Interpretation and Methodology
THE PERVASIVENESS OF INTERPRETATION
Interpretation is basic to all our endeavors whether as scientists or as indi- viduals going about our daily lives. Interpretation is distinguished from inference. Inference draws valid conclusions from given premises while interpretation is never beyond question. No final, absolutely true interpre- tation is ever proven: some conjecture is inevitable when facts are selected, connected and put into a plausible pattern. Although we recognize the role of interpretation and its importance, as when we say ‘it all depends on your interpretation’, we may fail to recognize how pervasive interpretation is, if we think it is something we only do when things are vague or ambiguous.
Every time we deliberate on events or on our experience, we are inter- preting. Interpretation is fundamental since how things are interpreted determines what actions we consider. But interpretations can be far from arbitrary. The better interpretations will be consistent with the commonly agreed facts and account for the facts in a more coherent way: bringing the maximum number of facts into a meaningful relationship with the minimum of conjecture. Nonetheless, disagreements over interpretation will occur given that the ‘facts’ to be interpreted are selected, ordered and weighted in accordance with the perspective or viewpoint adopted. Few people have a completely open mind on an issue but a point of view that they prefer to have reinforced rather than challenged.
Understanding a person’s perspective is a prerequisite to knowing how a person might be persuaded to another point of view. Michael Oakeshott saw this as a problem for historians when they impose on the past illicit patterns emanating from the perspective of their current concerns. And also for politicians imposing patterns on the future to fit a perspective reflected in some grand scheme for ‘improving’ the lot of mankind (Franco,
2004).1 For Oakeshott, each of us has a governing perspective on the world whether theoretical or practical. This is true for all scientists where relevant reality is viewed through the perspective of the discipline’s ‘paradigm’.
Scientific paradigms act as conceptual lenses that guide research and the interpretation of findings. Although the different paradigms in social science are often viewed as competitors (e.g., behaviorism versus cognitive psychology), more typically, they offer additional windows onto a problem or seek answers to entirely different questions.
WAYS OF KNOWING AND INTERPRETATION
Pickstone (2000) in his history of science, technology and medicine talks of three ‘ways of knowing’ in science; all involve interpretation:2
1. Natural history which consists of describing and classifying things as they come to be. Pickstone argues that the more scientific inquiry is concerned with complexity and/or singularity, the more scientists tend to adopt the natural history way of knowing. Zoologists and geneticists fit this category. The human genome sequence allows sci- entists to go back in history to infer the order, and even the timing, of each addition to our ancestral genome. At a more pedestrian level, a good deal of marketing research is concerned with the natural history way of knowing: doing surveys, describing trends or changes in values plus classifying and tabulating findings.
2. Analysis consists of seeking understanding by ‘dissection’, with things viewed as a mix of elements or a process with the elements ‘flow- ing’ through a system. Mathematical analysis belongs to this category which, while never creating knowledge out of nothing, brings out the implications of data that would otherwise be hidden.
3. Experimentation consists of tests with results that are relevant to the truth or falsity of some hypothesis or theory. But it is not just test results that are in need of interpretation, for it cannot just be assumed, with- out checking, that subjects will interpret their task exactly as intended. Experiment is viewed as the scientific method, though perfectly respect- able sciences like geology and astronomy cannot conduct experiments. Pickstone quotes Rutherford’s well-known quip that science is either physics or stamp collecting to illustrate the claim for the superiority of experimentation over analysis and natural history.
These three ways of knowing do not typically address the same problems or answer the same questions. When just one way of know- ing is adopted to tackle all the questions raised in a discipline, the result can be a deficiency in explanation. The three ways of knowing can complement each other. As Pickstone says, many scientific proj- ects involve more than one kind of knowing. Thus experimentation, as a way of knowing, may need to be supplemented by background history and analysis. This is particularly so when we recall the prob- lem in social science of generalizing from an experiment.
Although the three methods embrace the traditional methods used to gain knowledge in science, there are advocates of additional ways of knowing, namely, intuition and tradition, while in this chapter we add ‘interpretation’ itself as a sixth method .
4. Intuition. In some circles, intuition carries the notion of being a supe- rior mode of attaining knowledge (Plato’s ‘eye of the soul’) or alter- natively as an unreflective inclination to believe something. Intuition is also viewed as the delivery system for ideas that reason is used to defend. It is generally accepted that intuition is derived from non- conscious knowledge. Goldberg (2000) views intuition as the con- densation of prior experience and the result of condensed analytic processes.3 The expert, using intuition, bypasses the logical steps precisely because intuition is a condensation of the extensive use of orderly logical steps in the past. The conventional view, from the study of adults with brain damage, is that the left side of the brain embraces language functions while the right side embraces visual-spatial rea- soning with the two hemispheres communicating via the corpus cal- losum. But for Goldberg the left hemisphere is also the repository of compressed knowledge and pattern recognition capacities, allow- ing a person to deal with familiar situations, while the right hemi- sphere is the novelty hemisphere, the explorer of the unknown and the uncharted. He argues it is the right hemisphere that is dominant when we are young but the right hemisphere loses out to the left hemisphere as we age since it is the left side that accrues an expanding ‘library’ of efficient pattern-recognition devices. This suggests the title of his book: The Wisdom Paradox: How the Mind Can Grow Stronger as Your Brain Grows Older.
5. Tradition. Tradition in the interpretation of sacred texts like the Bible is for some the foundation test of truth. We are all familiar with Galileo’s (1564 –1642) confrontation with the Roman Catholic Church over the heliocentric theory that the earth moves in orbit around the sun and spins about its own axis and that, in 1633, the Inquisition coerced Galileo into recanting the theory. While it is true that the heliocentric theory was considered wrong and Galileo was charged with heresy, it might strike us as odd that Galileo would be so singled out, given that Galileo’s claim was simply a more grounded upholding of Copernicus (1473–1543), whose thesis was published at the time of his death. And Copernicus himself had merely revived the essentially heliocentric view of Aristarchus (310 –230 BCE). What really incensed the Church was Galileo’s refusal to acknowledge the
‘deeper truths’ of Church tradition over claims for his method as the way to establish truth. As David Deutsch (1997) argues, ‘the real dispute was not about whether the solar system had one layout rather than another: it was about Galileo’s brilliant advocacy of a new and dangerous way of thinking about reality’ (p. 74).4 Galileo implicitly claimed that scientific reasoning took precedence over religious tra- dition and revelation: it was this notion, not the heliocentric theoryper se, that the authorities considered dangerous. Galileo was for- bidden to hold and defend the heliocentric theory as the explana- tion of the appearance of the night sky. In denying the reliability of scientific knowledge, it was the explanatory part that the Church rejected. Galileo was not forbidden from using or writing about his theory or even defending it as a method of making predictions. The Church simply believed Church tradition and revelation were the source of true knowledge: scripture being but part, not the whole, of that living tradition. Indeed, it was claimed that reading the Bible, unaided, could not teach doctrine and that scripture was not use- ful as a source of direction on how to live in the world (Simpson, 2007).5 The Church could point out that no final explanation can ever be proved absolutely as God could produce the observed effects in an infinite number of ways. In today’s debate over evolution and creationism/intelligent design, we have a similar clash between one tradition of biblical interpretation and scientific claims.
Although we think of those seeking truth by way of tradition as belong- ing to a religion, in science there is the related notion of conventionalism, which regards the truth of some statement as determined not by empirical fact but by social usage or social agreement. For the conventionalist, once a law or method is found useful, its acceptance becomes a pragmatic matter of convention. Paul Samuelson (1965) is a prominent conventionalist in the field of economics.6
All five ways of knowing entail interpretation as interpretation is part of any inquiry even in the natural sciences. Take, as illustration, a book on science I have in front of me with the heading “Tests for Thinking Rats”.7
A white rat is shown leaping through one of three doors. Two of the three doors have identical horizontal stripes but these doors are latched. The third door has vertical stripes and is unlatched, allowing the rat to jump through the door. The rat is shown choosing the proper door, jumping through it to get a reward. The caption says this proves the rat has grasped the concept of ‘oddness’. This is one interpretation but not a defensible one; the rat has at best simply learned to recognize the door it would be able to jump through. In fact, the grasping of concepts presupposes language use.
Significant innovations in the natural sciences have been resisted as a result of dubious interpretation. Thus Eddington, whose brilliant experi- ment tested and validated Einstein’s general theory of relativity in 1919, employed arguments based on a suspect interpretation of general relativity theory to undermine (and ridicule) the theory of a young Indian academic, Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, a colleague at Cambridge. This resulted in the search for black holes being held back for 40 years when Chandrasekhar came back to work on his original discovery (Miller, 2005).8 Fellow sci- entists had great difficulty in accepting Einstein’s general theory since its perspective was so discontinuous with Newtonian physics. In his general
relativity theory, Einstein in 1916 was able to combine gravity with space, time, matter and energy; not bad for someone whom his calculus teacher, Hermann Minkowski, called a lazy dog! Einstein’s general theory changed the meaning, conceptualization, and interpretation of gravity from a force to being viewed as the outcome of the curved geometry of space and time.
6. Interpretation itself as a way of knowing. Interpretation itself can be regarded as a way of knowing, making it the sixth way of knowing. Interpretation may be the methodology of interest, not interpretation as something just ongoing to all methods of inquiry. As such, inter- pretation becomes a methodology or way of knowing in its own right. In contrast to deductive inference, interpretation is never guaranteed to produce valid conclusions. This does not mean that logic is not involved in interpretation. Take the following quote from the first paragraph of an Op-Ed piece I have just been reading, written by columnist David Brooks (2005) in the New York Times:
Most serious people who spend time in Iraq report that reality there is contradictory and kaleidoscopic. The Sunnis are participating in the democratic process; the Sunnis are supporting the insurgents. The Shiites are building a national government; the Shiites are creat- ing death squads. The Americans are securing neighborhoods; the Americans are inciting violence. (Brooks, 2005)9
If we are to interpret this intelligently, we take account of the logic. The first sentence is true only if we accept the author’s view (not given) of what constitutes ‘serious people’. And contrary to Brooks, his statements are not in contradiction: some Sunnis may participate in the democratic process and some may support the insurgents, while some Shiites may be building a national government while some may create death squads, and some Americans may secure neighborhoods while at the same time be inciting violence. (In formal logic, the con- trasting propositions are not contraries but subcontraries.)
INTERPRETING EVERY METHODOLOGY AS A TECHNOLOGY
Each methodology used to obtain knowledge can be regarded as a ‘technol- ogy’. Technology is concerned with building systems that can succeed or fail, governed by rules that are not true or false but effective or ineffective. This view of technology as consisting of rules or operational principles for achieving successful practical performances is that of Michael Polanyi (1978).10 Toulmin (1977) similarly defines technology as a population of techniques, recipes, processes and procedures.11 Technology includes systems like telecommunications, computers, buildings, cars, trains, airplanes—but also all investigative and planning systems. In contrast to technology, the natural sciences like physics and chemistry are concerned with developing explanatory theory that aims at tracking truth in respect to things such as atoms, heat, light, sound, electricity, magnets, forces and motion.
Polanyi points out that, though we can export the objective fruits of sci- ence (like scientific explanations) throughout the world, we cannot export the skills of doing good research since these skills require practice in the application of loosely textured rules, usually learned under the guidance of an expert. In the recruitment of researchers, the focus is typically on where someone was trained, by whom and for how long. Every methodology is a skill and this implies that research methodology is not mastered by reading books; books simply get us started and help us avoid errors.
Interpretive methods are a technology as they are concerned with devel- oping systems of interpretation that can be effective or ineffective. There is no single, unique method of interpreting. On the other hand, there is no unique scientific method for the natural sciences. As Putnam (1981) says, no philosopher of science today accepts that there is just one scien- tific method.12 Susan Haack (2003) agrees, arguing there is no magic set of methods we ‘baptize as scientific method’, distinct from the intellectual tools we employ in our daily lives.13 As always, the method employed is determined by the kind of understanding that is sought and/or the ques- tions being addressed.
Technology is governed by rules that are not true or false but effective or ineffective. Marketing management, though, can never be a mechanical application of rules whether the rules are called rules, principles, heuristics, maxims or whatever. They have to be interpreted in the light of situational factors to avoid putting in standard solutions when standard conditions do not exist. The trouble with all rules or principles is that, when very general, they seem to have little applicability to the individual case. On the other hand, the more specific the rule, the more it becomes like a recipe, with no room left for creativity.
Herbert Simon (1957) puts management principles into the category of proverbs, essentially useless in that for almost every principle one can find an equally plausible and acceptable contradictory principle (‘too many cooks spoil the broth versus many hands make light work’).14 To allow generality, principles assume sameness across situations which can be denied. But Simon’s is a wrong perspective on the nature of principles. Principles (like proverbs) fall under objective relativism, which claims that, while the valid application of a principle is relative to the situation, a principle can still be objectively right or objectively wrong as can be the case with contradictory proverbs (Putnam, 1981).15 In other words, any contradiction is reconciled by recognizing that, while the appropriate application is relative to circumstances, the application is objective and not a subjective matter in that we have no problem in saying which prov- erb applies in what situation.
The appropriateness of a principle is tied to context, that is, whether the principle is applicable or not depends on the context since context suggests whether it can be validly applied. Principles of marketing or management emanate from the collective experience of managers. Interpreting a prin- ciple’s appropriateness is less a matter of paying rigid attention to the rule so much as paying attention to the situation or circumstances to which it is to be applied. Principles, like all rules, are guidelines not formulas since there is often uncertainty as to the precise circumstances to which they can be applied. Sometimes we need explanatory theory to justify their appropriateness.
Some academics argue that research in marketing should focus on devel- oping principles, advocating effects application research, problem orienta- tion research etc., without being concerned with explanatory theory. But, as Robert Merton (1968) points out, such naive empiricism is likely to lead to the chaotic accumulation of miscellaneous empirical generalizations—as it has in marketing.16 This is because empirical research is blind without some guiding theory just as theory without empirical research can be empty.17
INTERPRETATION, CONTEXT AND INDEXICALITY
Interpretations are guided by perspective or purpose. An advertisement for The Times of London points to this. It shows a banana on a plate with six plates that correspond to six different perspectives: (i) banana signal- ing fruit, (ii) banana signaling vitamins, (iii) banana symbolizing slapstick comedy, (iv) banana as sexual innuendo, (v) banana as symbolizing trade wars, (vi) the banana as a racist weapon. The ad caption simply reads: “if you take things only at face value, you miss what is important”.
The indexicality of a word, phrase or sentence is that part of its meaning that is specific to the context in which it occurs. Language interpretation is always tied to context. Thus ‘like’ can be used to mean ‘fond of’, ‘enjoy’,
‘feel’ and so on depending on the context or the word ‘novel’ can be inter- preted as a work of fiction or as something original. Meaning is indexed to context. The indexicality of a word is unknowable without knowledge of context. It is this indexicality that rules out replicating the exact findings of any study as contexts are never exactly the same. An amusing example of how the meaning of a word is tied to context is provided by someone’s e-mail to his local authority protesting the erection of some building. It never reached the official because all the computers had an anti-spammer which rejected any e-mail with offensive language!
Context can change expected behavior, ruling out law-like general- izations. Contexts change interpretations and the weighting of the vari- ous considerations, just as the context in which a wine will be consumed changes the weights attached to price, type of wine and brand bought. We predict within a context. Thus people do all sorts of things to draw attention to themselves like acting silly, dressing oddly and so on but not in all situations (like a job interview) since they are very much aware of what contexts are appropriate for what behavior. Zimbardo (2007) dem- onstrates the power of context or situations in warping people’s judgment and channeling behavior in unexpected ways.18 In particular Zimbardo argues that situational factors (peer pressure, superior demands) are far more likely to explain abusive and cruel behavior to others (e.g., the Abu Ghraib prison case) than dispositional states like attitudes.
But what exactly is context? Scharfstein (1989) includes under context temporal, geographical, cultural, cognitive, emotion . . . anything at all in the relevant environment . . . and argues persuasively that no reasoning or any action can be fully understood outside of its own context.19 This definition of context includes the conditions operating at the time. Politi- cians promise to undertake certain policies once in office but fail to keep their promises, commonly because, on recognizing the restraining condi- tions confronting them, they are apt to re-think the wisdom of what they promised.
Scharfstein argues that, if the grasp of context is purely cognitive, this limits understanding. Thus understanding the action of others is always held back if we have never shared (experienced) the relevant context. Per- haps this is why the senior citizen market is neglected as those actively in marketing are not senior citizens. People commonly say “I know how you feel” to those who have suffered but this is just an empty phrase unless they have experienced the same tragedy in a similar context. This suggests that personal experience of the various contexts in which a product is bought, consumed or disposed of is needed to fully understand the customer. Hence it helps a great deal for a product manager to belong to the market segment he or she caters to.
In endorsing the claim that no one can distinguish the meaning of a word divorced from the context, Scharfstein is also claiming that to under- stand human beings, there is a need to understand the various contexts in which human behavior is manifested. However, the degree of contextual detail we amass will depend on our aims, both intellectual and emotional. For many purposes, we can think of context as embracing the medium of communication, time and location. As for the medium of communica- tion, interpretations differ between words as spoken and the same words as written: “There is no god but God, and Muhammad is the apostle of God”. Take the problem, too, of how meaning can differ through time. The description of Ivan IV of Russia as ‘Ivan the Terrible’ has come to signify a cruel despot but this was not what historically ‘Ivan the Terrible’ implied. In the early 17th century, when the label was first used, the meaning con- noted ‘awe-inspiring’ or formidable (Madariaga, 2005).20
Interpretation takes context as background information in making things intelligible. We stress the word ‘intelligible’ rather than rational (as per the canons of rationality). An error perhaps made with Saddam Hussein was to assume he would act in what would be considered a ratio- nal way by American and UK politicians. His conduct was, however, intelligible in the context of Iraqi culture and the contextual pressures on him to avoid losing face.
INTERPRETATION, SELF-INTEREST AND VALUES
Self-interest and the values reflecting our concerns influence interpretation. Livingstone (2003) illustrates this in discussing the reception of Darwin’s Origin of the Species in New Zealand and South Carolina.21 In New Zea- land, the book had an enthusiastic reception as the book seemed to jus- tify the colonists’ attempt to extirpate the native Maoris, while, in South Carolina, the book had a hostile reception as it suggested the close kinship between the local plantation owners and their soon-to-be-freed slaves.
Methodological Constraints on Interpretation: Methodological Monism, Methodological Exclusivism, Methodological Pluralism and Positivism
Many deny there are any serious problems of interpretation in doing sci- entific research. Those who claim this tend to endorse methodological monism: the notion that any discipline that aspires to be a science must follow the methodology of the natural sciences where interpretation does not loom large. Methodological monism is a core thesis of positivism that all scientific inquiry must, to be called scientific, follow the methods of the natural sciences.
As most disciplines promote themselves as ‘sciences’, there is inevitably debate over what is science. Dennett (2006) rejects as scientific evidence the mass of data contained in historical narratives on the ground that such cannot be reproduced under controlled conditions.22 This would rule out
‘natural’ experiments and a good deal of what we call sciences. It reminds us how often definitions are adopted to fit a viewpoint, in this case to dis- miss the visions of saints and mystics as worthless since they are not repeat- able. In any case, all ways of understanding do not fall under the rubric of science, for example, art, music and literature. But even if we follow the methods of the natural sciences, interpretation of data and the results of scientific inquiry can still be a problem.
The most extreme version of methodological monism is the twentieth- century brand of positivism known as ‘logical positivism’, a product of the so-called ‘Vienna Circle’ meetings in the 1930s. Its tenets were:
Empiricism: positivists confine ‘reality’ to that revealed by experience (mainly sensory) claiming that what we know we know only because the empirical evidence so far happens to point that way. Not appreciated was the fact that this experience needed to be interpreted and interpretation is tied to the scientist’s perspective or scientific paradigm. Empiricism contrasts with rationalism, which claims that the world is knowable only through reason, since sense data need to be connected (interpreted) in the light of reasons. The rationalists deduce facts about the world through the exercise of reason while the empiricists argue that the only way to an understanding of the world is by observation and experiment. Mathematics is the ideal for all rationalists, starting with Descartes, Spinoza and Leibniz.
Handy and Harwood, who are supporters of a strong positivist tradition, argue that rationalism is still the dominant orientation among formal model builders, giving rise to models like “game theory” and “utility theory” that confuse warranted assertions about the particular model with warranted assertions about some aspect of human behavior.23 They take model build- ers to task for not investigating the presumed connections between the model and observed behavior with any degree of thoroughness: typically it is the internal aspects of the model that are examined rather than matching the model to actual behavior. This is still as true today as it was at the time Handy and Harwood wrote it.
Handy and Harwood point out that internal tests are seldom adequate since assumptions can often seem unchallengeable, reasoning absolutely sound, and conclusions inescapable, when in instance after instance, the assumptions are later shown to be unfounded, the facts proved wrong, and errors in reasoning detected. They take econometricians to task for often “obtaining plausible numbers to provide ceremonial adequacy for a the- ory.” A little cleverness “will get you almost any result you want” and that is why “few econometricians have ever been forced by the facts to abandon any firmly held belief”. These criticisms are not easily dismissed.
Empiricism can equally be contested on the ground that even the natural sciences must make assumptions, like assuming uniformity in nature that cannot be empirically verified. But what this debate is about is where the relative dominance lies since both inevitably play a part in scientific inquiry. Descartes undertook the most original experiments in optics though believ- ing that the way to understand Reality was through mathematics. In any case, interpretation is at work whatever approach is used though interpreta- tion is more fundamental to empiricism.
The logical positivists put great emphasis on ‘observables’ though the interest today lies in the probability distributions associated with the obser- vations, not in a single observation. This is what the statistical revolution in the 20th century has been about (Salsburg, 2001).24 The fact is that empiri- cal evidence for most decisions is just not there. David Eddy, a pioneer in the health-care quality field and in the application of statistical modeling to medicine, claims that only about 15% of what doctors do is backed by hard evidence; others put it around 20% to 25% (Carey, 2006).25 This, of course, could be a reminder of the need for more empirical support in justi- fying decisions, since the quality of decisions depends vitally on the quality of the information behind the decision.
• Descriptive laws: science to the logical positivist is the search for descriptive laws, e.g., ‘when metals are heated they expand.’ The- ory was viewed as systematizing descriptive laws and any theoretical entities not completely definable in observational terms were rejected. Abstract concepts like ‘attitude’, ‘motive’, ‘intention’ had to be given operational definitions or operational measures so as to have a con- crete, observational reference. But observations are not unproblematic since observations are interpreted in the light of some conceptual sche- mata, perspective or scientific paradigm. The Vienna Circle members saw mathematics as essential to describing physical laws and turned to Bertrand Russell’s program to reduce all mathematical concepts and truths to pure logic. (The program never succeeded, though it is now agreed that 99.9% of mathematics follows from a small part of the axiomatic theory of sets.)
- Nominalis : logical positivists recognize only individual particulars, denying that general abstract concepts like ‘society’ or ‘market’, ‘beauty’, ‘goodness’ offer any additional insight onto the world. Mar- garet Thatcher, when the British prime minister, seems to have been a nominalist in denying there was any such thing as ‘society’! For the logical positivists, science starts with direct observation of single facts as if the facts were out there like apples on a tree waiting to be picked.
- Teleological explanations, that is, explanations in terms of functions, goals, and purposes and so on were considered invalid unless transformed into non-teleological form. In other words, science was to avoid interpreting things in nature or social life in terms of the function performed (as when we refer to someone fulfilling the role of buyer or researcher) or in terms of purpose (as when we say the con- sumer’s goal is to choose the cheapest coffee from among the brands available). Such is not acceptable unless translated into a scientific (law-like) format. Teleological explanations in practice have defied such translation.
- Meaningful statements are either synthetic or analytic A synthetic statement is an empirical one (all buyers are risk-averse), with observable facts relevant to its truth. On the other hand, an analytic statement (a purchasing agent is someone who buys on behalf of an organization) is true as a matter of definition or just follows as a mat- ter of deduction from the meaning of the words used in the statement (e.g., a bachelor is unmarried). Any denial of an analytic statement involves self-contradiction. The Austrian school of economics, asso- ciated with such luminaries as Von Mises and Hayek, claims to be based on analytic propositions or self-evident axioms about human behavior. Synthetic statements are to be tested by verifying them. This was enshrined in the logical positivist’s verifiability principle. Any assertion not conforming to the verifiability principle was either analytic (not in need of any confirmation, being a conceptual or defi- nitional truth) or ‘nonsensical’ (just emotive as in ethics). All scien- tific propositions state something is or is not so. Propositions about ethics, religion, and aesthetics are in consequence cast aside as unsci- entific. Whether these topics are unscientific or not, they are full of meaning (significance) for the human race and it seems an absurdity to attach to them words like ‘nonsensical’ (even if just non-sensical).
In logical positivism, we are being asked as a first step to interpret whether a statement is analytic, synthetic or nonsensical as these distinctions influ- ence all else. The logical positivists aimed to dispense with metaphysics, but an unintended consequence has been to undermine the study of phi- losophy since most of it fell into the category of the nonsensical. On the other hand, there is a reminder here how common it is to find some propo- sition being paraded as empirical (synthetic) when it is analytic, simply a conceptual truth like saying the stronger the desire for some product, the more the motivation to obtain it. And it is equally common to find views expressed as ‘obviously true’ (analytic) when evidence is needed in support. In life generally, it is impossible to have empirical support for everything we claim. If what someone says or writes ‘makes sense’, forms a coherent argument, then others are apt just to go along and demand evidence only when their concerns oblige them to do so. A.J. Ayer (1936) recommended a weaker version of the verifiability principle, namely, that a sentence is factually significant to someone if, and only if, that person knows what observations would lead him or her, under certain conditions, to accept it as being true or reject it as being false.26 Ayer (1973) was to claim that his weaker principle made sense as it avoids condemning as nonsense scientific laws not reducible to descriptive experience.27
The distinction between analytic and synthetic statements is still com- monly (and usefully) made. We all need to be aware of what statements are true as a matter of logic and what statements require empirical support. Quine (1951), though, points out that analytic statements are not immune to empirical revision as all beliefs are answerable to experience.28 Kripke (2004) adds the concept of necessary a posteriori truths, quoting examples that were neither simply synthetic nor analytic.29 (Propositions are called
‘a priori’ or, alternatively, ‘a posteriori ‘depending on how they relate to experience: a priori if they come before experience and a posteriori if they put across experience.)
LOGICAL EMPIRICISM AND NATURALISM
Carnap, a prominent member of the Vienna Circle, substituted the term logical empiricism for logical positivism. Logical empiricism is a much more sophisticated version of logical positivism with the goal of science being explanation (not mere description) but continuing to insist that scien- tific hypotheses be testable and potentially falsifiable. The particular brand of logical empiricism that presently seems to hold most sway is naturalism. For the naturalist, the only scientific explanation is the causal explanation. Naturalism in the philosophy of science has become the current orthodoxy though there are many critics (see Rea, 2003).30
Naturalism endorses the methods of the natural sciences in interpreting reality, seeing the natural sciences as the authority on what there is in the world and what the world is like. However, while naturalism accepts meth- odological monism it rejects the notion that science must be built on direct sensory experience, never going beyond what is observable. It acknowl- edges that every scientific term cannot always be defined operationally, that is, captured or measured in observational language. This is in line with modern physics, which no longer insists on operational definitions for all concepts employed in a theory, since a concept may be useful even if never observed, like the electron. What naturalism, however, does insist on is that scientific explanations be causal, acknowledging there are many kinds of causal explanations.
A parallel claim to that of methodological monism (the belief that there is only one set of scientific methods and these are the methods used in the natural sciences) is that the study of human beings requires a distinct meth- odology of its own, borrowing nothing from the methods of the natural sciences. Both methodological monism and the counterclaim for distinct methods for studying human action, Roth categorizes as methodological exclusivism.31 Methodological exclusivism is not just confined to positivist writers on social science like Rudner32 who are methodological monists but those like Winch who claim the social sciences require a distinct method- ology of their own.33 Winch (1958) argues that, if the objects of study are essentially sensory data, they can typically be studied via the methods of the natural sciences. But if the object of study is human beings, acting in a way that expresses a way of life, such a study comes under the heading of the humanities and calls for methods distinct from the natural sciences. There is a danger today of replacing methodological monism with the claim that the social (human) sciences require a unique methodology of their own.
A complete denial of methodological monism is methodological pluralism that rejects the claim that there is any one set of methods that provides a privileged access to reality and truth. Methodological pluralism implies we can be an anti-positivist when rejecting methodological monism but still access, when appropriate, the methods of the natural sciences to study human behavior.
Methodological pluralism rejects any claim that there is just one set of methods that gives privileged access to studying and explaining human behavior. Whatever the controversy over Feyerabend’s (1977) book Against Method, with its anti-objectivism thesis, it has wide appeal in arguing that there is no one way to conduct successful science and science cannot be restricted to following one set of rules, regardless of subject matter; there are just ‘different methods for different topics’.34 Interpretation alone, with its focus on meanings and intentions, will not answer all questions asked. As Fay (1996) says, social scientists ask questions not only about the mean- ings (significance) of various acts but also want to know about the causal factors which give rise to and support the continuing existence of certain meanings. He or she will want to identify the causes of actions.
‘Critical pluralism’ is methodological pluralism with the recognition of the need to subject all theories, models or hypotheses to critical scrutiny. In philosophy, there has been an undermining of faith in universal laws, absolute proof and disproof and related notions such as empirical verifica- tion, the possibility of a neutral observation language, uninterpreted facts, value-free judgments and the correspondence theory of truth (truth as cor- responding to the objective facts in the world outside) as representing ratio- nality at its best. Even physicists are beginning to entertain the notion that the laws of nature might not be fundamental in that they might not apply to other universes.
The attraction of methodological monism (as opposed to methodologi- cal pluralism) is that, in insisting on the methods used in the natural sci- ences, it dictates what type of evidence is acceptable as ‘hard’ evidence. In a world where absolute proof is unobtainable, this seems important. Not surprisingly, many worry about the relativist slant suggested by an ‘any- thing goes’ position. Even if it is not exactly a case of ‘anything goes’, the assertion that any justification procedure is simply whatever is accepted by the scientific community for that discipline (as suggested by Kuhn35 ) seems to make the scientific review process sound like a ‘popularity’ con- test. Hence some writers argue there must be universal, objective standards or rules for the conduct of science and scientific thinking, just as there are rules for valid deductive arguments. In a deductive argument we infer from premises to conclusion as in the syllogism so beloved in logic texts: All men are fallible, Socrates is a man, and therefore Socrates is fallible. The prem- ises logically entail the conclusion, making the argument a valid one. But only if the premises are true is the conclusion also true. But an alternative position is that there can be premature closure on methods with the danger of rationally defensible methods being excluded.
Although ‘anything goes’ was the slogan Feyerabend (1977) used to sum up his position on choosing a methodology, Feyerabend was not (as commonly claimed) saying rationality should be abandoned but insisting that methods be evaluated by results and not by their adherence to some set of dogmatic guidelines.36 He was not recommending that scientists or researchers proceed without rules but that they should expand the inventory of rules, with the recognition that there are standards operating ‘locally’, tied to a specific research process: his intention was not to reject rationality but to recognize it takes many forms
Neither the methods used in the natural sciences nor interpretive approaches are certain to yield true knowledge. Quine (1970), the philoso- pher, talks of the underdetermination of theories in that it is possible to formulate scientific theories that are empirically equivalent but logically incompatible.37 But what is logically possible need not be probable. In any case, underdetermination is not universal. Kitcher (2001) illustrates this by pointing out that we still seem unable to think of a rival hypothesis to that which states that the typical structure of the DNA is a double helix with sugar-phosphate backbones and bases jutting inwards.38
For Quine, theories in the natural sciences are not a mirror of reality as there is ‘no unvarnished news of the world’. Quine sees knowledge as a combination of sensory evidence and subjective creation (construction) and denies we can distinguish these two elements in any analysis of knowl- edge. Quine’s (1970) ‘indeterminacy of translation thesis’ maintains that there are no universal meanings or logical standards through which we can arrive at some uniquely correct interpretation of the utterances of oth- ers. He stresses his ‘indeterminacy of translation’ applies to all psychologi- cal theories that rely on the interpretation of verbal behavior as data (e.g., answers to a questionnaire).39 This has relevance to marketing research. He shows that researchers can never be absolutely sure their interpreta- tions reflect the structure and meaning of the thought which the speaker intended to communicate. But then no scientists can be absolutely sure their theories reflect absolute truth.
There are no impartial observers of behavior; we deceive ourselves if we think there are. We are not even sure of the truth conditions for employing the concept of impartiality. All interpretations possess a quality shaped by past experiences, interests, and what things mean to us: we are not just cameras selecting and recording various scenes but infuse the scenes with something of ourselves. It is not just the Eiffel Tower that registers but my Eiffel Tower colored by my own past and its meanings.
The best defense of methodological pluralism or critical pluralism rests on the observation that different methods address different questions and that different methodologies go with different explanatory systems. If we insist on a methodology that is quantitative, this limits the questions we are able to ask. There is the inherent danger that the questions addressed will be those that fit some favored technique; the researcher acting like the little boy with a hammer who finds everything needs pounding (or it may be that, when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail). Different explanatory systems or paradigms represent different conceptual lenses through which to view the world and may seek to answer different ques- tions. What caused A to do B? What function was performed by A doing B? What meaning does doing B have for A? If we are interested in questions about inner mental states, we do not go to radical behaviorism for answers. If we are interested in cultural, social and emotional influences on behavior, we are unlikely to look to cognitive psychology and so on.
Krausz (1993) illustrates how the particular explanatory system adopted determines interests addressed. Thus he argues that a Marxist interpreta- tion of Van Gogh’s Potato Eaters would be superior to a psychological interpretation in terms of its power to reveal the relations of economic insti- tutions, but a psychological interpretation would be superior to a Marxist interpretation in its power to reveal the character of its leading figures.40
INTERPRETATION IN ACCORDANCE WITH POPPER’S FALSIFIABILITY PRINCIPLE
Popper (1959) substituted falsifiability for verifiability as the necessary con- dition for any hypothesis to be interpreted as potentially scientific on the ground that scientific theories or hypotheses can be falsified but never com- pletely proven.41 This claim by Popper is still quoted as orthodoxy by many in social science, though Duhem, a French physicist, early on in the 20th century demonstrated that the falsifiability of a scientific law in an absolute sense is also not demonstrable.42 In any case, social science theories do not commonly come along with obvious ways of testing them. Determining how to test a theory may require considerable ingenuity, more than that needed to think of the theory itself.
INTERPRETATION IN ACCORDANCE WITH THE CORRESPONDENCE THEORY OF TRUTH
The verifiability principle of the logical positivists went hand in hand with the correspondence theory of truth. This asserts that something is true or can be interpreted as true, if it corresponds with the ‘facts’: the idea of the world consisting of unambiguous facts to be objectively observed and gen- eralized about was a central tenet of positivism. However, the correspon- dence theory of truth is less operational than it seems, once we recognize that the notion of truth is semantic in that it depends, first and foremost, on the interpretation of the meaning of the expression whose truth is being determined. (Hence that favorite retort: “It all depends on what you mean by . . .”). In any case, if we were to fully accept all the tenets of logical positivism today, there would be little in social science that would pass the logical positivists’ criteria for being a science.
Anyone who doubts this might consult the (already cited) Handy and Harwood’s (1973) review of the social sciences from the point of view of logical positivism.43 There is not much they acknowledge as science among the so-called social sciences. However, when we speak of positivists today we are not talking about those who subscribe to the doctrines of logical positivism but to those who focus on empirical observation, causal expla- nation, experimentation, measurement and testing. There is the assumption we can avoid interpretive bias stemming from preconceptions, self-interests and sympathies. But bias is a problem for all ‘impartial’ inquiries. Kagan (2006), a Harvard psychologist, says it took him years to shake off the prejudices against biology acquired from behaviorism and psychoanalytic theory.44 As he says:
The ideas indoctrinated during graduate training can limit the concep- tions the mature investigator entertains. I used to begin the first meet- ing of my graduate seminar by telling the dozen or so students that much of what I had been taught at Yale turned out to be mistaken, so they remained skeptical of everything I said over the next four months. (Kagan, 2006, p. 112 )
The indoctrination to which Kagan refers mainly applies to his training in behaviorism and psychoanalytic theory. His verdict seems a little harsh. Every paradigm like behaviorism in the social sciences is a way of seeing but also a way of not-seeing; answering different questions or offering dif- ferent windows onto a problem, with some windows clearer than others, depending on the questions being addressed.
In life generally, we have perspectives that lead to bias. Judson (2005), challenging alleged differences in the sexes, points out that when American symphony orchestras introduced blind auditions in the 1970s, where the musicians being evaluated played behind a screen so gender was invisible, the number of women offered jobs in professional orchestras increased.45
Posner (2004), in discussing the International Court of Justice in The Hague, maintains the judges, 90% of the time, vote in favor of their countries if they are parties to the litigation; vote for states that are more like their home states; favor wealthy states if their home states are wealthy; favor poor states if their home states are poor, while judges from democracies appear to favor democracies and judges from authoritarian states appear to favor authoritarian states.46 We would find analogous (if less apparent) biases among judges elsewhere, which is why there are appeal courts. In the news media political bias is pervasive. What The Economist (May 5, 2007, p. 11) says about the motto of the pro-Republican Fox News (‘We report, You decide’) is “about as convincing as an anchorman’s suntan.” Regular viewers of Fox News claim it is the least biased of the news channels. A news report may not obviously lie but simply ignore contextual factors that would induce a different interpretation.
In academia there is a good deal of groupthink, with faculties often selected on the basis of likeness in perspective. Thus the mathematical model build- ers may determine such skills to be the basic criteria for selection. The result is a sort of intellectual incest prone to the PLU syndrome; only ‘People Like Us’ should be considered. One former president of Yale doubted whether the truly innovative could overcome the collective bias to get tenure. I hope this is not true but perhaps it needed to be said to remind us of how perspectives grounded in our commitments guide our judgments.
Can We Interpret Statements as Simply True or False? Austin’s
Performatives and the Analytic/Synthetic Distinction
John L. Austin, a linguistic philosopher, pointed out that there are classes of utterances that are perfectly meaningful but cannot be said to be either empirically true or simply analytic. To say, for example, “I promise I will buy you that bicycle tomorrow” is neither true nor false, neither describing nor evaluating but simply doing or acting. Only humans can make prom- ises and assume sufficient commitment to retain that promise in memory. This does not rule out interpretation and no statement is immune from mis- interpretation. Austin called such utterances ‘performatives’ (though they never quite lived up to his claim about them never being true or false).
Austin’s (1962) book How to Do Things with Words has become a major source for speech act theory, with its distinctions between locutionary, illo- cutionary and perlocutionary ‘forces’ in speech acts or utterances.47 These distinctions are useful in the interpretation of speech acts.
All three speech acts are present in a speech act. Locutionary utterances say something with an inherent, public meaning (that is, meaning appar- ent to users of the language, e.g., “I will be there’). The expression of any proper sentence is a locutionary utterance. Locutionary speech acts con- tain illocutionary acts since what one does in saying something like ‘I will be there’ is carry out a speech act that declares intent. Illocutionary acts have intentional meaning with the force of affirming, promising , denying, vowing, diagnosing, suggesting, thanking, appointing etc., and entail the execution of some recognized type of action of intent such as “I do” at a wedding ceremony. In other words, they involve interpreting intention, purpose, reason or motive. Thus choosing a product and walking toward the checkout register signifies intent to buy.
Correctly interpreting an act as illocutionary implies the total context points to intention without the need to ask about desires and beliefs. Thus the interpretation of intentions is a matter of knowing the context in which the speech act occurred. Context is all important. It is common in politics (and elsewhere) to take an opponent’s remarks out of context, which can be damning when subtracted from context. The combination of the locution- ary and the illocutionary speech acts gives rise to perlocutionary utterances. The perlocutionary act is the act you succeed in performing by means of the two preceding speech acts. Consequential meaning is involved because the utterance has consequences. Thus “I will be there” has the consequence of getting the hearer to take this into account.
Austin’s distinctions stress the importance of performative utterances in interpretation and draw attention to the fact that interpreting for truth and falsity characterize but a relatively small set of utterances. The larger set is made up of performative utterances like promising, consenting, veto- ing, approving etc., where the utterance itself is the performance of the language act and not a report of that performance.
Treating utterances as intentional acts, we can ask “How many kinds of illocutionary acts are there?” Austin posited five basic types of illocution- ary act which provide categories for interpreting speech of any sort:
(i) Assertions or intention to tell people how things are, as happens when salespeople talk about their product.
(ii) Directives or intention to get people to do things, as when salespeople try to close the sale.
(iii) Commissives or intention to commit ourselves to do things, as occurs with promises to buy.
(iv) Expressives or intention to express our feelings and attitudes, as when we comment on the service in a restaurant.
(v) Declarations or intention to seek to bring about changes in the world through our utterances so things are changed in line with the content of the utterance, as occurs in registering a complaint about the service.
Austin’s work has instigated two forms of analysis, namely, conversation analysis and discourse analysis.
• Conversation analysis (CA) links not only to Austin but to Garfinkel’s ethnomethodology48 in that it aims to describe how people produce orderly social interaction or how conversations are coordinated as a basis for interpreting what is going on.
• Discourse analysis (DA) focuses on the analysis of recorded talk, going beyond ordinary conversation since discourses can take place in institutional settings.
Austin was fond of noting features of language that surprise us. In one lec- ture at Columbia University he pointed out that, while a double negative is equivalent to a positive, never does a double positive amount to a negative. From the audience the familiar voice of philosopher Sidney Morgenbesser dismissively called out, “Yeah, yeah” (Ryerson, 2004).49 This is an exem- plary illustration of how something that is spoken, as opposed to written, can alter an interpretation. ‘Yeah, yeah’ could in fact have been said in a way that signified agreement but instead was said in a highly skeptical manner leading us to acknowledge that a double positive can amount to a negative.
INTERPRETATION UNDER NOMOTHETIC AND IDEOGRAPHIC PERSPECTIVES
If we could explain human behavior as falling under some law, we could simply infer the behavior from the law. No conjecture as with interpretation as it falls under a nomothetic (law-like) explanation. A nomothetic explana- tion invokes universal laws for explaining repeatable events and processes. Although we talk of laws in the natural sciences as being unconditionally universal, in many branches of the natural sciences, laws are stated as being universally valid only under certain ‘ideal’ conditions, for pure cases of the phenomena being discussed. The discrepancies, however, between what the scientific law asserts and what observation discloses can be accounted for by well-authenticated discrepancies between the ideal conditions and the actual conditions being observed. This is where the natural sciences score over the social sciences. Even in economics, the discrepancy between the assumed ideal conditions for an economic law to apply and the actual con- ditions in the market are usually so huge and the postulations needed to fill the gap are so tricky and complicated that the strategy used by the natural sciences is infeasible.
Ideographic disciplines seek to understand the unique event, as history sometimes claims it does. Ideographic explanation is associated with pro- cess tracing or genetic explanation which traces the set of causal factors giving rise to the situation. It is an explanation that links to the historian but it can be used in tracing the historical (causal) antecedents in reaching any present situation (see Chapter 6).
If we think consumers for some purposes are tokens of each other who operate in strictly defined contexts, we may adopt a nomothetic approach and seek universal law-like findings. If we believe each of our subjects is essentially different, we adopt a more ideographic approach. The adoption of a nomothetic approach does not necessarily imply we actually subscribe to the notion that people are exact tokens of each other but simply that the approach may provide the best working hypoth- esis for the research at hand. Consumers are not tokens of each other in wants or behavior. Even in eating the same food two people experience profoundly different sensations.
There are no universal laws that apply to purposive behavior. If there are no universal laws on buying behavior or elsewhere in social science, it is pre- sumptuous to give advice as if there were. Specific advice depends not just on knowing social science findings but on knowing contexts. This is where experience comes in: the manager’s knowledge of contexts is all-important if ‘expert’ advice is to have relevance. What every manager has to avoid is being manipulated by pseudo profundity where the advisor starts by slowly asserting some truism (‘Quality decisions presuppose quality information’) and moves on to claims couched in jargon, suggesting both sets of state- ments can be equally accepted as true.
INTERPRETATION UNDER METHODOLOGICAL INDIVIDUALISM AND METHODOLOGICAL HOLISM
The question arises as to whether in interpreting or indeed explaining human behavior in markets, families, businesses, social classes, or deci- sion-making units requires anything more than aggregating the individual interpretations or explanations of action. This question is answered dif- ferently by “methodological individualists” and “methodological holists” who represent two contrasting perspectives in social science.
Methodological holism focuses on social wholes, not individuals, as the building units of social science. Emile Durkheim (1858–1917), the French sociologist, saw holism as support for the distinctness of sociology as a social science and claimed that, while social forces work through individu- als, social facts influence and constrain individual behavior. Methodologi- cal individualism, in contrast, focuses on the individual agent.
Methodological holism has attractions for social scientists in that their interest generally lies in the behavior of groups, not the differences among members, while causes in social science apply more to groups than individ- uals. On the other hand, people are not tokens of each other, nor do group norms enforce complete conformity.
If methodological individualists discount the scientific usefulness of social wholes, methodological holists discount the influence of individuals when considering social behavior. Holists regard social groups ‘as if’ inde- pendent of their members as individuals. It asserts that theories of social behavior are not reducible to the behavior of individuals and those collec- tive entities like “social group” are not specifiable in terms of individual behavior. Methodological holism postulates that social wholes, like firms, competitors, and society, have functions, can cause events to happen and can cause individual wants, beliefs and actions to change. It does not regard social phenomena as reducible to individual psychology. Holists reject such “reductionism” entirely.
Schumpeter and Hayek, the economists, and Popper, the philosopher, claim (as did John Stuart Mill in the 19th century) that social phenom- ena are wholly explainable in terms of facts about individuals. Schumpeter referred to this as methodological individualism. Watkins neatly puts for- ward the claims of methodological individualism that:50
• The ultimate constituents of the social world are individuals who act more or less appropriately in the light of their wants and beliefs given the situation.
• Every event or institution is the result of a particular configuration of individuals, their dispositions, situations, beliefs, physical resources and environment. All interpretations or explanations of human actions, achievements, etc., stem from the goals, wants, beliefs, resources and the interrelations of individuals. Social institutions and social change are explained by showing how they come into being as a result of the actions and interactions of individuals. For example, whenever we refer to diffusion theory in marketing, based as it is on the behavior of individuals, we assume methodological individualism.
Watkins acknowledges that interpreting group behavior presupposes under- standing social facts like a society’s institutions or its bureaucratic struc- tures but argues such understanding is also needed to interpret individual action since actions are taken within a temporal and contextual frame- work. While agreeing that the behavior that characterizes a group may not necessarily be a simple summation of individual behavior and that group concepts and explanations may on occasions be useful, he argues that they are never “rock bottom” unless built up from explanations of individual behavior. Watkins concedes that some social regularity is inexplicable in individualistic terms if they are the outcome of a large number of “acci- dents” or simply the “automatic” group behavior such as that which fol- lows an earthquake. Nozick (1974) endorses this view in claiming it makes no sense to think of society making choices, as only individuals can make choices.51 And Kenneth Arrow (1963), the economist shows, on the most plausible of assumptions, that there is no rule for combining individual preferences into a social choice that does not generate paradoxes.52 But the debate continues as is apparent in Amartya Sen’s (2003) recent book.53
For methodological individualism, all social, political, economic and marketing behaviors are capable of being interpreted in terms of the unin- tended/intended consequences of the actions of individuals. Even large social processes like inflation and the trade cycle are viewed in terms of individual behavior. Methodological individualists consider concepts like “group mind” “national mood”, “institutions” or “classes” as either reified nonsense or analyzable into the actions of individuals. A related concept, “psychologistic individualism”, identifies each individual with a given psy- chological state. Thus neoclassical economics is based on psychologistic individualism in that it identifies every individual with his or her util- ity function. However, methodological individualism need not embrace psychologistic individualism. Thus, while Popper (1972) subscribes to methodological individualism, he identifies individuals with their problem- situation and not with a psychological state.54 Yet Popper believes institu- tions are never entirely explained in terms of individuals though regarding all institutions as the creation of individual decision makers. This position is highly defensible.
The reason that prediction is successful in the natural sciences is that scien- tific laws working at the level of the individual atoms can be integrated into new laws as we move up to more complex systems. For example, the laws of electrical charges bring about those of thermodynamics and chemistry. It is interesting to reflect on the physical sciences, as opposed to the social sciences. Thus all species of elementary particles, like electrons, manifest absolutely no individuality but are completely identical. The result is that elementary particles give rise to an unusual interdependence, as described in quantum theory. As Pesic (2002) points out, chemistry like physics also depends on this loss of individuality.55 But consumers, as people, are not tokens of each other but possess individuality.
Reductionism, as advocated by the logical positivists, seeks to reduce all the macro-sciences to the micro-sciences so that psychology (say) is finally explainable in terms of neurobiology, which, in turn, is explain- able in terms of physics. Reductionism in psychology is the conviction that mental states, events and processes can be shown to be neural occurrences. Unfortunately, we do not have any cluster of laws in psychology to reduce and, even if we did, we do not know how such laws could be derived from biology or physics. But, nonetheless, there is still this pursuit of reducing mental states to neural occurrences. But we are a long way from being able to interpret mental happenings in terms of neurobiology.
What about the natural sciences? Even in biology, few believe that bio- logical processes can be understood by just studying genes and molecules. A major unsolved problem in physics is how Einstein’s theory of gravity (general relativity theory) can be united with quantum theory. String the- ory (now called M-theory) is the most popular approach to this problem at present. It is promoted as something that can explain all the laws of physics and all the forces of nature: a reductionist dream. String theory is pursued as a ‘theory of everything’, as advocates of string theory claim that string theory embraces both gravity and quantum mechanics. The theory posits that the basic constituents of matter and energy are not point-like particles but infinitesimally tiny wriggling strings and loops that vibrate in 10 dimensions. What appear to be different particles representing electrons and quarks are simply different ways for the strings to vibrate: vibrations that give rise to all the forces and particles in the physical realm.
String theory is a visionary interpretation of reductionism in physics. Those advocates of string theory are ideologically followers of Einstein, who in his later life sought unified field theories while in disagreement with those like Niels Bohr, who embraced the quantum revolution in physics. Einstein rejected the quantum revolution, which started with the sugges- tions that light and heat radiation are emitted in small packages called quanta, and instead fell back on his imagination and reason alone to start a second revolution.
String theory has not yielded to empirical verification but the sheer reach of the theory, its beauty and elegance makes it too promising to let go. The absence of experimental evidence in support is not decisive (after all, no hard evidence is just that—no hard evidence) for a theory that eventually might reconcile quantum mechanics (which governs all particles) with gen- eral relativity theory (which describes how matter and gravity interact on the larger scale). But Laughlin (2005) is skeptical, regarding string theory as without practical utility other than to sustain the myth of some ultimate theory of everything.56 For him, string theory is an exemplar of the ‘Deceit- ful Turkey’; a beautiful set of ideas that always remain out of reach.
From the point of view of this book, string theory represents a revolu- tionary new perspective for interpreting reality which has given rise to lots of misunderstandings and detractors (Horgan, 1996).57 But ultimately, as a claim in physics, string theory must be subject to experimental testing. Physicists know this all too well, since a single experiment, the Michelson- Morley experiment carried out in 1887, dispelled the notion of the ‘ether’ (that hypothetical medium assumed to be a necessary condition to support the propagation of electromagnetic radiation). But this will not be easy, as string theory does not throw up a single model of physics but trillions of models, with Susskind (2005), in a book on the basic concepts of particle physics, viewing each potential model as corresponding to another universe as real as our own!58
Many in social science find it inconceivable that the concepts and expla- nations of physics will be able to capture the whole of reality as suggested by reductionism. But eliminative materialists claim that, at least in prin- ciple, it is possible to explain all behavior without reference to anything happening in the mind; reducing everything to neurology. Critics argue that explanations of behavior that confine themselves to physiology and neurology are capable of explaining only involuntary behavior (physical movements) but not intentional action; a difference often illustrated by the difference between the ‘blink’ and the ‘wink’. There may be only one expla- nation of a reflex movement but human action is interpreted in terms of the context, so a raised hand can be to call attention, or be an attempt to get goods on the top shelf or an attempt to hit someone! For in science, many concepts only apply to macro-phenomena in that, say, ‘temperature’ and ‘pressure’ only make any sense at the macro level since an atom alone can- not have pressure or temperature.
Methodological holism is anti-reductionist on the ground that there are autonomous levels in science that are not reducible to explanations at lower levels. While methodological individualism in social science could be inter- preted as reductionist, it implicitly recognizes the problems of excessive reductionism by staying at the level of the individual.
The debate between holism and individualism has a long history in soci- ology (e.g., the individualistic approach of Max Weber versus the holistic approach of Durkheim). In a way, it is a reflection of a modern version of a still older debate between ‘realism’ and ‘nominalism’. Nominalists claim that only individual things are real, that universal categories like man, soci- ety, and market are mere names applied to classes of things. Those who stress context and symbolism and underwrite uniqueness come close to supporting nominalism. Today, the debate is less heated as few of us believe we must take sides. To many social scientists, the basic question is not whether group concepts or group explanations are replaceable with con- cepts or explanations at the individual level but whether something is lost if interpretations or explanations of social behavior are couched purely in terms of individual psychology.