Thursday, June 21, 2012

Critical realism and scientific inquiry: natural vs social science (Part II: the role of interpretation)

An ongoing debate within the philosophy of science is the extent to which knowledge about reality that is independent of a person's subjective interpretation of it is possible. The position of critical realism is that people cannot conceive of external reality outside of frameworks of understanding that pre-exist the attempt to perceive external reality and influence what is perceived, and how it is perceived and understood. Examples of such frameworks include established scientific theories and paradigms.

Multiple frameworks of understanding can exist with regard to any given area of reality, and they can be incompatible with each other. However, unlike relativist philosophies such as postmodernism, critical realism does not take this to mean that reality is nothing more than how humans decide to perceive it. For critical realists, an independent, external reality exists, and although conceptualisations of it can be imperfect and occasionally contradictory, this is not an excuse to give up on scientific inquiry. Indeed, one of the goals of any science is to try and make existing interpretations and conceptualisations of external reality more accurate. This is what makes critical realism critical: the goal of science in critical realism is to test our understanding of reality and through better understanding of it, improve the human condition.

A key difference in natural and social sciences is the role of interpretive frameworks of understanding in their respective areas of inquiry. The natural sciences make use of interpretive frameworks, utilising them to explain findings or updating them when they do not. A classic example is the evolution of the understanding of the atom: from conceptualising them as the smallest particle that exists, to realising that atoms themselves are composed of sub-particles, in the process evolving from the "plum pudding" model of protons and electrons in an atom into the more familiar "electrons orbiting a nucleus" model that most schoolchildren still learn as the correct one, and even further into the vagaries of quantum physics (which I won't pretend to fully understand).

This use of interpretive frameworks of understanding also occurs in the social sciences. But the social scientist is studying humans. Humans make use of interpretive frameworks of understanding in every area of their lives. Therefore, scientists don't just use interpretive frameworks in their study, but study them directly. Once again, this means that social science is difficult in a way that natural science is not. For one, how do you study an interpretive framework that is very dissimilar to your own interpretive framework? Can you even make sense of it at all?

Various methods exist to try and make unfamiliar interpretive frameworks more readily accessible and understandable, not just to the social science researcher but to anyone who is actually going to read the research as well. The most famous in social science is Clifford Geertz's "thick description": studying a culture in depth and trying to describe every experience that is observed to occur in an unfamiliar culture in as much detail as possible, with as much detail to how it relates to other parts of the culture as possible. Yet even here it is difficult to touch on everything, and important details can easily left out for no other reason that the researcher doesn't know to look for them.

Even such unintended misrepresentations of the conceptual understandings of others are problematic. The claim to be able to authentically represent the mental and social world of another carries a great deal of responsibility with it, and authoritative accounts that are inaccurate can  have serious negative consequences for the nature of interactions between different cultures, or even between people who share a similar culture but whose worldviews differ in some fundamental way. A particular danger here, and one that can't readily be overcome, is that a social scientist can never completely represent an external interpretive framework completely in its own terms, but will always represent it in terms of their own interpretive framework. An obvious consequence of this is that social science researchers should, in order to be able to do their job most effectively, try to cultivate for themselves as broad a range of available interpretive frameworks of understanding as possible.

And this brings up a further complication. Since social scientists are themselves social beings, any actions that they take have an effect on the society with which they are interacting. That includes the act of undertaking social research. In particular, the interpretive frameworks that a social scientist might make use of in order to explain an aspect of society that they are investigating could readily become adopted by members of that society as their own method of explanation for that aspect of their society, and potentially for other aspects of their society as well. This is known in social science as the "double hermeneutic", and it means that social scientists have a much greater ethical responsibility to practise care in their research, especially in their interpretation of their findings, than would be found in the natural sciences.

That's basically it as far as I understand the differences. I feel like I've left details out, but I think the core concepts are sound in my mind now. I don't suppose anyone else will find it particularly useful. I should get back to blogging about stuff that's more useful to other people.

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