Rambling Reflections

A disturbing feature of present-day society is that, more than in the past, there is a neglect, not just in informal discussions but in media discussions and in political speeches, of the need for judicious treatment of facts and for careful argumentation. More alarming still is that even within some academic communities these requirements are flouted. Indeed, sometimes explicit justification is put forward for this, as for as example with rejection of the ideal of clarity.


Addressing the question of the value of academic social science, one is faced with a challenge. Thinking about what the view of ordinary members of the public (who indirectly fund much of it) would be, one must recognise that justifying it could be difficult. Of course, for the most part, they are not best placed to make sound judgments about this issue. But if one tries to adopt their perspective while tempering it with knowledge of social science, it would be hard not to come to the conclusion that much work in the field is trivial. But equally problematic, very often, is that social scientific work which directly addresses the pressing issues of the day. This is frequently highly speculative in character, not differing in essentials from the sort of opinions that ordinary people express in conversation. There is a need to find some via media, whereby important issues can be addressed without making extravagant claims, and in ways that contribute genuine knowledge without giving way to extreme scepticism.


On Karl Mannheim’s epistemology. To a degree he has been unfairly criticised on this score. He recognises the important distinction between whether a claim is true and whether it is a universal truth applying for all time and everywhere. (He does not clarify this much, which would require recognition of the conditional nature even of universal laws, and a distinction between descriptive and explanatory claims – it is only in relation to the latter that the distinction between truth and universality arises, descriptions necessarily refer to specific time-space locations, however large.) Furthermore, Mannheim’s perspectivism is shared, in broad terms, with Heidegger and Gadamer, and indeed with Marx and Hegel. The latter two writers postulate an end of history, and for Hegel this is the point at which a synthesis is possible that encapsulates the whole truth about the world. Mannheim rejects this, and even Marx’s version of it, and so is closer to Heidegger and Gadamer. Of course, there needs to be clarification of in what sense truths are relative: they are relative to the questions to which they are answers; and what questions are addressed, including the sense of what would constitute relevant answers to them (a relevance structure), certainly varies across socio-cultural contexts, both temporally and contemporaneously. The truth, as contrasted with the relevance, of the answers is not context-dependent, but the justifiability of them is: what it is justifiable to believe varies across situations according to what information is available. It is important to note, though, that, like Hegel and Marx, Mannheim comes close to a pragmatism according to which what is functional for ‘progressive’ purposes in some situation is true or at least ‘authentic’. It is unclear what the relationship is between truth and authenticity for Mannheim. (on all this, see his Structures of Thinking).


In my book Troubling Sociological Concepts I suggested that the concept of institutional racism is insufficiently specified: very often the mechanisms involved are not identified effectively, even less is convincing empirical evidence usually offered about their operation. I have been thinking a little further about this. Racism in the UK, and in most other Western countries, operates in an informal way, given that discrimination on the basis of racial characteristics is legally proscribed in Government, in organisations, and in many situations. (This does not, of course, mean that differential ethnic/racial outcomes cannot be produced through the making of governmental and organisational policies, as well as by practices on the ground.)

There seem to be at least two mechanisms operating in institutional racism. The first arises from the fact that in dealing with other people we rely on a whole range of more or less observable characteristics, including those sometimes taken to indicate racial differences. These are used to determine what can be expected from, and of, people. Expectations about others are an essential aspect of human social interaction. So, the use of observable characteristics to classify people in terms of gender, ethnicity/race, social class, and in many other ways, seems likely to be an ineradicable feature of large-scale societies, even where there are strong laws that prescribe universalistic treatment.

Differentiation on the basis of these characteristics need not have negative consequences for a particular category, though it often does. One reason for this is that the categorisations made are closely tied up with differential evaluations of people in terms of social status (what respect they are due), this reflecting what are assumed to be differences in the possession of a whole range of traits which may be judged to be positive (having a variety of capabilities and predispositions, general intelligence, a high income or large wealth, being highly regarded by others, being strong bold or courageous in various senses, and so on), as well as possession of negative ones – the status of some traits is ambiguous or contextually variable. Given that racial features (skin colour, etc) are treated as associated with ethnic variation, and that ethnicity is taken to imply differences in traits that may be judged positively or negatively in status terms, it is not difficult to see how this may generate differential treatment along racial, as along other, lines.

The other mechanism that seems likely to be implicated in informal racism operates in terms of dichotomous categories, rather than status scales. It involves us-versus-them divisions (distinctions between in-groups and out-groups). These can, of course, be drawn in many different ways, but ethnicity is a major one, and given the manner in which racial characteristics are often used in the assignment of people to particular ethnic categories, they may be used to distinguish ‘us’ from ‘them’ in particular situations or more generally. One of the most significant consequences of us-versus-them distinctions is that normal rules for treating others may be weakened, suspended, or abandoned in dealings with ‘them’, especially in conflict situations.

These two mechanisms operate against a background of national and regional stereotyping, for example that reinforced by the legacy of the British Empire and the Atlantic Slave Trade. But it is probably particular ways in which these two mechanisms operate in various types of situation – such as in encounters between police and black people on the streets – that need to be tackled. Targeted measures are required to disrupt the operation of these mechanisms where they function in unacceptable ways, despite the fact that the mechanisms themselves probably cannot be eradicated. The failure to apply remedies even when outrageous discrimination has been revealed – as in the case of the Windrush Scandal – is perhaps the clearest signal that racial discrimination is institutionalised in UK society even though formally proscribed in many situations.


There are at least two key themes of social science, on the face of it at odds with each other. One is the insistence that almost any aspect of present-day society could have been different: that it is a product of contingent processes rather than reflecting some universal social law, being a feature of all societies, or constituting an essential element of human nature. It is perhaps necessary to emphasise that this does not imply that we can change this feature easily, though it may mean that some change is possible. The other theme follows on from this qualification: that what happens in the social world is, for the most part, not an intended outcome on the part of some agent but rather a complex product of factors over which no agent, individual or collective, has control. An important implication of this is that bringing about a desired change may not be possible, and even if it is possible could be very difficult to achieve, and/or very costly, so that very often goals have to be tempered by realism.

Underpinning this second theme is what, in my view, is the core principle of social science: the need, for the purposes of understanding any social situation, to suspend evaluations, positive or negative, of the people involved, their practices and associated institutions, in order to focus instead on trying to understand why they believe what they do, have the orientation they do, behave in the way that they do, and so on. While it will not be popular, this is especially necessary in the case of those who are regarded by most people as beyond the pale, such as paedophiles or racists. This does not require us to abandon our principles, our commitment to human rights, etc, but to suspend these for the purposes of finding answers to research questions. What is almost certainly true, though, is that frequently the results of our investigation will lead us to revise our value judgments somewhat, or they will make it more difficult for us to come to clear-cut value conclusions. And this can have practical costs.


What mode of pedagogy is most appropriate for educating social science researchers? Teacher as advisor to students who are treated as engaged in their own autonomous inquiries, as trainer inculcating relevant skills and applicable knowledge, as constructionist educator (eliciting prior assumptions and challenging false ones to unblock the way of learning), or as missionary advocating a particular approach? This issue is in addition to the many others that plague methods teaching today (‘Teaching qualitative methodology: craft, profession, or bricolage?’, in C. Seale, D. Silverman (eds.) Handbook of Qualitative Research Practice, London, Sage, 2004; ‘Is it possible to teach social research methods well today?)


We would do well to distinguish between the task of producing academic knowledge, methodological reflections geared to facilitating this, and how the results of research in a field are conveyed to lay people. But this is to adopt a relatively passive view of the role of academic work. Many people seem to believe that it can and should be an active force in the world, directed towards achieving some practical political goal. Think tanks are the embodiment of this idea, and many academics seem to have modelled their work on these, consciously or unconsciously. This is a betrayal of the academic vocation.


If we think of the two great structural forces operating in Western society today – markets and democratic procedures – it is not hard to see why an increasingly instrumentalist attitude is taken towards academic work, as well as towards art, literature and music. Of course, there has been an equally instrumental attitude on the part of totalitarian governments, and this is also true of populist governments today.


If we were to apply Karl Mannheim’s diagnosis of fascism to today’s populism, the conclusion would be that it reflects changes in the nature of current society and that democrats must learn from it – not simply reject it. And what they need to learn is that some freedoms must be reduced if the common good is to be progressed. Is the pandemic pushing us in this direction, or are we simply sliding into a form of populist government? ‘Freedom’ still seems to be treated as a slogan, with little attention to what rights are and are not legitimate, in what circumstances; and how we deal with conflicts in rights.


One of the problems with social research today is that many researchers do not realise how difficult it is to come to sound conclusions about what happened in particular situations, and even more so why it happened. Some see the research task as similar to writing fictions: providing plausible stories, ones that fit their inclinations and those of their target audiences. Because research communities are, to a large extent, circumscribed ideologically, there is an endemic insularity that produces accounts which are accepted but whose likely validity is uncertain because there is insufficient, or insufficiently strong, evidence available.


What happens in a world where the meaning of words is not treated carefully or taken seriously? We are finding out! 


Absolutism/Objectivism versus Historism/Historicism

Thinking about the issue of historicism and relativism, there are a number of strands of thought that are relevant. Some of these are anti-relativist and absolutist, in some sense. One is the idea of divine or natural law, which can be found in medieval Christianity and in some other religions. Another is the Enlightenment notion of Reason as providing the basis for claims about universal values: this might involve a rational metaphysics, for instance that of Christian Wolff, or the sort of ‘critical’ approach employed by Kant.

These ideas contrast sharply with a strand of thinking that treats what is believed and valued in different historical periods within the same society, and across different societies, as all valid in their own terms. Following Popper, we can call this ‘historism’. Sometimes this was elaborated into a scheme portraying cultures as each going through a process of growth that parallels a human life: from childhood to death. However, this is not an essential feature of it. Herder is a key exemplar.

Spanning, or attempting to span, the divide between these two positions is what (following Popper again) can be called historicism, which is to be found in its most elaborate form in Hegel. Here what is legitimately to be believed, done, and valued varies according to time period, but these partial historical perspectives and practices are aspects of a coherent, rational, whole that will be completely realised at the end of the process of historical development. Hegel focused on the history of the West, but a version of this third position could be developed that takes into account different cultures found in different parts of the world at the same time, through placing them at different points in some sort of evolutionary scheme. Nineteenth-century anthropology came close to this in some of its forms.

These three broad strands of thinking have ontological and epistemological, as well as normative, implications  The first insists that people’s beliefs and behaviour are to a large extent the same across different periods and cultures: there is a fixed set of motives, truths, and types of illusion and sin, to be found in all of them. As already noted, it also insists that what ought to be believed and done is universal, not changing across times and cultures. By contrast, historists, in the sense of the term I am using here, believe both that human belief and behaviour is very variable, and that what ought to be believed and done varies too. This raises epistemological questions about how far it is possible to understand people in the past or in other cultures. Some insist that it is possible to grasp the perspectives, and understand the practices, of Others, ‘from the inside’, by one means or another. Other historists deny that this is possible, either claiming that mutual understanding is unattainable, or arguing that, through seeking to understand Others, we can gain an understanding of them from our own point of view in a manner that extends this point of view, perhaps teaching us something that extends beyond what is ‘in’ both our own perspective and the one we are trying to understand (this seems to be Gadamer’s position). For Hegel, of course, true understanding is possible, but only possible, at the end of History.