Thursday, 8 November 2012

Confused thoughts about constructivism in social science research

At a phenomenology reading group set up by my colleague Gill Thomson today we discussed a couple of papers by John Paley criticising the use of phenomenology in nursing research and more generally an approach to qualitative social science that draws on what he called ‘constructivism’. In the main, and understandably, those attending the reading group were unimpressed by his arguments but I was not able to get a clear understanding of a view which seemed widely held in the group: that a view or approach reasonably called ‘constructivism’ falls out of quite a general qualitative social science approach and is itself of general applicability, saying something substantial about the world. Someone suggested that interpretivism stood to constructivism as epistemology stands to ontology. But though that might help, we still need to know what both are.

One problem is knowing what interpretation is. There seemed to be the thought today that interpretation is ubiquitous and that it has to do with meaning. But the first thought is surely odd and unnatural. Interpretation is not ubiquitous. It is not the only way to react to meaning. I may interpret an ambiguous smile as friendly or a David Lynch film as about death. But I do not interpret the stop sign - in the UK - as telling me to stop. Given my background, my induction into relevant practices, I see that straight off. Imagine trying to get off a reckless driving charge by saying: well that is not how I interpreted the sign. (By contrast, if one went the wrong way up a road as a result of misreading a map one could say that one interpreted the map wrongly. Some people at least react to maps and signs differently.) So not all responding to meaning is normally called ‘interpretation’.

Still we might introduce it as a technical term and say: all responding to meaning is to be called interpretation*. But if so, not all interpretation* so defined involves construction. Meaning can or does involve construction if we set up a bit of a language. When Lois and I baptised my cat Sootica, we set up, established, or perhaps one could say, if a still little oddly, we constructed the meaning that that word would now have on our lips. It now goes proxy for a particular cat. Using it we speak of her. But if Lois, cooking fish, shouts "Don't let Sootica into the kitchen" I do not construct the meaning of that utterance. She has told me what not to do. I hear it in her words. It is no excuse if I let the cat in to say that I put quite a different construction on those words. In normal circumstances, they could not bear a different interpretation.

With a David Lynch film I may spend some time constructing an interpretation to tie up all the loose ends. Or I may construct a Freudian or Marxist reading. But such construction is quite distinct from hearing what Lois said. In court, the judge might ask: ‘Is it true that she told you to keep the cat out? but will not ask, or at least not insist on an answer to, whether it is true that the Lynch film is Marxist. S/He might ask whether it is widely interpreted in that way, or could be. Such interpretations are quite niche notions.

(Interestingly, things might be contingently different these days and in some quarters at least about Freudianism, such is the greater lingering influence of Freud over Marx in cultural analysis. Suppose the judge asks whether Mulholland Drive is a Freudian film and takes it for granted that there is a fact of the matter, obviously. To the extent to which the answer is obvious, though, and not a matter of careful construction of an interpretative schema, it is also no longer a matter of interpretation. To the regular Lynchian, the film says Freud as the stop sign says stop.)

One might say that it is just obvious that meaning is constructed, however. That is, meaning is like being married, or a university lecturer or a capital city: a social construct. Even in Lois shout, we jointly make up the meaning of that claim. But if so, we pay a high price. Take a sentence describing the state of my fridge in the future eg "tomorrow it will have two or more pints of milk". If that sentence is not sufficient to mean what it says, if it requires the assistance of a fresh construction each time it is used, then there is no fact that it expresses. So there is no fact of the matter about whether tomorrow my fridge will have two pints of milk. (Happy antirealists about the future can pick a present tense sentence.) Constructivism about meaning seems to lead to global idealism. (If one objects that this though only threatens the sentences used to state facts not the facts themselves one will owe an account of facts which is not just what a true sentence states. I can’t think of any.)

More familiarly, if meaning is socially constructed by being a convention, are the consequences of that convention also fixed by convention or do they follow from the meanings now fixed and in need of no further construction? If the former, this will transform maths or logic since we will never be surprised by the remote logical consequences of what we think. We will always make up the answer to any new sum rather than see what it already is. Conducting classical music will be more like free jazz. Reading a poem will be writing a poem etc. If the latter, there are some key facts about meaning which are not constructed. They may be the ones that need no interpretation: the stop sign again.

So I am left with the worry that whilst meanings or interpretations may sometimes be constructed, they are not all constructed. And so constructivism cannot generally hold. So what is it?