Friday, July 6, 2007

Theorizing about Theorizing

Efforts "to try to stay one step ahead of the next paradigm shift" should take into account the nature of not only the paradigms themselves but also the theories that emerge from those paradigms. In my ongoing effort to assign as much honor to worthy texts from the past as to the latest insights from the present, I find myself frequently returning to the work of Karl E. Weick. Given my proclivity for complementing our preoccupations with "noun-based thinking" with equal attention to "verb-based thinking," I have to respect anyone who shows enough sensitivity to wording to title a book The Social Psychology of Organizing; but I have even more respect when that author issues a second edition of this book that so barely resembles the first edition that only the final chapter has a title that resembles its initial counterpart. So, when I discover that Weick has written about the process of theorizing, even if that text is in a 1987 Handbook of Organizational Communication, I know I will not be disappointed if I give his text a serious reading.

One sign of the paradigm shift from physics-based to biology-based thinking is a move away from Cartesianism, which has probably been discussed most eloquently by Antonio Damasio. However, while Damasio's Descartes' Error was not published until 1994 and the kind of thinking behind the approaches taken by Damasio and Edelman only began to surface in Israel Rosenfield's 1988 The Invention of Memory, Weick was already in their camp with his anti-Cartesian view of theory formation, best summarized in a single sentence:

Evocative ideas need to be cultivated by theorists from the beginning because belief, not skepticism, precedes observation.

In other words, as appealing as Descartes' invocation of doubt may have sounded, the very act of perception cannot take place without a foundation of belief, a proposition that Edelman and his colleagues would later demonstrate in their computer simulations of "wet brain" behavior. Weick then explores the implications of his fundamental proposition:

If believing affects seeing, and if theories are significant beliefs that affect what we see, then theories should be adopted more to maximize what we will see than to summarize what we have already seen. Usually, what we have already seen merely confirms what we expected to see. To theorize better, theorists need to expect more in whatever they will observe.

The consequence of this approach stands as a fascinating inversion to our traditional view of scientific method. Rather than starting with a theory that explains the meaning of what we observe and then testing the "truth" of that theory against the data we collect, we start by assuming the "truth" of the theory and apply it to teasing out the "meaning" of the data.

Biology provides us with a wealth of opportunities to explore this strategy. To invoke Rosenfield's point of departure, however sophisticated we may be in observing our behaviors, we always seem to fall back on the "truth" of the phenomenon of memory, however vague we may be about what it actually is. (Indeed, we are probably better at demonstration that biological memory is not like computer memory than we are at coming up with a model of what biological memory is like.) The problems we face have to do with how we reconcile the data we collect, neurological, psychological, and social, with that "truth" of our understanding of memory. Our progress in addressing such problems has been slow and has involved many false starts (as we see from how much of the twentieth century was occupied with finding the engram); but the progress is there nonetheless.

My point is that both Descartes and the history of physics have impacted not only the way in which we observe the world but also the role of theory in our observing behavior. Previous paradigm shifts have not demanded that we elevate ourselves to the meta-level of theorizing about theorizing. This time around, however, the rules for "normal science" seem to be radically different; and the behavior of those who cling to the paradigm of physics with an almost desperate passion will be quite understandable when viewed through the lenses of psychology and sociology.

No comments: