Beyond Rationality, or Simply Lacking Enough of it?

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!

13 thoughts on “Beyond Rationality, or Simply Lacking Enough of it?

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  2. That discussion reminds me of anthropologists or grad students who like to state that they don’t like to use theory in there work. Even if you aren’t using an established theoretical perspective or a “named” theory, you are still basing your academic work on implicit assumptions that I think can be classified as theory. I will agree with arguments that theorizing in of itself is bad since theory needs to be connected to “real life” or it is worthless. However, I don’t buy that atheoretical social science is desirable or even possible.

  3. I will agree with arguments that theorizing in of itself is bad since theory needs to be connected to “real life” or it is worthless.

    This is the nub of Flyvberg’s agrument. He is saying that it is essentially impossible to connect what we usually call theory to real life, and therfore we should stop trying. Indeed, it is true that most scholars seem to either do good theory or good ethnography, and even when they do both they often fail to connect the two together in a particularly convincing way. But he makes an absurd jump to then argue that we should somehow abandon theory altogether. To be fair, he does have some concept of theory – as a set of contextual meta-narratives arising out of the ethnographic process itself, but I think he here becomes as idealistic as Habermas since no ethnographic process is sufficient to create such theory entirely on its own.

  4. When I read the assertion that, “I agree with arguments that theorizing in of itself is bad,” I must confess that my jaw drops.

    Could the author mean the sort of theorizing that goes on as a purely abstract game, with no reference to particular ethnographic or historical data? If so, I wonder, isn’t he then asserting that logic and mathematics in and of themselves are bad?

    Or, at the other extreme, is does he adhere to brute empiricism, imagining that his observations or whatever his informants tell him will, through some pure “intuition” unmediated by any conceptual apparatus whatsoever to interpretations that are more than personal fantasies?

    “Intuition,” I suggest, is a weasel word, i.e., a term which, on investigation, turns out to be either a pointer to a class of unsolved problems or simply a confession that the author hasn’t a clue how his or her conclusions are reached. Assuming the first and more charitable reading, allow me to suggest a bit of reading in the now substantial literature in cognitive psychology and behavioral economics, starting with Gary Klein’s Sources of Power: How People Make Decisions.

  5. ‘When I read the assertion that, “I agree with arguments that theorizing in of itself is bad,” I must confess that my jaw drops.’

    Surely we can all agree that, at some point, theory must connect with the reality in which we live, whatever we judge that to be? Ultimately, all mathematics and ‘logic’ can be practically applied to real-life situations.

  6. That theory must connect with reality? Of course. If, that is, we hope to act on the basis of the theory.

    On the other hand, anyone who believes that all mathematics and logic can be practically applied to real life situations plainly doesn’t know a great deal about mathematics or the history thereof. A lot of mathematics consists of mathematicians working out elaborate what-if scenarios (a.k.a.,proofs of theorems) based on axioms that may have some bearing on what we call reality—but, then again, may not.

    Who do you know who lives in Flatland?

  7. And no, I don’t know a lot about mathematics or the history thereof.

    My point is not that ‘theorizing in of itself is bad’, but that it is impossible. All theorising is based, first and foresmost on observation, and serves a purpose.

  8. What precisely do you mean by “based…on observation”?

    Consider, for example, the case of Einstein. We know that the Theory of Special Relativity was stimulated in part by Einstein’s observations while riding in elevators. In what, if any sense, is the theory “based” on those observations? In what sense are they foundational to it?

    And what, by the way, was the purpose served by Einstein’s theorizing? Besides, of course, his project of developing a physics more comprehensive than Newton’s?

    Or, another example, what purpose is served when a mathematician says, “Let us assume that Euclid was wrong and parallel lines converge” and then proceeds to generate a body of theorems describing this wholly imaginary world?

  9. If Einstein has accepted Newtonian physics as unproblematic, would he have bothered to come up with an alternative?

    Anyway, that’s enough rhetorical questions for one thread…

  10. Seriously, though, “based on” is one of those phrases that we casually use in discussions that deserves closer examination. That problem is, in historical fact, the the core issue in epistemology—the study of the bases on which we claim to know what we know. It is no accident that the study of epistemology as a separate philosophical topic appears around the same time that classical physical science begins to reveal a disconnect between the world as we perceive it and invisible, underlying realities: colors, for example, as opposed to the properties of radiation in the relatively narrow bandwidth to which human eyes are sensitive.

    One segment of the ensuing debate of particular interest to anthropologist is Durkheim’s take on Kant’s response to Hume’s assertion that all knowledge is rooted in sense data. Kant argued, in effect (I am using more modern language) that the human mind comes pre-equipped with categories (time, space, cause, self, etc.) in terms of which sense data are processed and become relevant as evidence for or against purported connections among them. Kant, however, believed that the categories in question were (1) universal and (2) already known in the forms provided by Newton’s physics and, underlying Newton’s physics, Euclid’s geometry. Durkheim accepted the proposition that pre-existing categories are required to organize sensory input, but observed that empirically notions of time, space, cause, etc., vary widely and cannot, thus, be seen as human universals. He proposed, instead, that society provides the categories, which are, originally, structures implicit in forms of social organization.

    That there is some connection between cultural categories and social organization can hardly be denied. Guy Swanson, for example, finds statistically significant correlations between different forms of the state and the ways in which gods are conceived.

    What precisely that relation is in any particular case is, however, something that needs to be carefully explored. When, for example, I began to study Chinese religion, it was commonplace to observe that gods were heavenly bureaucrats, ancestors kin, and ghosts non-kin (presumed to be hostile). Since then there have been numerous studies of liminal (partly divine, partly demonic) members of the Chinese pantheon and growing recognition that the way in which it “mirrors” any historical Chinese empire is imperfect at best. How what goes on in Chinese temples today relates to the state organization of the Peoples Republic of China on the mainland, Taiwan or Singapore only poses this problem in a particularly acute form, stimulating debates in which Chinese as well as non-Chinese, anthropologists and non-anthropologists, participate. The theories brought to bear come from a wide variety of sources. None, returning to where we began, is “based” in any simple sense in the observations brought to bear to defend or attack it.

    I am sure that with a little thought anyone here who has done fieldwork and wrestled with trying to write ethnography can provide similar cases.

  11. Thanks for that. A very interesting and stimulating post.

    Without going in to too much detail (for now) I’ll just mention that I have recently been reading ‘Being human: the problem of agency’ by Margaret Archer (2000). In essence, she argues that practice takes primacy over language, and therefore comes before socialisation. Of particular relevance to this discussion, she writes, ‘… it is only as embodied human beings that we experience the world and ourselves: our thought is an aspect of the practice of such beings, and thus can never be set apart from the way the world is and the way we are’ (p. 145).

  12. On the philosophical side you might want to look at Lakoff and Johnson’s Philosophy in the Flesh or Lakoff’s earlier book Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things. Now it looks like Kant and Durkheim were both partially right. There are, it appears, hard-wired features of human minds that reflect the way the human body is organized; but their effects are also shaped by extrasomatic, largely social/cultural factors.

    Consider, for example, the bow. Numerous animal behavior studies show that lowering the head and averting the gaze is a sign of submission that normally triggers the end of aggressive behavior in the other animal at which the bow is directed.

    Why the bow should, in imperial China, take the form of the kow-tow (kneeling, lowering and knocking the head on the floor—three kneelings and nine knockings), while elsewhere it takes the form of a brief nod, plainly requires additional explanation.

    Ditto for the effects of submissive postures. Why should, under the Geneva conventions, surrender result in civilized treatment instead of torture or massacre? Why, in S&M settings, should submissive postures stimulate an increase in aggressive behavior on the part of “the master”? Here again, a straightforward extrapolation from animal behavior to cultural models is clearly too simple.

  13. What’s more important, being able to throw the touchdown pass or being able to explain how to throw the touchdown pass? Neither a priori. Football benefits from having both quarterbacks and coaches.

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