Thursday, October 3, 2013

Briidging the irreconcilable in earthling studies

Bridging social and psychological studies is notoriously difficult. First of all, the two realities they explore are based in two fundamentally different planes of existence: social life is spread over time and space and subject to constant change, whereas the primary thinking process is timeless and spaceless. Caught up between the twain is the human being with their limited conscious mental capacity, to which the mechanisms of both the social and the psychological are mostly beyond comprehension.

As opaque and incompatible as the link between the two may appear, as long as skirting this most fundamental issue continues, no social sciences research can hope to offer any satisfactory results. 

That said, we need to be wary of attempts made to marry the two on a superficial level, like in uncritical sociology and behavioural psychology, where observable facts are taken for their face value. That way, we only end up with a deeply misguided, epistemologically shaky, analysis prone to gross ideological biases.

Endeavours to go deeper, which are fortunately, rather prolific, then run into methodological challenges: quantitative vs. qualitative and staged experiment vs. various varieties of participant observation. The former approach is theoretically linked to the quantitative approach: two traits are painstakingly isolated to be expressed as a dependent variable and independent variable, which would later allow to quantify that relationship. The hard to bear truth that all social as well as psychological phenomena are overdetermined (re. Freud and Althusser) and hence cannot be reduced to two variables is conveniently shoved under the carpet in the process of operationalising (turning concepts into numbers). The main motivation here appears is trying to come across as a "proper science" with "hard data" (i.e., numbers) -  the patently obsolete, if sadly persistent, positivist slant, that many people just can't seem to kiss goodbye.  

Participant observation that results mostly in qualitative research is hard to produce and as hard to consume. It requires time- and effort-consuming training in understanding complex issues by way of mastering abstract principles of analysis that are much harder to get under your belt than maths. It also brings in philosophical and epistemological concerns that cannot be decisively resolved, only accepted as paradoxes at the heart of human existence. That leap into uncertainty proves too much for most people, so they stick to tossing numbers and flashing PowerPoint presentations

Another leap, from analysis to synthesis, that Weber refered to as Verstehen, turns out beyond what many are prepared to deal with, too.

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