Large Questions in Their Entirety

John Emerson’s recent Idocentrism post about analytic philosophy reminds me of why I went into the social sciences in the first place (after flirting with the idea of being a philosophy major):

I think that at least some philosophers should reverse the priority that analytic philosophers give to rigor over comprehensiveness. Rather than reducing problems to a size which can be successfully handled with rigor and certainty, I think that philosophers should try as best possible to handle large questions in their entirety. And these should be actual, real questions in all their thickness, and not questions about formalized models or imaginary hypothetical questions.

I can’t really think of a better way of stating what I think the strength is of anthropology over, say, economics or certain strands of sociology. I’ve tried to say this before, but John’s phrase “large questions in their entirety” really appeals to me.

At the same time, even in anthropology careers are usually predicated on one’s ability to carve out a narrow part of the world or intellectual spectrum on which you can plant your intellectual flag. Only later on (it seems) are you allowed to branch out and write books on the “large questions.” While books on the large questions may be some of the best known anthropology work, I’m not sure it constitutes the vast bulk of what is produced. This is perhaps true of all disciplines. The people who tackle such large questions are often people with unusual career paths, and not infrequently function outside academic institutions altogether. This is also one reason I like blogging and the internet. I think it opens up a space in which academics can take on such large questions. Hopefully that will eventually feed back into the very structure of our academic institutions. CKelty’s recent post about “anthropology on demand” gives me some hope that this is happening.

9 thoughts on “Large Questions in Their Entirety

  1. I’ve been thinking a lot about this recently, among other reasons because I’ve recently re-read Weber’s “Science as a Vocation”, in which this bold, wide-ranging thinker soberly catalogues what he regards as the historical necessity for hyper-specialisation in academia…

    Weber’s view is fairly commonly expressed in advice to graduate students, in my experience – often accompanied with a kind of historical just-so story about how it used to be possible to theorise large issues, but the world has now sadly become too complex… I’ve always felt it contradictory, at best, for academics to say things like this, while continuing to assign classic theory to graduate students: if the world is now too complex for us to develop our own grand theories, surely the ones from the 19th century should now appear hopelessly naive…

    I’ve also personally always questioned the notion that students should be apprenticed to narrow specialisation in the theory that, at some later point, they can “branch out”: surely it is more common for us to develop into deeper and more refined versions of what we actually practice, so that an exclusive focus on narrow specialisation will predictably generate experienced and practiced specialists – not big picture theorists… If the “big questions” aren’t somehow there from the beginning, I’m not sure how a lifetime of attention to small questions is supposed to generate them…

    What I’ve been trying to work on recently with my methods students is how to explore large questions – yes, in their entirety (I like the phrase too) – through the window of small stories. If done successfully, this would create a constant productive tension between the smaller, “digestible”, project-length frames, and larger questions that motivate the smaller studies. This enables a level of rigour – keeping claims commensurate with evidence – while not requiring students to shelve their interest in large questions until they’ve forgotten how to ask them…

    I’m not claiming to be successful at this – in my own work, or with my students. But I’d agree that keeping open a space for work devoted to large questions (as well, of course, as keeping open a space for the exploration of specialised topics) is an extremely important goal.

  2. “if the world is now too complex for us to develop our own grand theories, surely the ones from the 19th century should now appear hopelessly naive…”

    That’s a great way of putting it. What graduate students seem to learn now are one-sentance dismissals of each theoretical paradigm. It isn’t clear to me how that trains us deal with complexity either.

    I sometimes think that “The Crying of Lot 49” is a perfect model for anthropology – each book should build up its own grand theory – and deconstruct it at the same time.

  3. What I always think when I hear one of those one-line critiques is something along the lines of “false consciousness is also true”: the really interesting aspect of any critique is precisely that it casts into clear relief how very strange it is, that we have managed to make sense of the world through the theories we create, in spite of their (occasionally large) empirical weaknesses. Critique should be the beginning of the puzzle, not the end – the real trick is to uncover why the theories were plausible, not just to tick off why they are wrong.

  4. I don’t usually defend analytic philosophy, but one of the most intriguing (deeply troubling!)analytic philosophers, Robert Nozick, was certainly not afraid of large questions in their entirety– check out Philosophical Explanations and you’ll see what i mean…

  5. I should note that I have no specific quarrel with analytic philophy, which has spawned diverse traditions with different implications. My concern is simply with the prioritisation of specialised work at the expense of “big picture” theory, within any tradition.

  6. This is a very interesting subject! I would love to read more about the experiences N Pepperell has with using “small stories” as windows for exploring large questions. I am a psychologist, since 20 years making my living as an oral storyteller. Now I am exploring the connections between narratives, knowledge, learning and mind. One of the things I have found is that stories makes listeners ask very useful questions. There are even traditional oral genres designed for making the listeners discuss (dilemma-tales).

    I (and many others) have also found that stories are very efficient for communicating complex and “holistic” knowledge. Concept- or mindmaps is another way to represent complex relations. I know too little about anthropology to know if “thick descriptions” would be the third candidate for a “thinking tool for holistic knowledge”. What do you think?

  7. I’m not claiming any huge expertise in this area!!! I’ve only very recently begun teaching methodology in any formal sense, and so all I’m really doing is trying to encourage students to view their current project as a step in the broader intellectual project that motivates them to do academic work.

    I work with students at all levels – students doing “minor” theses as part of coursework programs, students doing honours theses for their undergraduate degree, and PhD students – so I can’t necessarily assume that all of my students will continue in academic work, or have an opportunity eventually to pursue other stages of their project. But I still remind them that they can address their work as a contribution to something much larger – even if that something is ultimately pursued by a broader academic community.

    So we focus a lot of what inspired them – what makes them curious. And then we talk about the differences between intellectual curiosity and a research question – but also about how you link these two things together. We spend some time workshopping how to break a large project down so that, if you are doing something very small and narrow, you have a clear connection in your own mind about how that small, narrow thing contributes to an overarching intellectual project. We read and discuss examples of work from different fields where “bounded” forms of research – including single anecdotes – have been used to contribute meaningfully to “big” questions. And we spend a lot of time workshopping research questions and methodologies collectively, with these issues in mind…

    I’m not sure it’s the best way to approach this, or that I do it particularly well. And it has its drawbacks: students doing “methods” with me get a lot of work on the logical connection between their research questions, their methodology, and some larger theoretical or empirical concern, but they’re left to pursue more “mechanical” aspects of methods on their own – in the assumption (which might be very problematic) that, once they have a clear question and a good understanding of why they want to use a particular methodology, they are then adequately motivated to teach themselves the mechanics or to seek out the technical training they require… (I should note that my university does provide separate “intensive” programs dedicated to research mechanics, although I suspect most students would like more…)

  8. Thank you for expanding on this topic! It gave me very useful ideas about how your approach could be used in two very different contexts. Imagine what could happen if you treated pre-school children as researchers in this way? That would be very interesting. The second scenario which I actually plan to try out, is to help teachers share reports from small-scale projects with narratives in education.

    And I can confirm from my own experiences that once you know what you need for example statistic methods for, they suddenly changes. From some kind of boring punishment into highly prized tools for gold-digging.

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