book spotlight: interpretation and social snowledge by isaac a. reed
A lot of people have bugged me about Isaac Reed‘s book, Interpretation and Social Knowledge: On the use of theory in the human sciences. It’s a book that offers an explanation (sorry!) of the different ways that social researchers construct explanations. I think this a wonderful and engaging book, but it has some major points that I disagree with. Let’s just say that, me and this book are frenemies.
This book argues that there are three types of explanations to be found in the social sciences. There is “naturalism” or “positivism,” where explanations are tied to a social reality that is “out there.” There are normative explanations, which focus on social processes because of what they say about some ideal state derived from ethical theory (e.g., Habermas’ public sphere account vs. the theory communicative action). The third style of explanation situates human action within worlds of meaning, which Reed calls interpretive sociology.
Let’s start with what I like. Despite the occasional wordiness that is typical in the social theory genre, this is actually a short and elegant book. I enjoyed this book. I think Reed’s typology of social research is valuable and on target. If I were to teach graduate theory, I’d assign this book. Substantively, Reed is correct in pointing out that what makes social research distinctive is meaning. Indeed, with the exception of rational choice, nearly every major development in the social sciences addresses the role of meanings and beliefs. Institutionalists talk about cultural stemplates. There’s toolboxes, schema, habitus, and so forth. These are all attempts to integrate theories of action with theory of psychology and beliefs. Reed is also to be applauded in arguing that social explanation, to be effective, must situate an individuals moods or dispositions within a “cultural landscape.”
I level a few criticisms at this book. One is purely stylistic. The book is filled with loving references to the likes of Roy Bhaskar and post-modernism. I don’t think their work adds much to Reed’s main point. I can easily that some sociologists would just stop reading. Why would a demographer or labor market researcher bother with such a book? There’s a lot of preaching to the choir.
Second, there’s a big argument that interpretive sociology is inherently different than the naturalist or positivist sociology that takes it cues from the physical sciences. My view is different. Ideas about falsification, inference, data collection, hypothesis testing, and so forth can be applied to systems of symbols and meaning. In linguistics, for example, there are successful research programs that focus on how systems of language evolve and are put together. No reason that can’t be applied to the historical study of colonialism, Christianity, or whatever. In fact, there is something called schema theory in psychological anthropology, which takes Reed’s idea of “cultural landscapes” and converts it into a positivist research agenda.
The separation of interpretation from naturalism is even more implausible once we consider how the same argument would play out in the natural sciences. Let’s take biology. It’s fairly clear that you can’t understand animal behavior without thinking about the organism’s history and ecosystem. So what should a biologist do? Option A: Develop a general principle that will help us explain variation in ecosystems, organisms, and evolution. Option B: Ditch the ideas of normal science and do ad hoc interpetations of different animals and their ecosystems. I hope that the reader thinks, along with Darwin, that option A is very desirable.
Those that separate qualitative and interpretive research from positivist modes of social science are missing something important. Meaning systems, or cultural landscapes, are complicated systems built up from simpler structures that are embedded in larger systems. “American culture” is emergent from American words, emotions, norms, social practices, and so forth. If you buy that argument, then the link between interpretive work and naturalist social science is obvious. You need a positivist explanation of how these complex systems are born, evolve, and operate. It’s not an easy problem by any means, but it’s one that easily fits within the ideas that we associate with natural science.
Reed does make some points in this direction. For example, in chapter four, he says that interpretations should be “locally consistent.” But he needs to go farther. Interpretation needs to always have an eye on general principles. Interpretations of different groups and historical eras need to be consistent with each in ways that provide guidance for future research. Without such an imperative, interpretive sociology threatens to devolve into the solipsism of historical specificity.