Link to Table of Contents Birdie Index Theory: Tension Between Interpretation and Empiricism

Dear Habermas Logo and Link to Site Index A Justice Site

Social Theory

California State University, Dominguez Hills
Created: May 21, 2000
Latest update: May 21, 2001

Balancing Interpretation and Empiricism

Review and Teaching Essay by Jeanne Curran and Susan R. Takata and Independent authors.
Copyright: Jeanne Curran and Susan R. Takata, May 2001. Fair use "encouraged."

In this essay, I've given you an example of a comment from the Hab list. On e-mail lists such as the Hab list, scholars share discussions on topics in their fields. The Spring semester of 2001 was so hectic I'd barely had time to skim the posts. Then, Monday morning, as I struggled to sort out precepts for our graduate theory course in the Fall of 2001, I came across this post, in which Steve Chilton comments that Habermas balances theory with empiricism, giving neither priority, in keeping with the tension between empiricism and interpretative approaches. .

On Monday, May 21, 2001, Steve wrote on the Hab list:

H. uses a reconstructive (dialectical) logic, where theory and empirical reality are "always" mutually correcting, neither having priority over the other. So it seems to me that his consideration of empirical doubts is important -- not only immediately, to fend off those empirical issues that might undercut his theoretical position, but also in the long run, as a sign that he is staying intellectually honest by considering these problems.

Stephen Chilton, Associate Professor
Department of Political Science
University of Minnesota-Duluth

On May 21, 2001, jeanne wrote:

One of the classic tensions in social theory is between empiricism and interpretation. Positivism gained such a stronghold in the U.S. through the enlightenment conviction that science ultimately held the answer to a utopian world of plenty for all. During the whole modern period, science held sway, only now coming to the realization that science cannot answer all our questions, that there is to be no utopian world of plenty for all, but a world of post-scarciy.

One of the effects of this long preference for empiricism has been the privileging of the empiricist belief in objective neutrality. But there are wicked little unstated assumptions lurking behind our "presuppositions," our "models," our "ideologies," "the meta-implicatons of models, and the connotations of definitions" that destroy that illusion. (Alexander, at p.26.) Jeffrey Alexander puts it like this:

"Current disputes between interpretative and causal methodologies, ultilitarian and normative conceptions of action, equilibrium and conflict models of societies, radical and conservative theories of change - these are far more than empirical arguments. They reflect efforts by sociologists to articulate criteria for evaluating the 'truth' of different non-empirical domains."

Jeffrey Alexander, "The Centrality of the Classics" in Social Theory Today, Giddens and Turner, 1987, Polity Press. ISBN: 0-8047-1514-9. At. p. 26.

Here is the way that Giddens and Turner describe this dilemma in the Introduction to Social Theory Today:

"Logical empiricism tended to be seen not as a particular philosophy of science, having potentially questionable assumptions, but as an incontrovertible model of what science is like. . . . The social sciences [in the logical empiricism] view are non-interpretative processes of culture and communication. As a result, the notion of Verstehen - the understanding of meaning - received short shrift both from authors writing in a directly philosophical vein and from most practising social scientists. . . .

"Over the past two decades, however, a dramatic change has occurred. Within the philosophy of natural science, the hold of logical empiricism has waned under the assalut of writers like Kuhn, Toulmin, Lakatos and Hesse. In its place, a 'new philosophy of science', discarding many of the supposition of preceding views, has emerge. Summarizing the newer conception boldly, the idea that there can be theory-neutral observations is repudiated, whilde system of deductively-linked laws are no longer canonized as the highest ideal of scientific explanation. Most importantly, science is presumed to be an interpretative endeavour, such that problems of meaning, communication and translation are immediately relevant to scientific theories. These developments in the philosophy of natural science have inevitably influenced thinking about the social sciences . . . ."

Some of the privileging of logical positivism came from the desire of social scientists to attain the same level of scientific respectability as the natural sciences, where there is much less uncertainty in measurement than there is in the social sciences. Most of our data, to the extent they form laws at all, form probabilistic laws, not universalistic laws. That means that our interpretation must be stated as something will probably occur:

On a jury, the agreement of eleven people puts stress on the twelfth juror to conform to the verdict of the other eleven. We know from attitude and persuasion theory in which research has shown the group turns its attention to the outlier, or the one who disagrees. If the outlier conforms by agreement with the group, there is group solidarity. If the outlier refuses to conform, the group eventually accepts the lack of consensus, turning away from the outlier. In the case of the jury, we have a hung jury.
The best the social sciences can do with an interpretation of this event is to say that if the group pressures the outlier to reform, the outlier will probably conform in situations where he/she has no particular commitment to his/her original opinion, and will be less likely to conform in situations in which he/she has some vested interest in his/her opinion. Determining whether the interest is vested, and how vested, depends on many assumptions that must be made about the juror's belief in justice, in honesty, in the importance of consensus, and so on. Determining the extent of faith the juror has in his/her own judgment of the situation also depends on myriad unstated assumptions. We cannot measure such variables without recognizing that our empirical data may mask assumptions we have not taken into account. An attempt to interpret our data with more certitude than such assumptions legitimately afford is to deny the inexactitude of our science, and to privilege our own assumptions in measurement.

In John Heritage's Chapter on Ethnomethodology, in Social Theory Today, we read:

"Garfinkel drew extensively on the work of Alfred Schutz who, in a long series of theoretical writings, had created an unanswerable case for the inclusion of a treatment of the actors' knowledge within the theory of action [Parsons] . . . . [C]ommon-sense categories and constructs . . . largely social in origin . . . . are the resources with which social actors interpret their situations of action, grasp the intentions and motivations of others, achieve intersubjective understandings and coordinated actions, nd more generally, navigate the social world . . . . Indeed, Schutz asserted, the contents and properties of these constructs cannot be bypassed without the loss of the basic foundations of social theory - its reference to the social world of everyday life and experieince which is the only ultimate guarantee that the world of social reality will not be replaced by a fictional non-existing world created by the scientific observer' (Schutz: 1963a, p.8)." (Social Theory Today, at p. 229-30.)