I’ve just finished reading Bent Flyvbjerg’s Making Social Science Matter. The book ostensibly aims to explain “why social inquiry fails and how it can succeed again” by abandoning the rationalist project begun in the enlightenment and returning to Aristotelian phronesis, by which I understand him to mean ‘context-dependent values grounded on experience and common-sense.’ If all this sounds somewhat familiar, its because it is. It wasn’t that long ago Lyotard told us that the age of grand-narratives is dead, even if the rumors of their demise were greatly exaggerated. Moreover, most serious theorizing now attempts, in some way, to take seriously both contextual and processual knowledge, but Flyvbjerg attempts to prove to us that social science can only be saved by giving up theorizing altogether.
Don’t get me wrong, he is no Lyotard. He believes in empirical research. He explicitly challenges the textualism of the postmodernists. What he argues for is the creation of detailed narratives emerging out of case studies in close dialog with subjects of those studies. Nothing new here, and indeed, he holds up Geertz‘ “thick description” and the work of Bob Bellah as examples of the kind of work he endorses. It is a thought provoking book, and written in a very lucid and engaging style which makes it suitable for teaching, but it isn’t clear to me that Flyvbjerg understands what theory is. He seems to equate theory with “rules” which he contrasts with narrative and interpretation. This is particularly strange for someone who spends so much time discussing Aristotle, Habermas, and Foucault. What soon becomes apparent is that Flyvbjerg actually thinks of theory as a means to legitimate what social scientists do, rather than an explanation of what they do. In fact, drawing on Aristotle, he argues that the role of theory should be moral. While I don’t deny that theories have a moral and ethical component, I think Flyvbjerg is too quick to give up attempts at creating explanations of society altogether. He seems to feel that Weber’s definition of social science as “concerning itself with the interpretive understanding of social action and thereby with a causal explanation of its course and consequences” was mistaken in its enlightenment goal of seeking such a “causal explanation.”
Flyvbjerg lays out his argument with a discussion of the work of Hubert and Stuart Dreyfus, whose studies of human learning suggest that artificial intelligence isn’t about to replace human knowledge anytime soon because people with “expert” knowledge rely upon experience and intuition in ways which cannot be reduced to simple rule-based algorithms. Flyvberg provides the following example:
Some years ago in the United States, an experiment was conducted on a group of paramedics. Video films were made of six persons administering cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) to victims of acute heart failure. Five of the six were inexperienced trainees just learning CPR, while the sixth was a paramedic with long experience in emergency life-saving techniques. The films were shown to three groups of subjects: paramedics with practical experience, students being trained in this field, and instructors in life-saving techniques. Each subject was asked the following question: “Who of the six persons shown in the films would you choose to resuscitate you if you were the victim of such an accident?” Among the group of experienced paramedics, 90 percent chose the one experienced paramedic from the films. The students chose “correctly” in only 50 percent of the cases. Finally, and perhaps surprisingly, the instructors in resuscitation had poorer results than either the experienced paramedics or the students, choosing the experienced paramedic in only 30 percent of the cases.’
In order to understand the importance of this example for Flyvbjerg, we must first understand the model of learning proposed by the Dreyfus brothers. Like Piaget it is a stage-developmental model, but rather than moving towards higher levels of abstraction and complexity in understanding and interpreting rules, the model moves away from rules altogether:
- 1. Novices act on the basis of context-independent elements and rules.
- 2. Advanced beginners also use situational elements, which they have learned to identify and interpret on the basis of their own experience from similar situations.
- 3. Competent performers are characterized by the involved choice of Rationality, body, and intuition in human learning goals and plans as a basis for their actions. Goals and plans are used to structure and store masses of both context-dependent and context-independent information.
- 4. Proficient performers identify problems, goals, and plans intuitively from their own experientially based perspective. Intuitive choice is checked by analytical evaluation prior to action.
- 5. Finally, experts’ behavior is intuitive, holistic, and synchronic, understood in the way that a given situation releases a picture of problem, goal, plan, decision, and action in one instant and with no division into phases. This is the level of true human expertise. Experts are characterized by a flowing, effortless performance, unhindered by analytical deliberations.
The reason the instructors were unable to correctly identify the most-experienced life-savers in the CPR example is that, as teachers, they were stuck at the first level, only able to recognize correct application of the rules they taught their students without any appreciation of the intuitive way in which those rules were applied in actual experience.
What is wrong with social science, according to Flyvbjerg is that it is trapped in the “rational fallacy”:
The model makes clear that what we could call the “rational fallacy” does not lie in the rationalists’ emphasis on analysis and rationality as important phenomena. These are important, also according to the Dreyfus model. Rather, the rational fallacy consists of raising analysis and rationality into the most important mode of operation for human activity, and allowing these to dominate our view of human activity: so much so that other equally important modes of human understanding and behavior are made invisible. The Dreyfus model does not present a situation of “either rationality or intuition” but of both of them in their proper context: the position of intuition is not beyond rationality but alongside it, complementary to it, and insofar as we speak of experts, above rationality. The model specifies that what is needed in order to transcend the insufficient rational perspective is explicit integration of those properties characteristic of the higher levels in the learning process which can supplement and take over from analysis and rationality. These properties include context, judgment, practice, trial and error, experience, common sense, intuition, and bodily sensation.
From this launching point he then discusses Bourdieu’s critique, in Outline of a Theory of Practice, of Levi-Strauss’s theory of gift giving. Bourdieu argues that Levi-Strauss crucially ignores the importance of timing – of the delay between giving and receiving a gift, which is so crucial for maintaining the illusion of irreversibility in such exchange relations. This gets us to what he considers to be the crucial sticking point in attempts at social theorizing:
As Dreyfus notes, however, the problem for social studies is not the hermeneutic-phenomenological problem: it is not simply a problem that the researchers lack a theory of how to determine what counts as an event or act (“gift-giving” in Levi-Strauss’s theory). This problem is no larger than physics not having a theory for the classification of images from a bubble chamber. The problem in the study of human activity is that every attempt at a context-free definition of an action, that is, a definition based on abstract rules or laws, will not necessarily accord with the pragmatic way an action is defined by the actors in a concrete social situation. Social scientists do not have a theory (rules and laws) for how the people they study determine what counts as an action, because the determination derives from situationally defined (context-dependent) skills, which the objects of study are proficient and experts in exercising, and because theory – by definition – presupposes context-independence.
This syllogism knocked the air out of me!
- Human knowledge is context-dependent.
- Social theory attempts to form rules which are context-independent.
- Therefore, it is impossible to have a social theory of human knowledge.
Or, as Flyvberg puts it:
The core of their argument is that human activity cannot be reduced to a set of rules, and without rules there can be no theory.
This is just wrong. Theory is not simply a set of rules, like a computer algorithm. Formalizing something into a model does necessarily entail a set of rules that are followed in robot-like fashion. What is even more absurd is that Flyvberg seems to deny that he has just articulated a theory of social action himself! True, some theories are particularly rigid and rule based. It was a mistake for structuralism to attempt to model social science too closely on formal linguistics. But Flyvberg seems to believe: (a) that it is therefore necessary to move beyond theory, rather than coming up with more flexible theories, and (b) that it is possible to step outside of theory altogether by abandoning the attempt to formalize theories into coherent explanatory models.
What is particularly strange is that he discusses Bourdieu and Habermas so much, but seems to understand them so little. He rehashes the old criticisms of Habermas (that his model is too idealistic). As Rough Theory blogger NP says:
The important thing for Habermas is not whether we can attain an ideal speech situation in our social practice: it is whether, as social actors, we can conceptualise what an ideal speech situation would be, if one could exist – whether we have been exposed to some form of perception and thought that introduces us to concepts of freedom, equality, absence of coercion, intersubjective agreement, and other normative standards Habermas brings to bear in his social critique.
But especially strange is his uncritical use of Bourdieu, since Bourdieu’s attempts at developing a processual theory of society seem so contrary to his own attempts to reject such a project altogether.
In the end, I realized that there was something even more troubling about Flyvberg’s use of the Dreyfus model: he has created his own teleology, in which theory-free intuition is the highest stage of development, and rationality is the lowest. He uses this theory as a moral cudgel to prove that rational theorists are therefore less evolved then interpretive social scientists like himself. Not only is this a rather reprehensible mode of argumentation, I believe it is ultimately based on a flawed understanding of cognitive development, one that assumes there is only a single kind of learning that can take place, as opposed to multiple forms of intelligence. I think it is true that, historically, the “West” has overvalued certain forms of rationality over other kinds of thinking, but I think it is absurd to go so far as to claim that rationality is somehow inferior to intuitive thinking. In the end it seems to me that Flyvberg is not so much beyond rational thinking, as simply lacking enough of it!