Social Science Research and Categories

Humans, by nature, seem to have an urge to explain what goes on around them. It is this urge that lead to questions in metaphysics, which eventually turned to natural philosophy and then fragemented to its present day avatars of the various natural and social sciences and the humanities.

Some parts of our experience have turned out to be not very hard to explain — physics was thought finished until Einstein came along, and anyways most of relativity and quantum mechanics are not part of our everyday experience. Chemistry also seems quite well established. Biology is where we start feeling uncomfortable, since evolution by its very nature ensures that we can never know all the facts ever. Even understanding the physics of cells in their entirety has proved to be a challenge to this day. Maybe eventually we’ll get there, but it does not seem it will be as easy or the theory will be as clean as classical mechanics or thermodynamics.

The place we get even more uncomfortable is when we start studying human beings. One of the problems is that if we consider the human being as a box, the things external to the box cannot be left out during analysis. An electron will work in the same way here or in Mars, but humans (indeed, most living beings) are relational entities, and our behavior is dependent on things related to us, human and non-human, material and non-material (like emotions). Due to the fact that we have a memory and try to predict the future, some relations are with entities not even present at this very moment. Thus, it is not simply about data, but the context surrounding the data which matters when studying people or life in general. This is what we mean when we say that we lead meaningful lives.

The normal road that any human explanatory endeavour takes is to observe something, make a hypothesis about what the underlying phenomenon could be, see if it explains observations and the iterate this process. So, if I take a one kg stone and throw it many times and see how fast travels, maybe I can come up with F = ma. Maybe from this somehow I can figure out Newton’s laws as being sufficient to describe it. Newton’s laws don’t exist outside your head — they are simply how you explain what is happening. To paraphrase my professor, the stone does not follow any laws, you laws explain well enough to you what is happening to the stone.

Mathematically, one can think of this as an inversion problem — you are given certain obervables y = f(x), and you have to figure out what x is. All inversion problems have two issues — you do not have sufficient y's observed to make any conclusions, which is easily rectified, or the functionf is not one-one and onto, i.e, there does not exist a unique inverse. Thus we come to a situation where f^{-1}(y) = x_1 = x_2. Very often in the social sciences, this will be the case — any behavior that you observe can have a large variety of possible explanations. The way you would solve this problem if it was mathematically posed was to put constraints on the behavior of f(.) — it cannot do this, it cannot go there, etc., and gradually eliminate the possibilities. The way this is done in the social sciences is to invoke a ‘framework’. For example, an economist believes that we are homo economicus, and suddenly greed is the only motivator for most human actions. Similarly, a Marxist historian believes that all history is the war between classes (which comes from Hegel) and classes are formed mainly due to economic processes (which was Marx’s contribution). Again, a lot of alternative explanations are rubbished, and a smooth (if somewhat long and tedious) explanation comes out.

The way any framework develops in social science is not straightforward — normally critics of one framework write books or theses criticising it. It develops within a particular historical, cultural and social context, and explains best what happens within this context. So, one can probably understand more about 19th century Vienna from Freud’s theories than about human nature — definitely not a place I would like to be in! Similarly, the outrage against Marxist interpretations of Indian history is not because Marxist historians are perverting the truth, it is just that we are not used to seeing ourselves from a economic/classist lens. Unfortunately, Marxists don’t seem to think anything else exists, and that makes the problem even worse.

Any science, by virtue of its attempt at uncovering universal truths, will try and extrapolate from local experience to global analysis. This extrapolation necessarily worries only about what is common to all, and not the particularities. When one civilisation tries to study another, especially one as maddeningly complex as the Indian one, it becomes hard to know what it is exactly that one has learned. To take a trivial example, Europeans were probably the only civilisation that used benches and stools and tables to sit and to eat. Thus, travellers to other civilisations looked upon the practice of sitting on the floor as ‘animal like’. Similarly, change was more the norm in Europe from a very long time, and this makes more conservative civilisations like our own to look upon them as ‘rootless’.

It is because of these problems that any attempt to understand a people must be from their own terms. The end product of such a study must first and foremost be comprehensible to the people that are being studied, else the most important maxim of any science — to explain what humans experience, as opposed to explaining away what we experience — is violated. M. N. Srinivas is someone who comes readily to mind when I bring up this point. Though he attempted to understand all rituals and traditions in terms of their function in holding the social structure aloft (which need not be the case), i.e, from a social anthropology perspective, his analytical categories are very much Indian, and that is what has made his work all the more valuable as a mirror to ourselves.

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