Ethknoworks LLC

Michael Agar @alcaldemike

The backyard coyote

In the Zapatista village

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The workshop at the medical school in Tegucigalpa

Pontificating at the Central American Anthropology meetings

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Thoughts and Hallucinations

A different kind of human social science

June 11, 2010

For reasons that don't matter I just did a two-page essay on how centers of science should pay attention to human social research as something other than an example of bad 19th century chemistry. I kind of like it so thought I'd put it on the blog. Here it is:

A suggested workshop topic: There is an alternative model for human social research with an extensive pedigree. In spite of remarkable growth over the last several decades, it remains marginal with reference to the traditional trajectory of science initiated by Bacon, Galileo and Newton, and it still has not produced a coherent general statement of its own epistemology. It has, comparatively recently, been acknowledged and supported to some extent by national centers such as NSF and NIH. But its marginality continues in those same centers, in part because it argues that a science of human subjects in their social milieu calls for premises and procedures that require guidelines different from, if not contradictory to, those provided by traditional science.
Ironically, its recent growth springs from the obvious requirement that any good science must originate from and return to detailed engagement with the phenomenon of interest. Traditional science guidelines, imported into this kind of research, actually prevent rather than encourage this. In human social research, the phenomena of interest are intentional agents living daily life according to shared beliefs and practices in the context of structures largely of their own making. Those beliefs, practices and structures must be learned and documented rather than assumed a priori by a human social researcher. Typically, if one looks at human social research in the aggregate, this is not done. The single greatest failing of human social research is its failure to problematize human intentionality.
The argument for an alternative is often anchored in Hegel’s use of history or Goethe’s use of color to critique the Newtonian paradigm. With the development of the “human sciences” in the 19th century, figures such as Franz Brentano and Wilhelm Dilthey take up the argument with concepts such as intentionality and lived experience. The thread continues into the 20th century with figures such as Alfred Schutz, who blends the sociology of Weber with the philosophy of Husserl. Mid-century scholars, often inspired by the philosophy of the later Wittgenstein, continued to offer alternative views, scholars like Stephen Toulmin and Peter Winch. And with the explosion of so-called qualitative research, its inflection point often dated to Glaser and Strauss’ concept of grounded theory in 1967, the argument that human social research is a different breed of epistemological and methodological cat has become distributed across too many fields to even begin to summarize here.
In spite of this recent growth, this alternative model of “human social science” remains marginal, and for good reason. In its fundamentals, the alternative differs from that mainstream model in several ways.
Rather than objectivity, it features intersubjectivity. Human social research is conducted by another human who enters into relationships with subjects as a necessary condition of the work. The researcher is part of the data, summarized by the concept of reflexivity. Rather than objects, human social research studies subjects with intentionality--beliefs and desires and purposes--that always differ to some extent if not significantly from an outsiders’ assumptions of what they are. Rather than standardization, it recognizes the play of human universals and local uniqueness. Instead of linear causal explanation, it foregrounds nonlinear dynamic emergence at at least two levels--structure and agency. It is more like learning a second language and culture than it is testing a hypothesis in a traditional scientific way. Its results are more like a translation than a universal law, although the translation includes human universals as the ground against which the figure of the translation is possible at all.
Science it still is, though, as Toulmin describes with his metaphor of “making a case.” One uses logic and evidence to make a case in the company of a cross-examiner, a judge and a jury. Toulmin, like any sane human social researcher, knows that traditional science, based on the experimental method, plays a role. But he argues that experimental method has a limited range of application in human social research. Worst case, its restrictions can distort data collection and explanation of human social life to produce elegant and internally consistent analyses so distant from concepts, practices and purposes in the human world that is its assumed referent that it produces at best useless and at worst delusional conclusions about the very situations its application was meant to elucidate.
NSF and NIH are aware of the limitations of traditional science epistemologies in human social realms, and of the availability of a marginal but elaborate tradition that offers an alternative, and of the lack of a coherent framing of that tradition on the part of centers of scientific research and policy as well as on the part of its own practitioners. In recent years, workshops have been held, public statements have been issued. But the traditional history of science, the experimental method, aka clinical trials at NIH, continues to dominate in terms of staff and budget.
There is a centuries-old tradition that articulates the issues that a human social science must deal with. National centers of science should support, even champion, the development and use of this alternative, both as a field in and of itself and also as part and parcel of the growing number of transdisciplinary frameworks that blend investigation of science, technology, humanity, and public policy.

Selected Works

Wonder why studies you read about your world usually don’t get who you are and how you really live? Frustrated that “the numbers” don’t solve the problem? Does it bother you that policies and programs, more often than not, don’t work like they’re supposed to? People, organizations, countries–they rely on information about real human social lives. Usually they don’t have it because they only test what they think they already know in narrow situations of their own design. The results have value, some of the time, but it’s not nearly enough. We need a human social science that begins and ends in the real worlds of the humans that it claims to be about. One has been around for a couple of hundred years. The Lively Science tells the story of its historical roots and the reasons for its neglect, blends in new intellectual tools, and argues that it’s time to get on with a science that changes research objects into human subjects and learns who they are and what they’re trying to do before conclusions are drawn.
Living in a world of linguistic and cultural differences
A personal story of decades of work in the substance abuse field, a story of how our ineffective drug policy came to be and stayed in place. Now available as an e-book at iBook on iTunes and on Barnes and Noble.
The story of the working world of independent truckers in a time of deregulation
Nonfiction, Introductory Text
An introduction to ethnography