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February 01 2012

Defining a social subject: Weber | understandingsociety.blogspot 2012-01-31

How does a sociologist define and conceptualize a subject for research and investigation? And how does a research tradition -- a group of scholars linked by training, scholarly interaction, and mentorship -- do the same thing?  What is the intellectual work that goes into framing an empirical and theoretical conception of a group of related social phenomena -- cities, racism, economic growth, feudalism, or power?

The most evident problem this question raises is the fact that any given social phenomenon itself has multiple aspects and sets of characteristics; so the way we define a research subject is in some important way an expression of what we find "interesting." Let's say that I'm interested in cities.  "How do cities work?"  This might be an economic question; a regional geography question; a cultural question; a question about poverty and segregation; a question about architecture and planning; a question about municipal governance; a question about population characteristics; a question about religion; a question about civil disturbances; and so one, for indefinitely many aspects or features of urban life.

These questions force consideration of several different intellectual acts: selection, conceptualization, and explanation.  Selection has to do with singling out one domain of phenomena for extended empirical and theoretical study.  Conceptualization has to do with providing some intellectual structure in terms of which we can analyze and characterize the phenomena in this domain.  And explanation has to do with discovering meanings, causes, structures, processes, and active social relationships, through which the features of this aspect of the social world takes on the empirical shape that it displays.

I have always thought that Weber had a particularly advanced understanding of this fundamental problem of the social sciences.  His essays on methodology, collected in Methodology of Social Sciences, provide some very interesting thoughts about this set of questions. His essays are primarily aimed at laying out the program of the group of "social economists" who were in the process of defining the research agenda of the Archiv fur Sozialwissenschaft und Sozialpolitik.  But his analysis has general relevance to the problem of defining a social-science research agenda.

One question that Weber raises in these essays is the role that the scholar's values play in his or her selection of a subject matter and a conceptual framework.  "The problems of the social sciences are selected by the value-relevance of the phenomena treated. … Together with historical experience, it shows that cultural (i.e., evaluative) interests give purely empirical scientific work its direction" (21, 22). And again: "In the social sciences the stimulus to the posing of scientific problems is in actuality always given by practical 'questions'. Hence the very recognition of the existence of a scientific problem coincides, personally, with the possession of specifically oriented motives and values" (61).

This point about selectivity and the role of values in the definition of a topic of study applies as well to a research tradition: an orienting set of values lead researchers in the tradition to adhere to a given definition of the topics and approaches that their tradition will pursue.  This adherence can be put clearly as a statement about "importance": "These problems are important for us; we need to better understand these problems." Here is how Weber characterizes the "orienting values" that define the approach taken by the new journal:
In general, they were men who, whatever may have been other divergences in their points of view, set as their goal the protection of the physical well-being of the laboring masses and the increase of the latter's share of the material and intellectual values of our culture. (62)
Selectivity applies to the singling out of an area of social phenomena for study.  But it also applies to a singling out of the specific aspects of this area that the researcher will examine.  And this, in turn, raises the possibility of there being indefinitely many different "scientific studies of X."  Here is a typical formulation of Weber's about this form of selectiveness:
The cultural problems which move men form themselves ever anew and in different colors, and the boundaries of that area in the infinite stream of concrete events which acquire meaning and significance for us, i.e., which becomes an 'historical individual,' are constantly subject to change. The intellectual contexts from which it is viewed and scientifically analyzed shift. The point of departure of the cultural sciences remain changeable throughout the limitless future as long as a Chinese ossification of intellectual life does not render mankind incapable of setting new questions to the eternally inexhaustible flow of life.  (84)
The quality of an event as a "social-economic" event is not something which it possesses "objectively." It is rather conditioned by the orientation of our cognitive interest, as it arises from the specific cultural significance which we attribute to the particular event in a given case. (64)
Here is another statement that implies the open-endedness of the social sciences in their definitions of the topics of research:
The fate of an epoch which has eaten of the tree of knowledge is that it must know that we cannot learn the meaning of the world from the results of its analysis, be it ever so perfect; it must rather be in a position to create this meaning itself. (57)
I take this to mean that assigning meaning to events, processes, or structures is a human activity rather than the discovery of an objective fact about the world. So it is open to social scientists of various generations to reevaluate prior interpretations of the world -- whether of capitalism or feudalism, or of rational behavior or religious identity.  In Weber's own context:
Undoubtedly the selection of the social-economic aspect of cultural life signifies a very definite delimitation of our theme. It will be said that the economic, or as it has been inaccurately called, the "materialistic" point of view, from which culture is here being considered, is "one-sided." This is true and the one-sidedness is intentional. The belief that it is the task of scientific work to cure the "one-sidedness" of the economic approach by broadening it into a general social science suffers primarily from the weakness that the "social" criterion (i.e., the relationships among persons) acquires the specificity necessary for the delimitation of scientific problems only when it is accompanied by some substantive predicate. (67)
Or in other words: there is no general or comprehensive or synoptic approach to defining the social; there is only the possibility of a series of selective and value-guided approaches to defining specific aspects of the social world.  And these one-sided and selective approaches have an enormous epistemological merit: they can allow us to discover specific, concrete forms of interconnection among social phenomena as we have defined them.
The justification of the one-sided analysis of cultural reality from specific "points of view" -- in our case with respect to its economic conditioning -- emerges purely as a technical expedient from the fact that training in the observation of the effects of qualitatively similar categories of causes and the repeated utilization of the same scheme of concepts and hypotheses offers all the advantages of the division of labor. (71)
There is no absolutely "objective" scientific analysis of culture -- or put perhaps more narrowly but certainly not essentially differently for our purposes -- of "social phenomena" independent of special and "one-sided" viewpoints according to which...they are selected, analyzed, and organized for expository purposes.  The reasons for this lie in the character of the cognitive goal of all research in social science which seeks to transcend the purely formal treatment of the legal or conventional norms regulating social life. (72)
All the analysis of infinite reality which the finite human mind can conduct rests on the tacit assumption that only a finite portion of this reality constitutes the object of scientific investigation, and that only it is "important" in the sense of being "worthy of being known". (72)
For me, all of this comes down to a rather straightforward and compelling conclusion on Weber's part: there is no social topic or problem for which we might provide a complete, final, and comprehensive analysis.  Rather, we are forced, and we are entitled, to always bring forward new perspectives and new aspects of the problem, and arrive at new insights about how the phenomena hang together when characterized in these new ways.

Or in other words, whether he ever actually said it or not, Weber was forced to believe that the history of Rome is never complete; each generation is free to create its new frameworks and perspectives on Rome, and telling its story according to a different set of concepts and insights.

(In the course of thinking about this topic I came across this very interesting paper by Richard Swedberg on "Max Weber's Vision of Economics" (link). The paper presents a very compelling critique of the way that neoclassical economics defines the subject matter of "economics," and gives a strong statement of how Weber's broader and more historical understanding of the subject -- which he referred to as "social economics" -- is of contemporary importance.)
Reposted from02myhumsci-01 02myhumsci-01

January 21 2012

Knowledge naturalized and socialized | understandingsociety.blogspot 2012-01-19

There has been a field of philosophy for quite a long time called "epistemology naturalized." (Here are good articles on naturalized epistemology and evolutionary epistemology in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.) Putting the point simply, the goal of this field is to reconcile two obvious points:
  • Human beings are natural organisms, with cognitive faculties that have resulted from a process of natural selection.  All our beliefs about the world have been created and evaluated using these natural and biologically contingent faculties, generally in social interaction with other knowers.
  • We want to assert that our beliefs about the world are rationally and empirically supportable, and they have a certain probability of being approximately true.
The first point is a truism about the knowledge-producing organism.  The second is an expectation of what we want our beliefs to accomplish in terms of their relationships to the external world.

One of the earliest exponents of naturalized epistemology was W.V.O. Quine in "Epistemology Naturalized", included in Ontological Relativity (1969). Here is a definitive statement of his approach:
Epistemology, or something like it, simply falls into place as a chapter of psychology and hence of natural science. It studies a natural phenomenon, viz., a physical human subject. This human subject is accorded a certain experimentally controlled input -- certain patterns of irradiation in assorted frequencies, for instance -- and in the fullness of time the subject delivers as output a description of the three-dimensional external world and its history. The relation between the meager input and the torrential output is a relation that we are prompted to study for somewhat the same reasons that always prompted epistemology: namely, in order to see how evidence relates to theory, and in what ways one's theory of nature transcends any available evidence...But a conspicuous difference between old epistemology and the epistemological enterprise in this new psychological setting is that we can now make free use of empirical psychology. (82-3)
What are those cognitive faculties that the human organism possesses thanks to our evolutionary history?  Here are several that are important for belief formation.  We have perceptual abilities; we can observe objects and their sensible properties.  We can form concepts that serve to organize our thoughts about the world. We can identify patterns among cognized events.  We can reason deductively and inductively, allowing us to explore the logical relationships among various of our beliefs. We can formulate causal hypotheses about what factors influence what outcomes.  And we can create hypotheses about unobservable structures and properties that are thought to explain and generate the patterns we identify in the sensible world. These capacities presumably have natural histories and, presumably, cognitive gaps. So how can what we know about the human organism's cognitive capacities illuminate the rational warrant of the belief systems that we create?

Experimentation is a key part of belief formation, at least when our beliefs have to do with causation.  We may think that a certain mushroom causes insomnia.  We can design a simple experiment to attempt to test or validate this hypothesis: Identify two representative groups of persons; design a typical diet for everyone; administer the mushroom supplement to the diet of one group and withhold it from the second "control" group; record sleep patterns for both groups.  If there is an average difference in the incidence of insomnia between the two groups, we have prima facie reason to accept the hypothesis. If there is no difference, then we have reason to reject the hypothesis.

So what is the "social" part of knowledge creation?  In what sense does our understanding of knowledge need to be socialized? This is the key question giving rise to the various versions of the sociology of knowledge and science considered in recent posts. It is plain that social influences and social interactions come into virtually every aspect of the "naturalistic" inventory of belief formation offered above. Perception, concept formation, hypothesis formation, theory formation, reasoning, and belief assessment all have social components.The cognitive frameworks that we use, both in everyday perception and learning as well as in specialized scientific research, are socially and culturally informed. This seems to be particularly true in the case of social knowledge, both ordinary and scientific.

So we can add an additional bullet to the two provided at the start about the conditions of knowledge:
  • Belief systems have substantial social underpinnings in the form of division of labor in belief acquisition, socially shared institutions of inquiry, and socially shared (and contested) standards of belief assessment.
Here are a handful of ways in which knowledge is socially conditioned and created:

(1) We form beliefs or interpretations about the motives and reasons for other persons' behavior. These interpretations are formulated in terms of concepts and expectations that are themselves socially specific -- honor, shame, pride, revenge, spite, altruism, love.  And this is an important point: the actor him/herself has internalized some such set of ideas, which in turn influences the behavior.  This means that action is doubly constructed: by the actor and by the interpreter.

(2) We form beliefs about institutions -- the family, the mayor's office, the police department, the presidency. These beliefs are deeply invested in a set of presuppositions and implicatures, which are themselves socially specific.

(3) Knowledge gathering and assessing is inherently social in that it depends on the cooperative and competitive activities of groups of knowledge workers. These may be communities of scientists, theologians, or engineers. Disagreements are inherent in these social groups, and the embodied norms and power relationships that determine which belief systems emerge as "correct" are crucial parts of the knowledge formation process.

(4) We give weight to certain standards of reasoning and we discount other standards of reasoning.  Some of us give credence to magical claims, and we attach some evidentiary weight to statements about magical connections; others disregard magical claims and arguments. These disagreements are culture-specific. (Martin Hollis, ed., Rationality and Relativism, considers a lot of these sorts of questions.)

(5) Standards and definitions of "evidence" and "reason for belief" are socially variable and plastic. Moreover, there is likely to be more variance in these areas in some zones of belief than others. We may find more unanimity about procedures for assessing causal statements about common observable circumstances than about theoretical hypotheses, and even less for assessing beliefs about the likely effects of social policies.

"Naturalizing" and "socializing" knowledge is important because it allows us to investigate the concrete processes and practices through which human beings arrive at beliefs about the world.  The continuing challenge that the philosophy of science raises is the epistemic one: how can we evaluate the rational force of the beliefs and modes of reasoning that are documented through these empirical investigations of the knowledge enterprise?
Reposted from02myhumsci-01 02myhumsci-01
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February 21 2010



Fifty Dangerous Things is really about providing an antidote to the overprotective parenting style that seems to becoming the norm in our society. Readers of GeekDad will probably be familiar with the concept of “helicopter parenting” (hovering too much over your kids) and sites like Free-Range Kids, that promote less-overprotective parenting. Fifty Dangerous Things fits right in with that mindset, and I found it to be a fun and useful tool for helping me expand my children’s experiences.

After spending some time working on the activities with my son, I got a chance to ask some questions of Gever Tulley about writing Fifty Dangerous Things (You Should Let Your Children Do). Here’s the interview.

— read more in: "Gever Tulley Talks About Fifty Dangerous Things (You Should Let Your Children Do)" by By Ken Denmead in Wired - Geekdad, Raising Geek Generation 2.0
Reposted byKinderabteilung Kinderabteilung

February 20 2010

Play fullscreen
Beauty Pressure - youtube permalink

Anmerkung: Prinzipiell bin ich strikt gegen jegliches virales Marketing und Werbung im Allgemeinen, aber dieses Video über Schönheitsideale ist echt subversiv und sehenswert.
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