A Serious Question

by johnmccreery

Over on Savage Minds we have been hearing suggestions that close analysis of cases in the manner of Charles Tilly or Max Weber is superior to old-fashioned scientific method. Could be. but I had to ask,

Prof, we note that you “suggest.” Is there a proof in this pudding? Can you, in other words, show us or point us to something you have written that demonstrates that this suggestion amounts to more than name-dropping and hand-waving?

This is, of course, a rude question to ask; but it is, I suggest, an essential one. If it turns out that the method in question can only be successfully implemented by a genuine genius like a Weber or Tilly, where does that leave the rest of us?

One of the virtues of the usual sort of scientific method is that it provides a lot of hack work to be done, experiments to be repeated, that sort of thing. Thus, not every scientist has to be a genius. Can you demonstrate that the same is true of the method you advocate?


13 Responses to “A Serious Question”

  1. John, I’ve been following that thread but can’t figure out why anyone thinks the positions being taken are mutually-exclusive alternatives. If the axes of the grid are local/ global, inductive/ deductive I’ve seen good (and bad) work scattered across the whole field.

    At least as of this posting I don’t feel confident I even know what the issues are. Perhaps it would help if you said more about what you think the strengths and weaknesses, costs and benefits of each approach are, and what’s at stake in fighting a battle over them?

    Btw, I can’t make sense of the notion that noted macro-theorist Max Weber is an exemplar of close case study; and he was an advocate of science. Again, I don’t feel confident joining in here until I feel clearer about the players and the game.

  2. Carl, I’m with you on this one, and I’m not particularly interested in replaying the usual two-cultures, science versus humanities, nomothetic or idiographic Punch and Judy shows. But I may, in sparring with the Prof, have stumbled on a new and important question. Logically or philosophically speaking, one can make a case for various kinds of research; personally I rather like Andrew Abbott’s five-type classification (history, ethnography, standard causal, small-n comparison, and simulation), but I wouldn’t call myself wedded to it. But what about about the talent required to make a significant contribution?

    My suggestion is that one of the virtues of normal science and normal scholarship more generally (where by “normal” I mean what Thomas Kuhn meant, established paradigms rooted in collective projects) is that they allow a lot of us to make useful contributions, even if we aren’t the geniuses who shatter old paradigms and start new ones or, alternatively, produce brilliant but unreproducible work.

    I frequently mention Ruth Behar, whose Translated Woman and Vulnerable Observer are beautifully written and deeply affecting books. Figures like Gregory Bateson also come to mind. The paradigm here is more that of art than science—a winner take all world in which the less than genius folk can hardly be said to contribute at all. What they produce is second-rate or worse and properly ignored.

    Am I just in a sour mood or on to something here?

  3. Well it did seem like you were in a mood, but I also think you’re on to something. bell hooks wrote that knowledge is a field in which we all labor together. Most of us are best suited for peasantry, and by that I mean the honorable and essential work of tilling the field, spreading the manure and seed, growing the crop. I certainly feel that way about teaching; I still bristle when I think of lazy interviewers asking what I did in the classroom that was “innovative,” as if that was any kind of sensical standard or even desirable pursuit. Buddy, let’s see if you know what the hell Socrates was up to thousands of years ago and then we’ll talk innovation.

    My wife is an artist, as you know, and you also may be aware what strange contortions the artists have gotten themselves into pursuing a charismatic aesthetic of pure innovation. Well, and Weber said that charisma was by definition exceptional. Not to mention that if you tried to live that way all the time, you’d burn out fast. So yeah, we need a ‘normal’ kind of practice that lets us contribute something without being geniuses, because most of us aren’t, and without flaming out.

  4. “the less than genius folk can hardly be said to contribute at all”.

    The “less than genius folk” provide the horizon which is the condition for recognizing something like “genius” at all. Without them there is no genius. Further, the implication would be that in order to be recognised as “genius”, hackwork must be undertaken up until a minimally recognisable limit. No-one just blows in and transfigures it all – this is the point of the cartoons Carl posted, isn’t it?

  5. oh yeah, “hackwork up until a minimally recognisable limit”, this could be expressed economically as “my Phd”.

  6. Hi, Drew.

    Not aiming to put down what anyone is doing. Just pointing to the fact that classical modes of science and scholarship provide opportunities for those of us whose names will not be in the textbooks to contribute in a meaningful way to a larger enterprise. The destruction of the grand narratives of the past has as one consequence that, unless we are stars at that level, what we do amounts to little more than a hobby, perhaps meaningful to us but not to anyone else.

    The error in this formulation, I have now realized, is that there are many layers of not-so-grand narratives between the two extremes of stellar and forgettable. The Prof at whom my original remarks were aimed turns out, for example, to be a specialist in international relations. His cases are, thus, interesting to anyone concerned with the fates of the nation-states in question. Anthropologists who study China are in a similar position, so long as they can relate their work to issues of interest to other area specialists or to global issues in relation to which China, an emerging superpower, cannot be ignored. Two decades ago, when books with titles like Japan as No. 1 were being published, my work on Japanese consumers attracted a fair amount of attention. My current interest in the relation of social networks of top advertising creatives to the history of Japanese advertising in the 80s, 90s and 00s is now out of the spotlight it would have enjoyed in the past. As the locals put it, “Japan bashing” has given way to “Japan passing,” as eyes focus on China, instead.

    Still, the Prof and I, we’re OK. It’s the folks who are still doing the proper anthropological thing, going to places off the map of current attention and coming back with studies that provide a lot of local detail but lack the hooks to larger narratives, that I worry about.

  7. I wonder if it is always the geniuses who shatter paradigms and not just the stubborn and lucky who happen on the right idea at the right time?

    It might also help to be liked.

  8. A good question. Have you had a look at Gladwell’s Outliers?

  9. Hi John,

    Re: “studies that provide a lot of local detail but lack the hooks to larger narratives”

    How “large” does something need to be to qualify as “larger“?

    Perhaps I should try and fill in the gaps between your comment and mine. I wasn’t feeling put down, or trying to put down others – I was trying to comment on the requirements of saying anything interesting whatsoever in a scientific discourse. This seemed to me to be to the point in the discussion between you and the prof re the relationship between scientific discourse and the moment of genius, and that this is itself pedagogically expressed in the way higher level training occurs. Ie. the PhD.

    The questions here appear to me to have something of a phenomenological bent, regarding “regional” sciences and their respective justifying discourses, and at what level a factual case might provide something interesting beyond the immediate region.

  10. For pragmatic purposes, the best proxy I can think of off the top of my head is the size of the interested audience. To get more sophisticated than that would require thinking about what ad people call the quality of the audience. That would involve thinking about what you want them to do and how likely they are to be able as well as willing to do it.

    This is, to be sure, a crass and not academically correct thought process. I recall a conversation about a former chairman of BMW who was reported to have said, “I don’t care if 99% of people don’t like our advertising. They can’t afford our cars.” Sounds pretty nasty, I bet. But then I recall a good friend, a mathematician who is specialized in an esoteric branch of set theory. When he writes for the people he hopes to read what he has written, he could care less about what folks like me think about it. There are, I suspect, fewer than a hundred people in the world who could get through the first paragraph. But since he’s a professor emeritus, and his friends in Japan are still well enough connected to bring him to Japan for conferences, that isn’t something he worries about.

    To extend what I’ve written in my previous message, imagine the difference between an ethnographer A, who does fieldwork with the employees of Japanese apparel giant UNIQLO’s state of the art factory in China and an ethnographer B. who does fieldwork with Dayaks in Sarawak. A will have a lot of people, including business people and political leaders, as well as academics in a variety of disciplines, interested in what she’s discovered. Other things being equal, those interested in B’s research will be a much smaller group.

  11. Ok thanks John, I’m much closer to your thinking now. I’ve also gone and read the Savage Minds thread, and can see why we are crossing wires.

    There are at least two different questions happening. 1. is the pragmatic processes by which one appeals to others (read: potential or current investors) beyond the scope of immediate interest in a topic.

    The 2nd is an entirely different question. It is: what are the conditions of scientific innovation? This is an entirely theoretic question, and requires the justification of related concepts like “field” and the working out of the implications of revolutions in method, or grounding principles.

    What propels the thread is that these two entirely separate questions – they are different logical “levels” – constantly get intertwined. The second is always reinvested, or conscripted into the first as a practical strategy. This is because the 2nd question is the question “what is good science”, and good science is (or should be) a criteria for receiving funding. The crossed wires in the debate are oscillations between the two.

  12. Drew,

    Nice. Very nice, indeed. It strikes me that we have done something very remarkable here, engaged in a conversation leading to convergence and fresh thinking instead of the usual tit-for-tat one finds too often in Internet debates.

    I think it’s time for a new thread. I’ve got an idea.


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