several words, all in a row, some about numbers

by Sebastian Benthall

I am getting increasingly bewildered by number of different paradigms available in academic research. Naively, I had thought I had a pretty good handle on this sort of thing coming into it. After trying to tackle the subject head on this semester, I feel like my head will explode.

I’m going to try to break down the options.

  • Nobody likes positivism, which went out of style when Wittgenstein refuted his own Tractatus.
  • Postpositivists say, “Sure, there isn’t really observer-independent inquiry, but we can still approximate that through rigorous methods.” The goal is an accurate description of the subject matter. I suppose this fits into a vision of science being about prediction and control of the environment, so generalizability of results would be considered important. I’d argue that this is also consistent with American pragmatism. I think “postpositivist” is a terrible name and would rather talk/think about pragmatism.
  • Interpretivism, which seems to be a more fashionable term than antipositivism, is associated with Weber and Frankfurt school thinkers, as well as a feminist critique. The goal is for one reader (or scholarly community?) to understand another. “Understanding” here is understood intersubjectively–“I get you”. Interpretivists are skeptical of prediction and control as provided by a causal understanding. At times, this skepticism is expressed as a belief that causal understanding (of people) is impossible; other times it is expressed as a belief that causal understanding is nefarious.

Both teams share a common intellectual ancestor in Immanuel Kant, who few people bother to read.

Habermas has room in his overarching theory for multiple kinds of inquiry–technical, intersubjective, and emancipatory/dramaturgical–but winds up getting mobilized by the interpretivists. I suspect this is the case because research aimed at prediction and control is better funded, because it is more instrumental to power. And if you’ve got funding there’s little incentive to look to Habermas for validation.

It’s worth noting that mathematicians still basically run their own game. You can’t beat pure reason at the research game. Much computer science research falls into this category. Pragmatists will take advantage of mathematical reasoning. I think interpretivists find mathematics a bit threatening because it seems like the only way to “interpet” mathematicians is by learning the math that they are talking about. When intersubjective understanding requires understanding verbatim, that suggests the subject matter is more objectively true than not.

The gradual expansion of computer science towards the social science through “big data” analysis can be seen as a gradual expansion of what can be considered under mathematical closure.

Physicists still want to mathematize their descriptions of the universe. Some psychologists want to mathematize their descriptions. Some political scientists, sociologists, etc. want to mathematize their descriptions. Anthropologists don’t want to mathematize their descriptions. Mathematization is at the heart of the quantitative/qualitative dispute.

It’s worth noting that there are non-mathematized predictive theories, as well as mathematized theories that pretty much fail to predict anything.