Sunday, February 12, 2017

#3 Why Does Flyvberg Matter?

In the third installment of this blog series, Theory in the 21st Century, I turn to Brent Flyvberg's Making Social Science Matter. Inspired by Aristotle, he seeks to carve a distinctive kind of investigation of values, interests, and practice that does not aspire to replicate the universalism of the natural sciences. The main target of this argument is the cargo cult scientism so prevalent in American social studies.

Flyvberg argues that the kinds of items social science investigate do not lend themselves to this agenda and therefore will likely always fail to realize that aspiration. Basically, these are not equivalent realms of inquiry, so it is foolish to reproduce a particular kind of inquiry. Doing so is to make the single-analysis fallacy, that is, the faulty belief that one kind of analysis is suitable for all kinds of investigation regardless of subject matter. Rather than being content with demarcating the boundary of social scientific enterprise, Flyvberg presses on to suggest that epistemic efforts actually hinder genuine attempts to gain insight into the realm of human affairs.

Invoking the Dryfus model of learning, Flyvbjerg supports his contention by arguing that the cumulative, prediction, and systematization that characterises what he calls the episteme approach yields only partial knowledge about the complexity of the human condition. This is for four reasons. First, there are limits to rationally mapping, explaining, and predicting the wide range of human practices and motivations. Second, the neglect of context misses the specific kinds of plural, local, and unique intentions at guide human actions. By inference, this means that social science is not a stable body of knowledge. Yet another reason is that naturalism deliberately avoids normative evaluations. Lastly, it is easy to claim that one must make tacit knowledge and interests explicit; it is another to actually accomplish it.

As an alternative, Flyvbjerg would prefer social scientists to adopt humanistic-inspired investigative principles. This means, that they would look “at what people actually do” so as to “focus on practices rather than discourse or theory” ultimately to conduct a normative evaluation. This epistemological and disciplinary reorientation, he imagines, will create a relevance that will “help restore social sciences to its classical position as a practical, intellectual activity aimed at clarifying the problems, risks, and possibilities we face as humans and societies.” The potential consequences of a phronetic approach, he believes, would acknowledge it is distinctive, valid, and legitimate kind of knowledge production as epistemic approaches, as well as better positioning it to make interventions into everyday affairs.

An unsympathetic reading might conclude that Flyvberg simply marries the terrible dichotomy of C. P. Snow’s Two Culture Thesis with Max Horkheimer’s division between Traditional and Critical Theory (favouring the latter), all in an effort to tar and feather those who service existing powers at the expense of advancing human flourishing. But this kind of reading fails to consider that Flyvberg is justifying a methodological operationalize of neo-Aristotelian concepts. In this sense, he is trying to restore an Aristotelian distinction between investigations of nature and art and to my mind this matters most to a communicative approach to justice.

As with almost all neo-Aristotelian studies practical reasoning carries the bulk of the conceptual weight. In Flyvbjerg’s project this manifests as phronesis, which is contradistinguished from episteme and techne. As rough contemporary equivalents, episteme is akin to propositional knowledge, techne is akin to technical knowledge, while phronesis is akin to practical knowledge. As Flyvbjerg defines it, phronesis is “a true state, reasoned, and capable of action with regard to things that are good or bad for man.” We can infer that covers wisdom and prudence, experience and thoughtfulness. Using these distinctions, Flyvberg argues that
The purpose of social science is not to develop theory, but to contribute to society’s practical rationality in elucidating where we are, where we want to go, and what is desirable according to diverse sets of values and interests. The goal of the phronetic approach becomes one of contributing to society’s capacity for value-rational deliberation and action.
Flyvbjerg suggests that universal predictive theory is not attuned to context. But, as Robert Adcock suggests, it is better to push the question the other way; that is, how many social scientists do aspire to universal predictive theory? Laitin, in weighing in on this point, argues that not even many natural scientists aspire to prediction. And as Schatzki writes, most social scientists tend to be concerned with explanation, and not necessarily with the core traits of episteme as Flyvbjerg understands it.[viii] In sum, as Adcock points out, Flyvbjerg has neglected to examine the actual practice and context of social scientists. In trying to make an argument regarding the distinctions between episteme and phronesis, it better to examine how suitable either phronesis or episteme might be for the task at hand. In some cases, certain species thereof can be complementary. If they are to be complementary however, a phronetic inquiry cannot claim propriety ownership over unique insights into the mechanics of power.

The value of phronesis can be found in what Adcock terms the “fundamental problem of context.” Adcock describes it as “what is it that distinguishes ‘contexts’ from one another?” Key here is that differences in the tacit knowledge of the participants of their context, their cohabitants, and their practices, which cannot be easily explicated to form generalizable and propositional rules. As Giddens has said,
It is right to say that the condition of generating descriptions of social activity is being able in principle to participate in it. It involves “mutual knowledge,” shared by observer and participants whose action constitutes and reconstitutes the social world.
However, explicating this knowledge often proves to be unsatisfying, and when done often fails to capture the rich texture of plural intentions which motivates encounters. As a way to accommodate plural intentions, Flyvbjerg qualifies that all interactions are “context dependence.” What he means by this is that practices are best understood as “an open-ended, dependent relation between contexts and actions and interpretations that cannot be brought under rule-based closure.” This is certainly an aporetic dialectics.

At stake, is as Robert Adcock points out, that there should be a distinction between “explicit systematic theories” and “general practical maxims.” This is basically the difference between propositions and prescriptions. But this division neglects that prescriptions themselves rely upon a set of propositions. For instance, a Marxist critique of capitalism is a result of metaphysical propositions about the ideal nature of human beings. So it seems that episteme and phronesis are intimately connected: decisions over what is to be done rests on what we know and our ability to anticipate and predict the consequences. Basically, to use Rorty’s terms, science can give us a vision of the future. This presentation of context allows for explanatory endeavours, as well preserving a role for interpretive communities.

Lastly, an important component of phronesis is that it must be orientated to engage with non-academic audience, and provide fuel for public deliberations over distributions of goods. He writes that “dialogue with groups outside of academia” is “at the heart of phronetic social science.”[xv] However, it is too callous to claim that good ideas are without value unless they are accepted and implemented. Conversely, do ideas which aspire to, but do not find purchase in public dialogue less phronetic? What about ideas that do not aspire so public value, but nevertheless find purchase?[xvi] These questions are unanswered by Flvybjerg, let alone thoughts regarding intended consequences. In sum, the means does not guarantee the end.

Further there remains unresolved inconsistency. Flyvbjerg cannot claim that social scientists seek episteme for reasons of status, and then not counter claim that they organise their work as internal deliverables marked for one another, for if that were the case, then is would not matter that this work had to be cloaked in episteme terms. While other moves are open, the likely possibility is that there is almost no difference between the final goals of episteme and phronesis approach: both seek to matter in a wider fashion.

In short, if reception is to remain as a key attribute, one should at least acknowledge that basic academic research often does not have a definitive horizon; that is, it is impossible to know when certain courses of action might yield dividends. Rather research matters not because of epistemic or phronetic orientation and aspirations, but because it aims to avoid the snares of systematic or unintentional distortion. In other words, things matter because they are developed under an ethical accord. This leaves open the possibility for items to matter in different ways. Flyvbjerg seeks to ask us to make work matter to the public at large, and in that way, to matter differently than epistemic approaches. In this case Flyvbjerg is asking us to make research democratically accountable. We should however note the success in the public up taking of this research, or it coming to bear upon policy, planning, or practice, is not an indicator of accomplishing phronesis inquiry.

The reason I have discussed Flyvbjerg at length is because it is counter-current to most social scientific methodologies which claims that “case stud[ies] cannot provide reliable information about the broader class,” and “have such a total absence of control as to be of almost no scientific value.”

But, as Flyvbjerg shows, the aforementioned current is to misunderstand the epistemological potential and contribution of case study research. Case studies can be differentiated into four kinds, intrinsic, instrumental, collective, and critical. The first kind is undertaken for reason of illustration, the second kind for unique insight, the third kind seeks refinement of principle to be applied more generally, while the forth kind. While the first three kinds lend themselves to Communication Studies, the forth kind is less vulnerable to quibbles about representative sampling and selections as the first and second are respectfully. The only justification the fourth kinds requires is the how suitably it lends itself to generating illuminating principles for ideals and practice.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Intentional Homicides in Trinidad and Tobago

Using World Bank data, I plotted a graph of the murder rate in Trinidad and Tobago. (Here is a link to a better quality version.)

In 2016 there were 462 murders in Trinidad and Tobago. This is 34.4 per 100'000, up from 2015, and roughly equal to the murder rate in South Africa.

2017 is not shaping up to well either, with 65 intentional homicides to date (10th February). Naturally there is outrage. This recent rise is against a backdrop of broken trust between citizens and the police force due to the latter's abuse of power. So it is unlikely that a more aggressive police presence will be an effective long term solution.

Other factors, like organized crime and narcotic trafficking can explain the rise in the murder rate, but social inequality is certainly a factor. There are been some local studies, but they are dated, and so cannot tell us as much as we would like about wealth, class, and local uneven development. While helpful to get a better sense of the social structure in Trinidad and Tobago, recent UNDP reports do not break down the distribution of wealth. I hope I am incorrect, and there needs to be more investigation from my side, but these knowledge gaps are terrifying. Meantime, the inflation of food is quickly increasing...

Until there is a forthright attempt to register how material inequities foster resentment and violence, the public discourse will political gestures and moral pleading, both of which are insufficient attempts to address this social problem. 

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Some Over-Writing from 2016

Bemoan not the lamentations of the latte-liberal. If ever they did leave the study hall of warped mirrors they mistake for philosophy and dare to walk outside and see politics as it is they would be better off. Here they would find the symbols they spend so much time rearranging poor facsimile of sinew and servitude that built the safe harbors from while they judge their appearances, and they too would discover that it is not language that is arbitrary, but their politics.

Monday, January 9, 2017


Forbes ran an article in December anticipating the Obamacare repeal from a tax policy perspective. Well worth a read, especially if this isn't your area of expertise and so require some familiarity with stakes. Some highlights:
"Immediately repealing the tax aspects of Obamacare will put an average of $33,000 in the hands of the richest 1% in 2017."
"those earning between $10,000 and $75,000 per year will actually see their tax bills increase if the Obamacare taxes are immediately repealed."
The kicker:
"In total, the immediate repeal of the Obamacare taxes will amount to a $350 billion tax cut for the richest 1% of taxpayers over the next ten years."
While these numbers seem high, an $33'000 per 1%'er per year is chump change. Let that sink in: These misers are going to exacerbate the suffering and directly cause the death and of 100s of thousands of people just for an extra $33'000 a year. Simply awful.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

The Empty Phrases of The Democrats

Even where there is no prospect of achieving their election the workers must put up their own candidates to preserve their independence, to gauge their own strength and to bring their revolutionary position and party standpoint to public attention. They must not be led astray by the empty phrases of the democrats, who will maintain that the workers’ candidates will split the democratic party and offer the forces of reaction the chance of victory. All such talk means, in the final analysis, that the proletariat is to be swindled. The progress which the proletarian party will make by operating independently in this way is infinitely more important than the disadvantages resulting from the presence of a few reactionaries in the representative body. If the forces of democracy take decisive, terroristic action against the reaction from the very beginning, the reactionary influence in the election will already have been destroyed.

--Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Address of the Central Committee to the Communist League, London, March 1850

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

#2 Latour's Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam?

In the Winter 2004 issue of Critical Inquiry Bruno Latour published “Why Has Critique Run out of Steam?” It was soon to become a one of his most notable papers. This is because in the paper he confined his worry and his regret that his methodology was being co-opted by bad faith politics. The main aim of his research project was to show that there is a “lack of scientific certainty inherent in the construction of facts.” Stripped bad faith actors have pervasively deployed uncertainly even where certainty exists. Latour laments the project “intended to emancipate the public from prematurely naturalized objectified facts” (emphasis added) has had the opposite effect to the point where there is a “distrust of good matters of fact disguised as bad ideological biases.” His cases range from climate change and political debate to war and justice.

In his mature thinking, Latour has attempted to distance himself from a position of pure constructivism. Instead, he had argued that technologies and devices are value-inherent actors. That they have their own set of attributes and characteristics independent of what values might happen to be subsequently attached to that actor. This position at times stands adjacent to a set of interrelated attitudes and beliefs that have been influenced by recent developments and debates in philosophy that concern the status of truth and certainty.

These developments in their various forms have often adopted a skeptical approach to the understanding of truth. And it would be a mistake to think that such skepticism is confined to those who would fall under the banner of postmodernism or post-structuralism. Even analytical philosophers such as Davidson and pragmatists such as Putman and Rorty have reservations, although Davidson and Putnam maintain their realist attitudes.

Within the last half century and across the philosophical spectrum one can see that what has propelled philosophy is a general re-evaluation of its foundations and a discussion over what are the most appropriate ways of understanding the world. And as such this skepticism has found expression in the anti-foundationalism of contemporary sociology, socio-linguistics, literary theory, and communication theory as well as everyday politics more generally. Moreover, this anti-foundationalism has become conventional wisdom.

This is not to say, as Rorty points out in Truth and Progress that there is no truth, or that truth is relative. Clearly, it makes no sense to say that “it is true for me but not for you” or it is “true here but not there.” For Rorty, such exercises are ‘pointless locutions.’ A more useful way to discuss the above statements would be to replace true with justification or application: “it is justified to me but not to you”, “It applies here but not there.” While some critics claim that in doing just this Rorty diminishes the value of truth, he argues that conventional analytic philosophy provides the grounds upon which ‘the very absoluteness of truth is a good reason for thinking “true” indefinable and for thinking that no theory of nature of truth is possible.’ In other words, there is not much that can be said about truth. And in general usage, true is a description of something that is considered to have been adequately justified, with standards for adequacy varying according to circumstances.

For those that are interested in truth, or think that it is a pragmatically useful way of thinking and comprehending the world, four major components are required for an outline of a theory of truth. These are theories of sensation, perception, correspondence, and judgement. But postmodernists and poststructuralists, particularly those significantly influenced by certain debates in the philosophy of language, suggest problems in each one of these theories. Their basic line of argumentation suggests that knowledge, value, and meaning of the world is created through social encounters mediated by language and texts: i.e. that 1) language is constitutive agent of human consciousness and the social production of meaning and 2) that one cannot exit this realm. Here the apprehension of the world, both past and present, arrives only through the lens of language’s pre-coded perceptions. Given this, it follows that all theories of truth are corrupted or inadequate.

Postmodernists press further by acknowledging that humans do invoke many belief and truths when acting or justifying manners and behaviors. Hence postmodernists have looked to devices or predispositions within people and the world to account for why these beliefs persist. The reasons they provide are many, complex, and sometimes at odds with one another, yet even so the collective trust of their argumentation views belief and knowledge emerge out of mixing of convention, power, and language. This position in its most radical form sees knowledge as a purely constructed activity with possibilities for modification possible at almost every level, from language itself to national identity for example.

While Latour has never fully subscribed to this line of argument, what has happened in the last four decades had led one of the leading contemporary proponents of knowledge as a constructed activity to become uneasy with the implications and consequences of an intellectual position in which almost everything is malleable from the vantage of a subject. Hence the position that he current occupies, one where critique can best be found in the ‘cultivation of a stubbornly realist attitude.’

#1 Theory is Going South

Theory is Going South
By ‘Theory from the South,’ the Comaroffs wish to indicate several things. The first follows from the broad recognition that modern European empires used colonial spaces as experimental sites for rule, military techniques and scientific subjects. So the Comaroffs wish to make space for Southern theorists—those located in, those transferring between—so as to listen to these theorists speak with an alternative experience of modernity, to speak directly about the ramification of these experiments using the theoretical vernaculars they have developed to seek historical justice for imperial rule and international capital, albeit in a language that most in the North refuse to listen to or make the effort to understand.
To be clear, this is not to reify the Global South nor persons located there as somehow less mystified or closer to nature so having special insights that those in the North do not or cannot possess. Nor it is to presume that the South is adjacent to historical processes. But rather to insist that it is intimately wrapped up in world history. The Comaroffs say “while Euro-American and its antipodes are caught up in the same world-historic processes, the Global South has tended to feel their effects before the global north.” This is because of underdevelopment and associated burdens that these societies show the effects of historical change before the global north. This does not make them exotic places of utopia or terror. Instead as the Comaroff’s say, “old margins are becoming new frontiers, places where mobile, globally-competitive capital finds minimally regulated zones in which is vest its operations.” They continue,
Capitalism flourishes as democracy is displaced by autocracy or technocracy; where industrial manufacture opens up ever more cost-efficient sites for itself; where highly flexible, extraordinarily inventive informal economies—of the kind now expanding everywhere—have long thrived; and where those performing outsourced services for the north develop cutting edge enterprises of their own, both legitimate and illicit; where new idioms of work, time, and governance take root, thus to alter planetary practices.
Further on they remark that Theory From the South acknowledges
that the South is not analyzed as the mere receiving end of colonial subjection or modernization’s designs but rather emerges as a space of experimentation that prefigures the near future of the West. Whereas the colonies might have always been the first laboratory of modernity, there is allegedly something new in the political, economic, and cultural ways in which the South anticipates the contours of the Euro-American future.
In an aphorism they write that “the Global North appears to be ‘going south.’”