Sunday, December 2, 2007

Challenging Positivism in the Social World

My post about "Asking the Right Questions about Communities" has provided me with my first experience with an extended thread of comments, even if the thread has turned into a conversation with one reader; and this has obliged me to revisit many of the issues that I had tried to examine when I first tried to address the proper role of social theory in the design, implementation, and deployment of IT systems. That examination has drawn heavily upon three primary sources, each of whom has provided me with a valuable perspective:

  1. From Jürgen Habermas I acquired my recognition that the social world was qualitatively distinct from the objective world, which positivism had tried to treat as the only world about which we could reason, and the subjective world, which was the alternative foundation posited by psychology. This ontological framework did not originate with Habermas. It can be found in Karl Mannheim's earlier work on the sociology of knowledge in Ideology and Utopia; and I shall not be surprised if I eventually find it in Max Weber (if not an earlier source). Nevertheless, Habermas was the one who made a real case for the proposition that effective action could only arise if all three worlds were taken into account. This was probably motivated by his concern for the "colonization of the lifeworlds" by systems constrained by the limits of positivism, a concern which is as relevant today (if not more so) as it was when he first addressed it.
  2. From Anthony Giddens I gradually developed an appreciation for how structuration theory could account for a process of decision making that accounted for Habermas' three worlds and enable us to act effectively in a life-world that has not been "colonized" by positivist systems.
  3. Isaiah Berlin provided me with my first serious critique of positivist thinking as it flourished under the Enlightenment and a view of Romanticism as a quest for an alternative Weltanschauung.

In retrospect, though, we can view Romanticism as an experiment that failed, or at least could not yield anything of a substance that would satisfy the likes of serious social theorists like Habermas and Giddens. Nevertheless, if we examine the "critics of the Enlightenment" that so occupied Berlin's writing, we see that they seem to share a mind-set that avoids the prescriptive strategies of positivism in favor of developing better strategies for description. While such a cognitive shift is interesting in its own right, it still leaves with the question of what role better description can play when we have to make decisions and take actions in the life-world.

One way to address this question is to pay less attention to whether or not Romanticism provided us with any lasting "life lessons" and more to what their cognitive shift says about the texts upon which we draw when we are trying to decide how to act. To some extent Berlin would probably have resisted such a strategy, arguing that one of the better "political" decision-makers in history, Otto von Bismarck, tended to eschew any texts when crucial decisions were at stake. However, I would regard such a position as overly extreme. We are all informed by texts, particularly if we take a broad view (assuming, for example, that any symbolic artifact can be considered as a text and "read") of just what constitutes the texts we encounter in the life-world. The question is not whether we are informed by texts but by which types of texts we are informed, where I use the word "types" in the terms of text type theory.

That theory posits four categories of text: argumentation, description, exposition, and narrative. What interests me in this case is that each category takes a different stance towards positivism.

  1. To the extent that argumentation is rooted in the objectivity of pure logic, it is the most positivist of the four types.
  2. Description, on the other hand, presumes that the text has an author who is doing the describing; and, since there is an unavoidable psychological element in perception, the understanding of a descriptive text must reside in the subjective world as well as the objective. Furthermore, if description is being engaged with some suasive objective in mind, then the reader of the text is as important as the author, which means that the text must also account for the social world.
  3. When one views a narrative in terms of its component elements, which include not only events but the agents responsible for those events and the motives behind the acts taken by those agents, we recognize that narrative texts are fundamentally about the social world and thus are very much in that social world, while, at the same time, accounting for the subjective motives of the agents and certain objective properties of the scene in which those agents are situated.
  4. Finally, exposition is very much concerned with providing the reader with a context within which one can interpret propositions relating to argumentation, description, or even narrative. Communicating such a context must, of necessity, be rooted in the social world. However, the interpretations that it serves also involve the objective and subjective worlds.

Thus, like Habermas I believe that the "communicative actions" we take must reside equally in the objective, subjective, and social worlds. However, while Habermas tried to develop his own theory of such actions as an extension of Austin's Speech Act Theory, I am more inclined to examine the "communicative texts," rather than the actions that they enable. Ultimately, it is the texts that determine how we manage in the life-world; and, through the study of those texts, we may eventually cultivate a matter understanding of just how we do that. In other words we should pursue the agenda of hermeneutic thinking that has already occupied both Habermas and Giddens.

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