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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.

Why do people honk so much?

This question seems quite important considering that the sanity of people having to tolerate incessant honking might be somewhat rescued from the edge of the cliff on which it now stands if they understand why. Honking probably served an important public purpose, that of preventing two vehicles from occupying the same space at the same time often, but its usage has gone beyond such mundane considerations to being a reflection into the personality of the owner of the horn itself.

First, one must distinguish between different types of honking:

  • The standard honk, which is used for the important public purpose mentioned above.
  • The stylish honk, which rises above the previous one to include (normally irritating to everyone else) tunes or rhythmic patterns. Normally used to show a possible flair for music and an upbeat mood.
  • The angry honk, longer in duration but bursty in nature, when the owner seems to think (or hope) that the honk will become louder and more irritating to others if used for a longer duration. It is normally used to show disapproval.
  • The frustation honk, normally used in beastly traffic jams, and whose duration is proportional to the feeling of powerlessness that the owner feels. Normally used when the owner wants to make something/someone cry for what he is feeling and the effect is conveniently reproduced by pressing the horn.
  • The celebration honk, used when India wins the World Cup or something like that. It consists of innumerable vehicles on the road honking in unison for an unbearably long period of time. One must thank the Indian team for not doing such a disservice to the road travellers of India often.

There might be a richer variety, but these are what I can think of. If one thinks about it, there is no logical reason why some of these should exist. I have heard a person relentlessly honking at a railway crossing when the gates were closed, and others honking back, probably to make him stop. Don’t think it worked very well. The scene felt like watching wolves howling at the moon. There is no rational reason to honk at a closed railway gate, but then the mistake lies in believing that people are driven by reasoning and solid logic in their day to day conduct.

Driving or sitting in a vehicle under busy conditions is one of those few instances in one’s life when you are shown for what you really are. People who seem nice and sweet suddenly start acting bossy and judgemental, and mousy and mild people, well, continue being so. People who tell you that they don’t feel the need to control everyone or everything show their true colors when they are passengers in a vehicle¬† zipping at 100 kilometers an hour past other vehicles.

All these and other observations point to what seems to be a fundamental feature of the human psyche – the need to assert the Self, to show the world that you exist. As the neuroscientist V. S. Ramachandran points out, the Self cannot really be defined without reaching out to the Other – who or what you are is shaped by your interactions with others. People who are completely shut off from others, like in the case of autistic children, don’t seem to possess (at least observably) what we would call a normal human personality. The honking at a jaywalker becomes more and more urgent unless she acknowledges your presence by looking directly in your direction. While one can explain this away by saying that you were only hoping to draw her attention to the fact that a possibility exists of her being stuck under your tyres, but sometimes even when there is no reasonable chance of this happening, the honks still persist.

The traffic jam is the ultimate put off, one of the few (well, maybe not few) moments in when you simply don’t matter, and really cannot do anything about it. The effect is similar to what you would evoke if you tried to end a fight by trying to walk away and ignore the other person. On the other hand, a person who is angry at you will try to incite anger in you, knowing fully well that that is the only way any decent fight can result. One needs to know that one’s anger is fully reciprocated and probably some mechanism like the mirror neurons will help maintain the feedback loop, keeping the anger flowing from one to the other. In this light, it would be interesting to see how frustration honks start and spread in a traffic jam.

Almost every facet of our personality – beauty, intelligence, aggression – make sense only in a social context. ‘Setting goals for yourself’ or ‘Not following the herd’ seem to simply be replacing the social with a reflexive analysis, but the mechanism is still the same. Which is why we have Special Interest Groups, debating clubs and Facebook which serve the purpose of ‘mutual admiration’, in the words of J.K. Galbraith. Knowing that you matter matters.