Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Some of Them Are Right

One of my friends from college spent a frustrated semester constantly arguing with a classmate. Each time my friend seemed on the cusp of argumentative success, his opponent would pull out the same relativist conversation stopper: “Well, you know, there are millions of different ways of viewing every problem”. And so would end the debate.

My friend’s frustration grew and grew, until finally one day he burst out: “Yes! There are millions of different ways of viewing every problem – and some of them are WRONG!”

I was reminded of this story when the students in my Research Strategies course were discussing the ethics and politics of their research this evening. The concept of “bias” seemed to function as some sort of conversational attractor – no matter which direction we set out, we always seemed to end up circling around it.

The concept of bias often smuggles in its wake a tacit concept that the ideal researcher would be a fully disengaged and impassive observer. I don’t believe such a researcher exists – and neither do my students, of course. The question is whether the ideal of a disengaged observer is still a useful sort of ideal type – a sort of Habermasian ideal that no one will ever reach, but that is still useful, because it provides a standard against which we can criticise existing practices – or whether there is some alternative critical standard that does not require us to resort to a concept of disengaged research that will never correspond to social science practice.

My impulse is that we need critical standards that – while high and demanding – do suggest a form of social science that someone might actually practice, at least when functioning at their best. Social scientists in practice cannot be disengaged because, among other reasons, they are their own primary research tool – their ability to empathise and recreate within themselves a sense of the motives and the reasoning and the emotions of fellow human beings, their social acumen and insight, is an intrinsic dimension of social scientific research. Using the concept of the disengaged researcher as a critical ideal therefore stands in deep and fundamental tension with the practical requirements of social scientific research.

Using the concept of a more fully and completely engaged researcher, however, does not – and I suspect this is the direction we need to be reaching, to develop a clearer and more useful understanding of ideal social science practice. More fully engaged research would reflect on the potentials and insights that are historically available to us in a given moment, and would explore whether the research process reflects the highest ideals available to us at the time. It would therefore make use of the types of empathy and social insight required in social science research, rather than sitting in tension with social science practice.

This leaves open the question of how, in this embedded and historicised view of the world, you validly decide among the “millions of different ways of viewing every problem” to pick the ways that are “right” – that represent the highest potentials of your historical moment, and therefore provide you with the ability to justify claims that other views or practices should be considered “wrong”. I’m currently finishing an (overlong) piece on Adorno that explores this issue – once I’ve cut that piece down to manageable size, I may post some fragments on the blog.

2 responses to “Some of Them Are Right

  1. MT March 22, 2006 at 11:55 pm

    Millions of perspectives? The American legal system thinks it gets at the truth by allowing two adversarial ones to square off. I can believe there’s something (although not a whole lot) to this, and I think the analogy or homology is worth examining. In particular and along the lines of bias, lawyers tend to believe what it’s their job to argue, and the legal system strictly separates the roles of advocate and jury. No doubt it’s a challenge psychologically/cognitive-dissonantly to be advocate and jury at the same time. In that light, and in light of Planck’s observation that we’re just waiting for the old theorists to die, I think we might have to accept that any individual one of us is but a pawn in a battle of ideas (many ongoing simultaneously) , very much as our physiological somatic selves are pawns in a n epochal competition of more or less selfish genes. The poor soma who wants to accomplish something in her own life time might have to be a visionary artist not only with regard to rhetoric and argument but with regard to selecting the battle and the jury.

  2. N Pepperell March 23, 2006 at 1:34 pm

    LOL – I like the comment that “there’s something (although not a whole lot) to this” – there will usually be some rational core, but often that core boils down to something more trivial, less revolutionary in its implications than the speaker might have desired…

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