Thursday, 21 April 2011

History and social science

So, I've been thinking a lot about the relationship between history and social science, particularly in terms of methodology as applied epistemology and ontology. This was occasioned by reading Christopher Pollitt's wonderful book Time, Policy, Management.

It's also been occasioned by me reading about Habermas' distinction between the Lifeworld of everyday experience and language and the System of zweckrationalitat. And I've recently started reading Dorothy Smith's 2001 article 'Texts and the ontology of organizations and institutions'.

Now I have to see if I can put these thoughts in order...

One thing that really angers me in social science is badly written social science. By badly written, I mean the sort of clever post-structuralist stuff that is actually hard work to read. I was reminded of this recently when I said to a colleague that I was very impressed they'd actually managed to read Chouliaraki and Fairclough. Their reply was: "parts of it I read and parts of it I understood... or at least think I understood".

I always find this quite ironic, since a lot of this writing is supposed to be empowering and a critique of language and society. Yet it's unreadable. It links to an idea I'll return to below - literacies. As an academic and a social science I have a different literacy to most people. I read academic texts very regularly and can write in this way as well. My academic literacy has changed recently well - being a busy lecturer I now have to be a lot better at skimming and I'm getting there. But the literacy expected of people like Fairclough and Howarth is a literacy I don't have. And I don't think I wish to have.

As far as I've got in Dorothy Smith's article she's made two points I find interesting that link to this. Firstly, that institutions are recreated by text and secondly that social science uses language to abstract institutions to understand them.

On the second point I have to agree. This is what Habermas was getting at with his notion of The System - reifying things to comprehend them when they actually exist in the Lifeworld. On the first point, this is something I keep coming back to as a historian turned social scientist. Whenever social scientists emphasise the importance of language/discourse/text in creating society I just think "no shit, Sherlock". As a historian the past doesn't exist. It only exists as a few shreds of predominantly written evidence you gather together to tell a story of the past. You critically analyse the text - who wrote it and why? And it's implicit that society and culture is discourse. And this isn't a problem. The standard of evidence is that which Habermas suggests is that which exists in the Lifeworld - the power of the persuasive argument and therefore there are very few certainties in history and as Habermas suggests of communicative action in the Lifeworld: 'the typical states are in the gray areas in between'.

And now I'll return to the first point. In developing something as simple as narrative history doesn't reify to the same extent as social science. It specifically tries not too abstract too much from the texts. You're expected to reference your evidence so other historians can see where you have developed it from. History, I think, as an intellectual project is just about focusing on the contrast from the now. I was reminded of this watching the wonderfully game Lucy Worsley on If Walls Could Talk as she explained that until the advent of modern plumbing in the late nineteenth century the very idea of a "bathroom" was entirely alien. This "problematised" the bathroom and hygiene as an idea immediately. It showed it was partial, social constructed and therefore of interest. When I learnt about the history of literacy in early-modern England this did the same for me. The vast majority of people before the eighteenth century were illiterate. Yet because the written word was things like penny ballads, literacy was actually just different. A penny ballad would be bought by a village and the one literate person would sing it to other villagers. If it was especially good it would be kept and become folklore. The reformation and its emphasis on reading the bible to reflect on one's own spirituality made reading the private act it is today. Therefore we shouldn't talk about literacy, but literacies. When it comes to Chouliaraki and Fairclough I'm as illiterate as a seventeenth century farmer.

Social science, being obsessed with the now can only ever achieve this through reifying objects. If it's positivism it abstracts them into theory and statistics. If it's ANT you turn them into "things". If you're into critical discourse analysis then you use a load of post-modern wank badly translated from Foucault and Lauclau to leave your reader baffled.

This has purposefully been a bit of a rant and I know there's lot of holes in my argument and also I'm generalising about history. But it is a rant because I think there's political implications for social science here. As a planner and social scientist I want to make the world better. If what I write is unintelligible to people then how can I do this? This was something I criticised in my research - the reification of social "things" in strategic policy divorced them from the Lifeworld of community activists, therefore there could not be radical democratic engagement. If I'm doing the same, am I not as guilty as the policy-makers I criticise.

The public popularity of good history highlights this. Pretty decent history books from good historians are often in the best-seller lists. Christ, there's even a few TV channels devoted to the subject. Is there a "social-science TV"? No, there's 24 hour news mis-reporting the "now". I think social science can learn a lot from history to reflect on methodology to make it more readable and change the literacy of social science.

Does this make sense?

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