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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.