A working philosophy of social science

For the past seventeen years I have clumsily staggered toward hopefully answering—at least partially—two big questions about social and political change:

  1. What will work? (i.e. In pursuit of building a more socially just, ecologically sustainable, compassionate, and participatory world, what will be effective? What can get us from Point A to Point B?)
  2. What’s in the way? (i.e. What constraints do we face, both inside our groups and movements and in relation to larger structures and society?)

The first question has led me toward a framework of hegemonic contestation (in concert with capacity-building operations). The second question has led me to a long list of overlapping pitfalls. Both questions have led me to study political behavior. A study of political behavior demands a deeper study of human behavior itself, and has predictably led to many more questions: What are key patterns of human behavior, in groups and as individuals? What motivates us? How and when do our motivations and actions become politicized? What are the relationships between groups, identities, and solidarities? How and under what circumstances do different solidarities become compelling?

I have long been fascinated by the internal dynamics of groups — particularly of social movement groups, but really I am fascinated by all kinds of groups. I want to understand what goes on under the surface. A social change organization’s stated purpose may be the achievement of X objective, but its members may stay motivated for the long haul at least as much because of feelings of belonging and other social benefits. I want to better understand the whole picture of human behavior: the verbalized, the conscious, the preconscious, the primal, etc.

If we are to be intentional and scientific in approaching a theory of how humans tend to behave (or how they may behave in a particular setting)—as opposed to just relying on unstated assumptions—where should we start? What existing frameworks should we utilize? Economics? Political theory? Sociology? Anthropology? Individual psychology? Social psychology? Linguistics? Neurology? If we fully appreciate that individuals, groups, and societies operate in open systems, we should then appreciate that each of these lenses, as well as many others, may provide insights into aspects of the inquiry. Each may speak to different levels of a stratified social reality whose different levels all warrant study (recognizing that no single level can be fully isolated or studied as a closed system). This means starting with a philosophy of social science that assumes social reality operates in inherently open systems and is therefore inevitably multiply-determined; that “causal mechanisms” for group and individual behaviors are located in many stratified levels of reality. As such, a single social act may contain valid psychological, neurological, physiological, genetic, evolutionary, group behavioral, relational, positional, sociological, political, sexual, and economic—among other categories—explanations and contributing factors.

Consider slavery. To apprehend the reality of slavery, we absolutely must examine sociopolitical and socioeconomic systems and relationships. Slavery is not a voluntaristic arrangement in which participants freely choose, among infinite other possibilities, to opt into this thing called slavery. Of course not. Whether or not one finds oneself a slave, a slave owner, or neither, depends on many relational factors, including economic class, race, ethnicity, nationality, regional location, education, legal status, social networks, historical moment, etc. It would be ridiculous to explain an enslaved person’s obedience to a slave owner only in terms of individual psychological or neurological processes. Does that mean, however, that there are no individual psychological and neurological processes at work in the minds/brains of individual slaves and individual slave owners? And, if not, does it mean that these processes do not warrant any attention whatsoever?

If we are approaching the reality of slavery not in a detached academic exercise, but as self-consciously abolitionist social scientists (presumptuously imagining ourselves as such 150+ years ago), then it behooves us to collect as much data as possible about every which level of the reality of slavery. These levels of reality are like the mountains, hills, forests, valleys, and rivers that form the terrain where we are doing battle (to end slavery). The better our map, the more likely we will be able to successfully navigate the terrain. In devising an overarching strategy, we will want to understand the huge economic, political, and demographic shifts happening around us. We should, for example, understand the tensions between agricultural centers of economic power and emerging industrial centers of economic power. We should keep an eye out for fissures in our opponents’ alignments. Individual and collective psychology may be of use to us for more specific purposes. If, tactically, we want to support and foment rebellion among particular enslaved people, then it may help to have some grasp of psychological mechanisms and patterns that make resignation (to the reality of slavery) possible. If we are trying to build active support among non-enslaved people (e.g. the Underground Railroad), we will want to fathom different kinds of obstacles that stand in the way (e.g. fear and other emotions, rationalizations, positional pressures, relational pressures, beliefs, etc.).

It may be argued that the root causes of slavery are primarily economic, but that does not mean the institution could function without the compliance of other levels. In other words, while some frameworks (e.g. economic and political) may be more appropriate for explaining the existence of the institution of slavery, other frameworks (e.g. psychological, group behavioral, cultural) may still constitute a level of slavery’s reality, and may as such present possible points of strategic intervention for abolitionists.

This example paints a picture of the kind of approach I take in examining political behavior. I am not content to put all my eggs in one basket (i.e. any one lens, or discourse). I want to understand as many factors and layers as possible.

Nature AND Nurture

Recognizing that there exist different levels of social reality—viz. stratified systems, each containing its own logic and observable patterns and therefore worthy of its own study, yet all systems open and all levels interacting with each other—we can cease to frame age-old nature versus nurture debates in such starkly either/or terms. Humans exist in the physical world. Evidence overwhelmingly suggests that we evolved over millions upon millions of years as part of a complex ecological system that colonized all of what we now call Planet Earth, in order to exist as we do today. Just as the physical world preceded the ecological world—and existed without the ecological world—so too the greater ecological world preceded the eventual “arrival” of Homo sapiens. So too the arrival of Homo sapiens—whose early genetics and physiology were by all indications not significantly different (in evolutionary spans) than that of humans today—preceded the emergence of complex societies.

Each prior system was able to exist without the secondary system that was eventually built on top of it. As such, prior systems do not need secondary systems. Earth did not need life to exist on it in order to exist as a planet (but then, of course, there would be no one around to call it “Planet Earth”). But life did need earth in order to exist. Secondary systems do need prior systems. Prior systems are like scaffolding that cannot be removed after the next system is constructed.

It is certainly valid to study culture as a system unto itself, just as it is valid to study what goes on inside a room on the hundredth floor of a skyscraper. There may be a raging party in that room that is totally worth checking out. But that party could not happen up there without the ninety-nine floors and foundation below. If that party is a metaphor for culture—or a particular moment in culture—I myself tend to be more interested in the party than the skyscraper. But that does not mean that I think the skyscraper has nothing to tell us about the party. Evolution, genetics, physiology, neurology, and psychology are substrata of culture. A clean break between these systems and cultural systems is impossible.

Does that mean that examining relationships between these systems will be easy or problem free? Of course not. To be clear, when culture enters the picture, the skyscraper metaphor starts to break down. Systems are not neatly stacked on top of each other like the floors of a building. There are myriad different systems that interact with and within culture. Looking through a lens of relationships and kinds of relationships is useful here. There are economic and political relationships, as well as personal, familial, affinitive, regional, and all sorts of other relationships. Patterns of relationships can constitute their own kinds of systems, but these still interact with other prior systems.

One ontology, many epistemologies

I feel slightly ridiculous saying it, but I believe in the existence of a single—though complex and multi-layered—objective reality. I start with the philosophy that some things really are real, not just constructions in our heads. Furthermore, I believe that we can apprehend real aspects of objective reality; that we can parse reality for knowledge. Again, I feel ridiculous saying this explicitly. However, I think that some popular discourses in (post-)modern cultural studies may make it necessary to feature this belief explicitly in my philosophy of science. I have detected a great deal of confusion in some of these discourses—including in discourses that otherwise offer important insights and contributions—between ontology and epistemology.

Ontology—the nature of being—must necessarily encompass all possible kinds of knowledge. If kinds of knowledge exist, then they are part of existence. Existence, however, existed prior to human knowledge about existence. We can reasonably know this much. Thus, the nature of being (viz. the world as it exists) includes the possibility of human perception of the world—evident by the fact that humans do indeed perceive the world—but the world certainly does not depend on human perception of it in order to exist in the first place.

I am fully sympathetic to the concerns of some critics of the idea of objective reality. Reality has been described “objectively” by particular subjective actors whose biases and social positions have skewed science and corralled “truth” into the service of socially dominant interests and ideologies. That being so, I do not think we need to settle for a muddled philosophy of science that is ambivalent about existence objectively existing. For me, it seems sufficient—and more accurate and instructive—to acknowledge, and even embrace, that we can never fully know objective reality; that our perceptions of objective reality are inevitably partial and biased; that there are many valid perceptions of reality; that these various perceptions of reality are often warped by the standpoint of social position; and that, despite all this, there still exists one single objective—however complex, multi-layered, and differently experienced—reality. In other words, there can be many epistemologies, but only one ontology.

The primary purpose of my inquiry has always been to glean practical wisdom to inform my organizing practice. As such, I have always felt comfortable borrowing from this or that framework, taking what I find useful and leaving the rest. I did not initially feel compelled to work out an explicit philosophy of science for myself, but I have found the process of thinking this through clarifying and worthwhile. For this I owe a great deal to conversations with my friend Jorge Rivas, to my study of Critical Realism, and to conversations, pushback, and counter-arguments (including myriad suggestions on further reading) offered by my advisor at Goddard College, Eva Swidler (who should not be blamed for any of the ideas presented here!).

5 responses to “A working philosophy of social science”

  1. Thank for this excellent essay. You’ve put into words what I’ve been trying to think but have been unable to articulate.

    Yet the log jam of events coupled with the lack of social cohesion and intellectual conjugation we are faced with will eventually be broken, as history repeatedly tells us. I just wonder if there is time to release the tension before the log jam breaks up in a disorderly fashion?

    I look forward to more of your thoughts.


  2. You might enjoy the book “The Righteous Mind” by Jonathan Haidt.

  3. […] this post will begin to lay out. Leading up to this exploration, last week I discussed some of my philosophy of social science, mostly asserting my embrace of a multiply-determined reality with all sorts of factors, […]

  4. […] Picking up where I left off in part 1, the next axiom: identity serves an evolved, group-benefiting function. I am well aware that examining an evolutionary framework to explain behavior is something that not everyone is comfortable with. Indeed, it has provoked pushback from some of my cultural studies friends and advisors (but encouragement from others). After much deliberation, I decided to keep the evolutionary lens as an explicit piece of my theoretical framework. (For more background philosophical justification, see my working philosophy of social science.) […]

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