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Social Theory as Explanatory Inference 1 June 2006

Posted by Todd in Philosophy & Social Theory, Philosophy of Science, Queer Theory.
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In “hard” sciences, hypotheses precede experimentation and observation, and theories emerge at the end when a hypothesis has been confirmed. Although even scientists often say theory when they mean hypothesis (day-to-day American English uses theory in that way), the more technical way to understand theory is as an idea that has been confirmed through data. In the Western philosophical tradition, there has been an ongoing search for “universal principles”, called for example Eternal Law (Aquinas) or Natural Law (Enlightenment philosophers). Much of science for the past 400 years has been aimed at finding these universal “laws” that define and explain the natural world. This inclination to seek out and infer general principles has become problematic in the social sciences, where theory has become in many ways a hindrance to effective and useful research.

In the social sciences, the idea of theory has created three important problems. First, following both from the 18th century philosophy of science and from German rationalism, early social theorists assumed that they were finding and describing universal laws of human social interaction and human culture. Today, even after the modern, postmodern and anti-foundationalist critiques of universality in human social and cultural life, social theorists have continued, often unthinkingly, to make universal claims. (Ironically, postmodern theorists and their adherents are often as guilty of this as others). Second, social theory and cultural theory (especially in cultural studies) have become ends-in-themselves. Both professionally and intellectually, reading and understanding theorists and then employing them in one's research has become a de facto marker of intelligence (often referred to as “smart” or “getting it”) and sophistication. And so third, theory has come to function as effective hypotheses, as axiomatic assumptions that precede research. So much of sociological, anthropological and, most egregiously, cultural studies research reads as proofs of a preceding theory.

This is a problem of method derived from a faulty understanding of what theory actually is. In “Theory and Reality : An Introduction to the Philosophy of Science”, Peter Godfrey-Smith lays out three different levels of inductive reasoning in the production of scientific theories: 1) induction proper, which infers general principles from available data; 2) explanatory inference, which infers satisfactory explanations of available data, refusing the temptation to make generalizations; and 3) projection, which infers from present knowledge future outcomes. Godfrey-Smith argues that even in the hard sciences, it is most often actually impossible to confirm pure induction and that most scientific thinking should actually lead to explanatory inference.

John Dewey argued that scientific method was merely a formalized and institutionalized version of the natural way that human beings think. That is, based on prior experience, humans project into the future expected outcomes (hypotheses) and act accordingly (experiment); depending on the consequences of their actions (measuring outcomes), the original assumption (hypothesis) is either confirmed or contradicted, producing new concepts based in experience (theory).(1) When the assumption is contradicted, humans act in one of three primary ways: they act to change their environment so that the expected outcomes actually occur; they act to change their minds such that their assumptions are different; or they deny their experience and continue as before, regardless of outcomes.

For Dewey, part of formalizing this natural cognitive process into the scientific method is a particular understanding of theory, where theories are always instrumental–that is, theories are always a conceptual (cognitive) framework to understand lived experience, or the world as experienced by the theorist.

To overcome the methodological problems derived from the way theory is “used” in the social sciences and cultural studies, Dewey's and Godfrey-Smith's analysis of theory can point to a meta-theory of social and cultural research. Given the incredible contingency and multiplicity of variables in cultural and social interactions, social theory must in nearly all cases not be taken as a general principle. Researchers will have been educated in the social theories of others, and these can serve as frameworks and jumping off points for research, but preceding theories should be exploded and rendered transparent in approaching research, laid aside to interpret the data at hand, and in most cases should not serve themselves as hypotheses to be proved. Theory should never determine beforehand what evidence sought or considered nor conclusions drawn. Rather, theory should emerge after the research, through explanatory inference, and it must correspond to the data gathered.

(1) Dewey uses the word theory interchangeably with hypothesis, because he sees theories as being in a kind of cycle, where a beginning theory is constantly tested through experience and revised based on outcomes. This instrumental understanding of theory insists that theories are always in process and never finished, because they are always being adjusted based on experience.

[posted with ecto]

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