seemsextraordinary that methodology should treat the ability to uselanguage effectively as irrelevant to our ability to understand andexplain the world. The attention normally given to technicalmethods of analysis is in gross disproportion to the considerationgiven to the language in which we characterize the world.Language therefore needs to be put in its place, elevated from itspresent position of neglect, though not abstracted from itscontext.22 First of all, language has effects of its own, which go beyond
20 Method in social sciencethose intended by users. The possible meanings that spring from theinteraction between the play of associations among the variouscomponents of language and contexts depend in part upon thestructure of language. We are accustomed to thinking of languageas something which we, as users, speak with and through. But thereis a sense in which the reverse applies too; I am not the sole authorof this book: the structure of language and narrative forms, such asthose of academic texts, of which I am only partially aware, speakthrough me. At one level we might say that this is analogous to anyact of production, such as the construction of a house, for thenature of the materials, as well as the work of the builder,determine the properties of the result. But the effects of languageare not fixed like those of bricks and steel. New interpretations arealways possible; they can never be foreclosed. Secondly, language cannot exist for an isolated individual whohas never been socialized, for language is both a medium andproduct of social interaction. 23 Propositional knowledge isconstructed and expressed in terms of the concepts available in alanguage and we seek inter subjective confirmation of thepropositions through communicative interaction. In scientificcommunities this kind of checking is highly formalized in order tostrive for rigour of thought. Thirdly, language also has an expressive function. Although theexpression of feelings may seem particularly personal or individual,it is nevertheless done in the terms available in one’s language andhence has a social dimension. Fourthly, much of our knowledge and our uses of languageconcern neither making propositions about the world norexpressing our feelings but rather have a directly social functionthrough providing the means by which we question, command,argue, confer respect or distribute contempt, establish relationshipsand generally conduct our business in society.24 In no case canknowledge or language be treated as if they existed outside thesocial context. Even if our interest (like many philosophers’) isprimarily in the truth or falsity of knowledge ‘regardless of itssocial origins’ it must be remembered that judgements of truth orfalsity require intersubjective appraisal. For analytical and expositional convenience, I have dealt withthese two contexts of knowledge of labour and communicativeinteraction separately. This gives us only a very provisional, crudeoutline, for the two are in fact interdependent. The development of
Knowledge in context 21human labour from merely animal behaviour requires thesimultaneous development of a high level of communicativeinteraction through which people can acquire and develop the‘instrumental’ knowledge which they use in labour. Systems of meaning are negotiated by people in the course ofsocial interaction.25 As such these systems have a conventionalcharacter—they become conventions according to which actions ofindividuals can be related; the systems of meaning related to moneyare a good example. However, not just any conventions will do;those which can inform successful labour and interaction which weneed to undertake to survive will be preferred, while those which (itis intersubjectively agreed) cannot inform successful projects will bewinnowed out. It is because nature and its material processes(including human activity) have particular structures and propertieswhich exist independently of our understanding of them, that notjust any understanding will serve as a basis for activity.26 Throughintersubjectively monitoring our interventions in nature we try todevelop our language and knowledge in accordance with thoseactivities which seem practically possible. The presence of powerand domination in the social determination of meaning modifiesthis situation only slightly, for the powerful are bounded by therealm of the possible too. I will return to and develop these pointsmore fully later. Although human labour and communicative interaction arehighly interdependent, we cannot collapse one into the other.27 Atthe limit, even though communication can be hard work (!), itcannot be reduced wholly to the material transformation of theworld. Even though the interpretation of meaning and the mostpassive forms of contemplation involve material processes in thebrain, meaning is not reducible to them. Even if you could observethe chemical and physical processes at work in someone’s brain asthey spoke, you would still need to know the meaning of what theysaid in order to be able to understand them. Conversely, work asthe transformation of matter cannot be wholly reduced to thesharing or interpretation of meaning. Once again, misconceptions about the context of knowledge candistort social scientists’ views of both their object of study and theirown activity. An approach called Radical behaviourism’ provides agood example: its proponents insist that the meanings people attachto their actions and to other objects play no part in determiningwhat they do. Knowledge is therefore divorced from practice. This,
22 Method in social scienceof course, raises the question of the radical behaviourists’ view oftheir own activity—have their ideas nothing to do with theiractions? This is an extreme case whose absurdity is clear enough,and usually the misconceptions are less obvious. Nevertheless, it iscertainly not unusual for social scientists to ignore many of themeanings people attach to situations, although few would insist ondoing so as a matter of principle. In discussions of philosophy andmethodology few accept radical behaviourism, but in actual socialscientific practice something approaching it is common,particularly in the work of those who see their task as the search forlaw-like empirical regularities equivalent to those found in some ofthe natural sciences. It is therefore important to explore themisconceptions further.The relationship between subject and objectThis account of ‘knowledge in context’ can be developed andfurther clarified by examining the relationship between ‘subject’and ‘object’. In most discussions of this, the term ‘subject’ (orsometimes ‘knowing-subject’) refers to the observer or investigatoror simply ‘thinker’, while the ‘object’ is defined as the thing beingstudied. I want to make two qualifications or additions to thesedefinitions. First, as before, I do not want to restrict the meaning of‘subjects’ to scientists, on the grounds that I want to bring outsimilarities and connections between scientific and other kinds ofknowledge at this stage. Second, I want to include the oldermeaning of ‘subject’, as a creative agent who brings about change.The point of this modification is to avoid restricting the conceptionof the relationship to a passive, contemplative mode from the start. I will begin by introducing and criticizing some naïveconceptions of the relationship and then go on to developalternative conceptions as they apply to natural and social science.This will lead into a discussion of the differences and similarities ofnatural and social science and of the contrasting approaches tothem, and finally bring us back to the problem of how socialscience relates to everyday knowledge and practice. Behind most views on this topic lies a conceptual frameworkwhich includes the following series of dualisms or dichotomies:
Knowledge in context 23 people — nature individual — society subjective — objective thought — action mental — material mind — body knowledge — practice beliefs — facts expressive function — referential/propositional of language function of languageThis framework of oppositions is deeply embedded in our culture;indeed it is difficult to think outside it. It is not only implicit incommon-sense thinking but explicit in much of British andAmerican literature on philosophy and social science. Never-theless, although these dualisms are ‘second nature’ to us andprobably look quite harmless, I shall argue that every one of themis beset with misconceptions which generate problems in ourunderstanding of the world and of ourselves. The dualisms do notoperate singly but in parallel, providing mutual reinforcement, sothat in the vertical dimension of the diagram, meanings orassociations ‘leak’ from one term to the next. I have already alluded to some of the problems generated by thisframework, but I have hardly begun to draw out the implications.These include the following:1 Work and activity are excluded and banished to a kind of limbo, so that people are separated from society and their own activity, making it difficult for us to understand how thought actually relates to and functions in nature and society. This implies not only an inadequate theory of knowledge (epistemology) but an alienated view of ourselves.2 The framework is also alienating because the exclusion of social relations and mtersubjectivity tends to reduce society to nothing more than a group or loose aggregate of individuals. At the same time it obscures the social function of language. Indeed, the omission of intersubjectivity, as the context in which language is (re)produced, makes language in general difficult to comprehend.
24 Method in social scienceThese points can be substantiated in the course of a critique ofmodels of the subject-object relationship. The simplest model fits comfortably within this conceptualframework (Figure 1), where 3, the subject, observes and recordsinformation about O, the object. On the basis of our earlierarguments we can amend this so that the relationship includesactivity, particularly labour.Figure 1 Subject and object: 1 It was also argued that the subject must have a language inwhich to think about the object.28 Given the social nature oflanguage, the subject-object relationship in Figure 1 mustpresuppose the existence of social relations, or ‘subject-subjectrelations’29 within some language community. Usually the languagecommunity is internally differentiated, embracing specialist sub-groups with some of their own linguistic and conceptual resources,be they those of physics, economics, farming, cooking, computerprograming or whatever. As this social context is not incidental butindispensable to the subject-object relationship, we shall modify thediagram accordingly, assuming for the time being, for the sake ofsimplicity, that O consists only of non-social objects (Figure 2). Figure 2 echoes the points made earlier about work andcommunicative interaction as interdependent contexts ofknowledge, for it shows that subjects (whether laypersons,specialists, academics or whatever) stand in a double relationship—to their object and to other subjects. Subjects cannot gainprepositional knowledge of their objects or acquire practicalknowledge of how to manipulate them without using the cognitiveand conceptual resources of particular communities. In other words(to put it crudely), in order to understand the world we mustsimultaneously understand one another. In everyday life, in so faras common sense is characteristically unexamined, we tend not tonotice this social aspect and imagine that we can know objects in anunmediated fashion. In common sense, we think with our beliefsand concepts but not about them.30 The other (interdependent) relationship in which the subjectstands—to the object—is also widely misunderstood in that it isfrequently conceived of as merely contemplative rather thanpractical. It is therefore not a question of knowledge developing
Knowledge in context 25Figure 2 Subject and object: 2autonomously first and then (perhaps) being applied in a practicalcontext later: knowledge and practice are tied from the start. (Butagain, note how the common-sense set of dualisms makes itdifficult to see this.) Even ‘pure’ science is also a set of practices. The importance and interdependence of these two dimensions ofknowledge can be readily appreciated by recalling experiences oflearning a new skill or science. For instance, in mineralogy, it cantake weeks to begin to understand the concepts and to learn how tolook at the images under the microscope so that we see particularminerals rather than pretty kaleidoscope patterns. And we achievethis not just by looking but by doing things with the minerals andmicroscope. For a while we may feel lost because the twodimensions do not ‘connect up’; in using the instruments andmaterials we seem only to be ‘going through the motions’ withoutknowing why, while using the concepts feels like merely ‘mouthing’or ‘parroting’ without understanding them. Later, connecting upthe two dimensions becomes ‘second nature’ and we are thentempted to forget the dual relationship in which we stand assubjects so that we may imagine that we have acquired a ‘stock ofknowledge’ without either material work or communicativeinteraction.
26 Method in social science If we broaden the meaning of ‘practice’ to include both thesedimensions, it can be seen that the nature of the practice bothdetermines and is determined by the kind of subject and objectwhich it links. For example, a cook and a nutritionist, or anaccountant and an economist have certain interests in common, yetthey are different kinds of ‘subject’ with differently defined objects,the differences being determined by their practices, in terms of thetypes of conceptual tools they use and material actions and socialrelations in which they engage. Yet it is still common to compareknowledge in different communities and at different points inhistory in abstraction from these practical contexts as if they weremerely different modes of contemplating the world. Although these two aspects of practice are interdependent, theyare, as noted above, qualitatively different. In Figure 2, the crucialaspect of the social relations between subjects is the sharing ofmeaning. In the case of knowledge of non-social objects therelationship between 3 and O is not itself social. Even though itrequires the application of concepts and a language which can onlybe gained in a social context, the object itself does not includeconcepts or meanings.31 Non-social phenomena are impervious tothe meanings we attach to them. Although one could say that suchobjects are ‘socially-defined’, they are not socially-produced.Definition and production are utterly different, though some of theliterature which has stressed the idea of ‘the social construction ofreality’ tends to forget this, as if when we abandoned the flat earththeory for a spherical earth theory, the earth itself changed shape!32‘Subjects’, however, interact on the basis of shared understandingswhich can be changed. Nature can be altered but through work andnot merely by changing systems of meaning: non-social objects suchas atoms do not act on the basis of shared understandings and soare not susceptible to change in them. This may seem all veryobvious, but it is surprising how often change on the left side of thediagram (conceptual change) is confused with change on the right.On the other hand, given that it is only via the left side that we canmake sense of the right, perhaps it isn’t so surprising! What does the relationship look like where the object is society?(Note, once again, that I do not at this stage want to restrict thediscussion to ‘scientific study’.) In so far as this object includesother subjects and their interaction, then the relationship shouldhave some features in common with that between the subjects onthe left side, so that the diagram becomes symmetrical (Figure 3).
Knowledge in context 27 For expositional clarity, the diagram shows two separatelanguage communities, which might represent situations such asthose found in history or the study of other cultures. It is, of course,more common for 3 and O to be in the same language communityor society. Given that even anthropological or historicalinvestigation requires the establishment of conceptual connectionsbetween the two communities, the separation in the diagram shouldperhaps be regarded as an analytical device rather than a widelyapplicable substantive description. In practice, there is usually apartial identity of subject and object,33 so that we are often alreadyfamiliar with the meaning of the social phenomena in our ‘object’.Nevertheless, even where the identity is full rather than partial, it ispossible for the subject 3 to characterize Os’ knowledge as wrongor incomplete, and vice versa. Given the equivalence of thehorizontal subject-object relationship in Figure 3 to those withinlanguage communities, social knowledge, including social science,is sometimes said to stand in a ‘dialogic’ relationship with its object,or in a subject-subject relation rather than a subject-object relation.As we shall see, this relationship is widely misunderstood and needscareful analysis, but before embarking on this, there still remainsome further modifications to be made to the diagram.Figure 3 Subject and object: 3
28 Method in social science Understanding social phenomena is by no means just a questionof understanding concepts in society and the meanings ofpractices.34 In the study of the British economy, for example, weneed to know not just what, say, ‘monetarism’ or ‘inflationaccounting’ mean to those who have claimed to put them intopractice; we also need to know under what conditions, to whatextent and with what effects they have been used. Socialphenomena have a crucial material dimension and are closelyassociated everywhere to relationships with nature, both in itsvirgin and its artificially transformed states. Knowledge of society,whether scientific or lay, should therefore always include referenceto this material side, although it tends to be overlooked in some‘interpretive’ approaches to sociology and anthropology (Figure 4). It will be noted that the lines relating the communities to naturecorrespond to the horizontal subject-object relations in Figure 2. Assuch these involve a material, practical relationship. However, thesituation in social science is more complex for two reasons: 1 theunavailability of experiments makes it more difficult to use suchFigure 4 Subject and object: 4
Knowledge in context 29material interventions for scientific purposes;35 2 social phenomenacan be changed intrinsically by learning and adjusting to thesubject’s understanding. It is not just that social experiments maybe deemed undesirable, it is also that social phenomena are likely tobe irreversibly changed by them in a way which does not happenwith non-social phenomena, which learn nothing from beingmanipulated. In the desire to know society as it is, rather than as itmight be when modified by responding to our investigations underuncontrolled conditions, it has widely been assumed that socialscience should try to neutralize such interactive effects. As we shallsee, this position is being increasingly challenged—with importantimplications for the role of social science in society. But for now, itcan at least be noted that characteristic 1 does not automaticallyreduce social science’s relationship with its object to a purelycontemplative one, precisely because of 2.Some implications of subject-object relationsIn some ways the above account may seem too obvious to warrantsuch laborious treatment. Yet the implications, particularly ofFigures 3 and 4, are profoundly at odds with the dominantconceptual framework of oppositions of ‘subjective and objective’,‘thought and action’, etc., in which we are accustomed to think (seeabove p. 25). Failure to grasp these implications underlies some ofthe most common misunderstandings of social science, butunfortunately the failure is as common in social science itself as itis in natural science and everyday knowledge. Given their extent, itis necessary to proceed rather slowly and carefully in examiningwhat is implied by these last two diagrams. The first point concerns the ‘intrinsically-meaningful’ or‘concept-dependent’ nature of social phenomena.36 What does thismean? It obviously denies the (tempting) assumption that meaningsare merely descriptions which are only externally applied to socialphenomena, as they are to non-social objects. The correct pointthat ideas and meanings are not the same as material objects lendssome support to the ‘mental-material’ and ‘subjective-objective’dualisms. Yet this type of thinking also makes it difficult to see howthe material structure of society—its institutions, social relationsand artefacts—are dependent on social meanings in various ways. The most obvious candidates for intrinsically meaningful social
30 Method in social sciencephenomena are the ideas, beliefs, concepts and knowledge held bypeople in society. As part of the object—as well as the subject—ofknowledge, their meaning must be understood. There is noequivalent of this where non-social phenomena are concerned. Aswill be shown, this distinction (embodied in the contrast betweenFigures 2 and 3) constitutes an absolutely fundamental differencebetween social science, the humanities and everyday socialknowledge on the one hand and informal and scientific knowledgeon the other. In studying a fascist society we must interpret whatfascism means in it, for its members. The same goes for social‘objects’ such as status, politics, nationality and gender, to name buta few: but it does not apply to objects such as atoms, cells, blackholes or rock formations. As we have seen, the point that these ideas and meanings arenot only in society but about society tempts us back into thecommon-sense framework—back into the separation ofknowledge, language and meaning from the world of objects.Against this, the crucial point to remember is that socialphenomena are concept-dependent. Unlike natural (i.e. non-socialobjects) they are not impervious to the meanings ascribed to them.What the practices, institutions, rules, roles or relationships aredepends on what they mean in society to its members. In one ofthe most influential discussions of the constitutive role of meaningin society, the philosopher Peter Winch has argued that theessential feature of social institutions is that individuals have apractical knowledge of more or less tacit constitutive rulesconcerning not only what can and cannot be done but how thingsshould be done.37 Nevertheless, the influence of the common-sense oppositions or dualisms mentioned above is such that thisargument tends to produce bafflement or resistance, so I willillustrate it with several examples. Money, and the institutions and practices associated with it, areextremely important in our society (‘money makes the world goround!’). A necessary condition of the use of money is that usersshould have some understanding of what the act of exchanginglittle metal discs and specially printed pieces of paper forcommodities means or ‘stands for’. The users must have someconcept of money and also of related phenomena such as rights ofownership, exchange, etc. Hence these social phenomena are‘concept-dependent’. Likewise, for conversations, interviews, seminars or debates to
Knowledge in context 31take place, the participants must have a practical knowledge of therules concerning what is supposed to happen in such situations. A third and rather well-worn example of concept-dependentpractices is that of voting and holding elections. A necessarycondition for the holding of elections is that people must have someunderstanding of what elections, voting, ballot papers, candidates,democracy and so on mean. If we forced uncomprehendingindividuals to mark crosses beside names on ballot papers, it wouldnot count as a proper election. Finally, given the symmetry ofFigure 3 we can treat social science itself as an example of anintrinsically meaningful practice. In all these cases and a host of others we can distinguish betweenthe physical ‘behaviour’ and the meaning of the ‘actions’ involved inthe practices. In the case of using money, we could observe thephysical behaviour of handing over the little metal discs until thecows came home and we could use every statistical technique in thebook to process our observational data, yet if we didn’t know themeanings on which the use of money is dependent in the societyunder study, we would still not have any idea of what was actuallyhappening, or what kind of’action’ it was. Accordingly, Winch andothers have argued that this kind of understanding requires not theamassing of empirical data but a conceptual or philosophical analysisof the action and the rules implicit in it.38 ‘Mere’ physical behavioursuch as blinking, walking, sleeping or swallowing has no intrinsicmeaning, although in exceptional circumstances some of these canacquire a certain social significance—for example, the disapprovingcough. Many actions are conventionally associated with physicalbehaviour, but some are not; examples of the latter case areremaining silent under interrogation or deciding not to vote. Sometimes the same behaviour can, in different contexts,constitute different meaningful actions. The physical behaviour ofdifferent political groups in demonstrations may be very similar, yetthe meaning of their actions could be utterly different. I may raisemy hand in a meeting, but whether this constitutes voting, asking tospeak or bidding in an auction depends on the context and what theother ‘social actors’ take it to mean. Note that by ‘constitutive meanings’ or ‘concepts in society’ Imost emphatically do not mean simply the subjective beliefs,opinions or attitudes of individuals. This conflation follows readilyfrom the conceptual framework of dualisms discussed earlier.Those trapped within it tend to react to the above arguments by
32 Method in social scienceassuming that constitutive meanings in society are nothing morethan the subjective beliefs of individuals which can be ascertainedthrough questionnaires or interviews and then treated asuntroublesome objective facts about those individuals. Meaning, onthis common-sense account, is reduced to either ‘private’, subjective‘feelings’ or opinions—expressions of Inner states’—or referencesto things. What is missing in this conceptual framework is anyrecognition of the properties of language mentioned earlier. Norhas it any concept of meaning as being for a subject, for a person,or of utterances and actions meaning something to someone.39Moreover, and related to this, there is a lack of recognition of theintersubjective context of language: to speak or write is to enterinto a social relationship.40 As was explained in our earlier remarksabout the contexts of knowledge, even our most personal feelingsor opinions can only be constructed and communicated (and hencehave any chance of becoming constitutive or having any impressionor influence on others) within intersubjectively-understood (thoughoften non-verbal) terms. Although they do not realize it, those whowould reduce the interpretation of meaning to an opinion (orbelief) data-gathering exercise can only make sense of their data byalready presupposing knowledge of the meanings of the vocabularyin which they are constructed. It is not merely that beliefs areshaped by others, but that they are constructed in terms ofintersubjectively-available meanings. Likewise social practice does not consist in the collisions ofindividuals acting out their private beliefs, using language only as aset of labels for their feelings (expressive function) or for the statesof the outside world (prepositional function). As has been argued,language has a social function through which actions are co-ordinated (or opposed) and people communicate with one another. Beliefs and opinions are not the only phenomena which areborne by individuals and yet are socially constituted. Roles andpersonal identities also generally cannot be determinedunilaterally by individuals (or even by groups sometimes). Youcannot simply become an employed person by believing anddeclaring yourself to be one. Whether you can become onedepends on (among other things) what other people are preparedto take you as and on what they themselves have become (e.g.whether they control access to the means of production).Intersubjectivity is therefore an essential category forunderstanding not only how scientists and others gain knowledge
Knowledge in context 33of the social world (the epistemological relation) but also howsocieties themselves cohere and function. Material arrangements are also important in the determinationand confirmation of the meaning of practices within societies.Consider the example of the concepts ‘public’ and ’private‘.Although their meanings have certainly not been static, they haveinformed actions in our society for centuries and have in turn beenobjectified in its material organization, most obviously and simplyin the enclosed and locked spaces which are interpreted asconfirming the conceptual distinctions on which the actionsproducing the material arrangements depend. Sometimes material objects which do not depend at all for theirexistence upon our conception of them may nevertheless beascribed a concept-dependent (symbolic) function in society.Obvious examples are gold and diamonds. Manufactured objectssuch as gold coins or fast cars are constructed out of intrinsicallymeaningless objects, but signify certain concepts in their design, useand function. The fast car not only objectifies technical knowledgebut also acts as a bearer of macho social imagery. Male owners ofsuch objects assume that others will respond in ways which confirmtheir self-image, though, of course, they may inadvertently prompta debunking. The point to be made here is that although, in onesense, material objects are intrinsically meaningless, their use andfunctioning in society is concept-dependent. Conversely, althoughsystems of meanings and beliefs are not themselves material, theyusually require some material mode of objectification if they are tocommunicate and function socially in a stable manner. In otherwords, practices, material constructions and systems of meaningsare reciprocally confirming.41 Given this ‘reciprocal confirmation’, we usually find thatchanges in meanings and practices go hand in hand. The struggle offeminists and anti-racists to erase the negative meanings associatedwith women and blacks cannot be effective purely at the level ofsemantic battles. It must also involve the dislocation of thosematerial arrangements which objectively restrict them (e.g. accessto paid work) and those which as a matter of convention areinterpreted by sexists and racists as reciprocally confirming thesenegative meanings. Understanding concepts in society and howthey change therefore requires an understanding of the materialpractices associated with them and the way in which they arecontested. As Bourdieu puts it, unquestioning use of everyday
34 Method in social sciencecategories for things such as occupations or ethnic groups amountsto ‘settling on paper issues that are not settled in reality, where theyare the stake of ongoing struggle’.42 A common reaction to these claims is to concede them but thenassume that they are only relevant for understanding small-scalefeatures of the social world, e.g. the way in which interpersonalrelations are reproduced. While it is true that most social scientistswho have made this process of reciprocal confirmation of meaningand practice their specialism have concentrated on micro-phenomena, large-scale phenomena such as the reproduction ofstatus systems, forms of political organization, nationalism andreligious systems are no less concept-dependent. 43 RaymondWilliams’s studies of shifts in social concepts and practices such as‘democracy’, ‘Individualism’, ‘art’, ‘culture’ and ‘Industry’, inCulture and Society illustrate this point.44 (The fact that manysocial scientists don’t consider this as social science is indicative ofthe ‘scientism’ and widespread ignorance of the significance ofconstitutive meanings.) There is, of course, another kind of dependence between therealms of ideas and matter, which derives from the fact that peopleare themselves material, animal and part of nature such that theyare subject to certain of its causal laws and conditions. Whicheversystem of meanings societies adopt, they must satisfy certain basicmaterial needs in order to survive. This might be called a materialistprinciple but it is not the kind in which satisfaction of materialneeds must chronologically precede communication, culture, etc.,for even the most basic and desperately needed materialrequirements are simultaneously interpreted in terms of some kindof system of meanings.45 So nothing I have said about the reciprocal relationship betweenthe construction of meaning and constructions and use of materialenvironments is incompatible with the ‘materialist principle’ thusqualified. Unfortunately, ‘vulgar materialists’ often forget theformer relationship while students of the construction of meaning(‘vulgar symbolic interactionists’?) often forget the latter. Socialbeings live neither on bread alone nor on ideas and symbols alone. Systems of domination invariably exploit both types ofdependence. They are maintained not only through theappropriation, control and allocation of essential materialrequirements by the dominant class, race or gender, but alsothrough the reproduction of particular systems of meanings which
Knowledge in context 35support them.46 The relevant constitutive meanings (e.g. concerningwhat it is to be a boss, master-race, untouchable, husband or wife)are certainly not neutral or indifferent to their associated practicesand different groups have very different or even contradictorymaterial stakes in their reproduction or transformation. I hope that the arguments and examples of the last few pageshave demonstrated that the initially apparently obvious claimsabout subject-object relations and the context of knowledge haveimplications which go beyond the conduct of social science to socialpractice in general.VerstehenHaving discussed what the ‘concept-dependence of socialphenomena’ means, I will now look more closely at the kind ofunderstanding involved. It is emphasized that the understandingreferred to here is common to all the relationships shown in Figure3: it is not unique to social science, and the relationship between Sand Os (subject and social object). Any member of a societyachieves this understanding in everyday life; indeed it is preciselybecause it is universal that it is often not noticed. The discipline or science concerned with the interpretation ofmeaning is called ‘hermeneutics’. Using this term we can say thatthe study of natural objects (Figure 2) only involves a ‘single her-meneutic’ (S1, S2 . . . ,Sn) while the study of ideas and concept-dependent social phenomena involves a ‘double hermeneutic’.47 It is sometimes said of someone that they ‘read’ a social situationwell or badly. This is a revealing description, for the understandingto which we refer, sometimes termed ‘verstehen’, is rather like thatused in and obtained from reading a book.48 We do not understanda book (any more than we come to understand a foreign language)by observing and analysing the shape of words or their frequency ofoccurrence, but by interpreting their meaning. To this reading, wealways bring interpretive skills and some kind of pre-understanding(though not necessarily a correct one) of what the text might beabout. In other words there is an interpenetration and engagementof the ‘frames of meaning’ of the reader and the text. We cannotapproach the text with an empty mind in the hope of understandingit in an unmediated fashion, for our own frame of meaning is anindispensable tool or resource for understanding.49
36 Method in social science However, the role of meaning in social interaction in everydaylife is usually different from that in a discourse, such as a text or anargument, in that many of the successive elements of theinteractions in the former do not relate to one another in a logicaland conceptually consistent way. For example, in a confrontationbetween two nations, although conflict requires communicativeinteraction, responses are unlikely to succeed one another logically,as if they were governed merely by the force of the better argument;they are more likely to be determined by relative economicstrength, membership of power blocs, or contingencies such asunanticipated consequences of political changes within eachcountry. Particularly where actors state their intentions fairlyformally, we should be wary of assuming that what appears to becoherent on paper will be possible in practice; political manifestosprovide a good illustration of the danger! The analogy with readinga text is useful for distinguishing the situation from that of naturalscience, but only up to a point. The ‘text’ of actual social processesis usually highly disjointed and often contradictory, and whereas itis not generally necessary to know how a book was produced inorder to understand it, little sense can be made of socialinteractions like international conflicts without exploring theproduction of particular actions.50 As Figure 4 showed, hermeneutics is not the only kind ofunderstanding used in social science or everyday social practice. Yetit is certainly the most widely misunderstood. I shall thereforeattempt to counter some of the misconceptions and objections.51 Perhaps the most common misunderstanding runs like this:‘Social science has to concern itself with the subjective as well as theobjective, with people’s opinions and feelings as well as theirmaterial states and circumstances. Understanding why people actas they do requires that we examine this subjective side and for thiswe need to “empathize” with them, by asking ourselves what wewould have done in their circumstances.’ Note again how thesubjective-objective dualism is asserted and intersubjectivemeanings are collapsed back into subjective, essentially private,opinions and feelings. Once this adulterated account of thehermeneutic element of social knowledge has been taken asauthoritative, it is open to certain typical objections. One is thatwhile empathy may be a useful source of hunches or hypothesesabout why actions occur it is not a privileged source and whatmatters is not where such explanatory hypotheses come from but
Knowledge in context 37how they stand up to test. As one critic put it: ‘Empathy,understanding and the like may help the researcher, but it entersinto the system of statements as little as does a good cup of coffeewhich helped the researcher do his work’.52 The absurdity of this‘cup-of-coffee-theory-of-understanding’ is illustrated by one of themost famous critics of verstehen, Abel, who gave as an example theproblem of explaining why the marriage rate changes from year toyear in a certain community.53 Verstehen is presented as the use ofempathy to understand the motives of actors and hence as a sourceof hypotheses explaining their actions. Once it is reduced to thisrole, verstehen can easily be relegated to a dispensable status. Butthe absurdity derives from the fact that simply by already knowingwhat marriage is—as an intrinsically meaningful socialphenomenon—Abel unwittingly presupposes verstehen, not asempathy but as the understanding of constitutive meanings, just asany person presupposes it in social action. Indeed, withoutverstehen, Abel would not be a social actor. Note also that this implies that verstehen is universal: it is not aspecial technique or procedure but is common to all knowledge,both of nature (where it is restricted to a single hermeneutic, as inFigure 2) and of society (where it is situated in a doublehermeneutic, as in Figures 3 and 4). However, this is not to denythat it is used differently according to context. The intellectual’sinterpretation of meaning is (or should be!) rigorous and self-aware, thinking, as noted earlier, about beliefs and concepts as wellas with them. By contrast, a very much less examined kind ofinterpretive understanding is used in everyday, practical contexts,where people are rarely aware that their actions presuppose it. It isexactly this unawareness which explains the abovemisunderstanding of verstehen by unreflective social scientists. Ineveryday practice, however, it must be admitted that too much self-consciousness of the processes by which people achieve mutualunderstanding can actually interfere with the successful executionof the most mundane social acts, such as holding a conversation.So, although verstehen is common to knowledge in any context, itdoes not take the same form in each. Another common misconception about verstehen is theassumption that understanding implies agreement.54 Once this isaccepted, it is, of course, difficult to make sense of conflict anddisagreement in society. However, to say that social actions andcommunication take place on the basis of common understandings