Monday, 10 October 2016

Crotty's account of constructionism

In my bit of my university, Michael Crotty’s textbook on social science research methods The Foundations of Social Research is widely used. I can see that his attempt at house cleaning is attractive [Crotty 1998]. I like his appeal to different levels.

It is not uncommon to find, say, symbolic interactionism, ethnography and constructionism simply set side by side as ‘methodologies’, ‘approaches’, ‘perspectives’, or something similar. Yet they are not truly comparable. Lumping them together without distinction is a bit like talking about putting tomato sauce, condiments and groceries in one basket. One feels compelled to say, ‘Hang on a moment! Tomato sauce is one of many forms of condiment. And all condiments are groceries. Let’s do some sorting out here’. [Crotty 1998: 3]

But I have never got on with the book. It seems to me to be dangerous to a reputable social science PhD to insert some of the claims that he seems happy to make. The problems mainly pertain to his account of constructionism which, alongside objectivism and subjectivism sits at the top of his hierarchy of increasingly abstract ways of thinking about approaches to research. Constructionism is at the level of ‘epistemology’ which he thinks of as the most general way of construing knowledge. In fact, the description of objectivism and constructionism (he and I, it seems, have less time for subjectivism so I’ll ignore it here) rely on quite bald claims about metaphysics and ontology but perhaps there is no harm if it turns out that these are not really epistemological positions.

At the start of the book, there’s a first, preliminary contrast between objectivism and constructionism.

Objectivist epistemology holds that meaning, and therefore meaningful reality, exists as such apart from the operation of any consciousness. That tree in the forest is a tree, regardless of whether anyone is aware of its existence or not. As an object of that kind (‘objectively’, therefore), it carries the intrinsic meaning of ‘tree-ness’. When human beings recognise it as a tree, they are simply discovering a meaning that has been lying there in wait for them all along. Another epistemology-constructionism-rejects this view of human knowledge. There is no objective truth waiting for us to discover it. Truth, or meaning, comes into existence in and out of our engagement with the realities in our world. There is no meaning without a mind. Meaning is not discovered, but constructed. [Crotty 1998: 5-9 bold added]

This might be a more elegant post if I collected some quotes first and only then said what I thought was wrong but it may be easier to give the game away. This passage seems to go awry from the third sentence: ‘As an object of that kind (‘objectively’, therefore), it carries the intrinsic meaning of ‘tree-ness’. When human beings recognise it as a tree, they are simply discovering a meaning that has been lying there in wait for them all along.’

This talk of meaning seems misplaced. In the following chapter, Crotty illustrates objectivism by appeal to positivism using Comte and the Vienna Circle to characterise this. Given that, it seems bizarre to think that they subscribed to the view that natural objects carry intrinsic meanings that await finding. The more obvious characterisation of objectivism is that there are no natural meanings, what McDowell calls the ‘disenchantment’ of nature arising since the scientific revolution in the C17. The idea that nature carries a store of meanings is part of a pre-modern view of nature, described by Foucault in the Order of Things, that modern science, including positivistic science rejected. So the version of objectivism to which Crotty will oppose constructionism is a bit of a straw man, or at least a position which predates the rise of modern science. If constructionism were an opposition to a pre-modern view of the world with, perhaps, platonic fully objective meanings with no connection to human practices added in, then it will have an easy ride.

Constructionism opposes this view: ‘There is no meaning without a mind. Meaning is not discovered, but constructed’. This, however, is what I think most (non-Crotty-style) objectivists would hold. The world which serves as an objective standard against which knowledge claims are compared is meaning-free. Meanings come in on the human side of things. So far it seems that these are the wrong way round.

But there may be something in the other aspect of constructionism: ‘There is no objective truth waiting for us to discover it. Truth, or meaning, comes into existence in and out of our engagement with the realities in our world.’ That first claim is the one that makes me suspicious that this is going to be an expensive philosophical view for scientists (social or natural) to take. It almost sounds as though he is saying that there are no objective truths to find out (which rather puts science out of business). However, if 'truth' is deliberately singular this may be an advertisement for the next claim. Modulo a worry about the action at a distance of meaning (to which I’ll return) I can cope with that claim in the following sentence. If truth is an intra-linguistic property as a minimalist, deflationist philosophical view might hold then truth and meaning arise together. But it would be odd if Crotty were putting forward a particular account of the concept of truth here.

A little later in a section on ontology there’s a passage which closes with a comment implying that this is asserted in propria persona and as consistent with constructionism:

True enough, the world is there regardless of whether human beings are conscious of it. As Macquarrie tells us: ‘If there were no human beings, there might still be galaxies, trees, rocks, and so on-and doubtless there were, in those long stretches of time before the evolution of Homo sapiens or any other human species that may have existed on earth’. But what kind of a world is there before conscious beings engage with it? Not an intelligible world, many would want to say. Not a world of meaning. It becomes a world of meaning only when meaning-making beings make sense of it. From this point of view, accepting a world, and things in the world, existing independently of our consciousness of them does not imply that meanings exist independently of consciousness… The existence of a world without a mind is conceivable. Meaning without a mind is not. Realism in ontology and constructionism in epistemology turn out to be quite compatible. [ibid: 10-11]

‘The many would want to say’ is a Donald Trump style spreading the blame device but it sounds as though he too holds what follows. The world was not even intelligible before humans. Not just that it had not been made sense of. But it couldn’t have been. ‘Not a world of meaning. It becomes a world of meaning only when meaning-making beings make sense of it.’ The phrase ‘world of meaning’ isn’t a commonly used one so it is up to Crotty to define it if he so wishes but it seems likely to make trouble to turn the fact of actual sense making or not into a feature of the world: a sign of the idealism in his thinking. The rest is fine. It is only Crotty’s eccentric objectivists who think that that meanings exist independently of consciousness.

In a later chapter devoted to constructionism, Crotty defines it in the following way.

What, then, is constructionism? It is the view that all knowledge, and therefore all meaningful reality as such, is contingent upon human practices, being constructed in and out of interaction between human beings and their world, and developed and transmitted within an essentially social context… Accepting that the world we experience, prior to our experience of it, is without meaning does not come easy. What the ‘commonsense’ view commends to us is that the tree standing before us is a tree. It has all the meaning we ascribe to a tree. It would be a tree, with that same meaning, whether anyone knew of its existence or not. We need to remind ourselves here that it is human beings who have construed it as a tree, given it the name, and attributed to it the associations we make with trees. [ibid: 42-3]

The line that gets me is ‘all knowledge, and therefore all meaningful reality as such, is contingent upon human practices’. One possibility is that ‘meaningful reality’ isn’t the Tractarian world – everything that is the case – but rather only those elements of the world that pertain to meaning. Perhaps the human or social world? But I don’t think it does mean that because it follows the phrase ‘all knowledge’ rather than, say, all knowledge of meanings. Now all knowledge is indeed contingent on human practices. But from this Crotty’s constructionist infers that the world so known is itself contingent. And that just looks like idealism.

The passage continues with Crotty’s odd obsession with putting meanings into the world. The common sense view is – he says – that a tree would have a tree’s meaning independently of us. But that isn’t the common sense view at all. The common sense view is that a tree would have no meaning. There is a copse of trees beside the M6 which resembles a heart. The local story goes that this was planted to express – to mean – a farmer’s love for his wife. Using trees to represent love depends on a human symbolism (in which eg heart shape turns out not at all to be the shape of hearts). As in the story Putnam tells, had such a copse occurred randomly, it wouldn’t have any such meaning. But one needs something like the surrounding narrative to begin to talk of the trees’ meaning.

‘We need to remind ourselves here that it is human beings who have construed it as a tree, given it the name, and attributed to it the associations we make with trees.’ Humans have made trees the meaning of the word ‘tree’. There may be an interesting history of how the extension of that concept has been determined. But this does not yield the headier stuff Crotty also wants.

Crotty cites Nicholas Humphrey approvingly:

What constructionism claims is that meanings are constructed by human beings as they engage with the world they are interpreting. Before there were consciousnesses on earth capable of interpreting the world, the world held no meaning at all. You may object that you cannot imagine a time when nothing existed in any phenomenal form. Were there not volcanoes, and dust-storms and starlight long before there was any life on Earth? Did not the sun rise in the East and set in the West? Did not water flow downhill, and light travel faster than sound? The answer is that if you had been there, that is indeed the way the phenomena would have appeared to you. But you were not there: no one was. And because no one was there, there was not-at this mindless stage of history-anything that counted as a volcano, or a duststorm, and so on. I am not suggesting that the world had no substance to It whatsoever. We might say, perhaps, that it consisted of ‘worldstuff’. But the properties of this worldstuff had yet to he represented by a mind. (Humphrey 1993, p. 17) From the constructionist viewpoint, therefore, meaning (or truth) cannot be described simply as ‘objective’. [ibid: 43]

I think that the key claim here is this one: ‘The answer is that if you had been there, that is indeed the way the phenomena would have appeared to you. But you were not there: no one was. And because no one was there, there was not-at this mindless stage of history-anything that counted as a volcano, or a duststorm, and so on.’ And the decisive moment in the conjuring trick here is the use of the word ‘counted’. No one was there to judge, of an object, whether it counted as a volcano, whether it had the features of a volcano. But that is not to say that there were no objects that counted as our concept ‘volcano’. The misleading element in this is that past tense. No one actually counted the volcano a volcano. But that does not imply that a now long past volcano would not have been counted by us a volcano and hence did count or counted as a volcano. The key point is that when we describe the past we use our language. We describe now dead Greeks using English, for example. And the same goes for those long past volcanoes.

The chapter on constructionism ends by attempting to head off a worry about idealism.

Accordingly, those who contrast ‘constructionism’ and ‘realism’ are wide of the mark. Realism should be set, instead, against idealism. Idealism, we have already noted, is the philosophical view that what is real is somehow confined to what is in the mind, that is, it consists only of ‘ideas’ (to use the word employed by Descartes and his contemporaries). Social constructionism does not confine reality in this way. Secondly, we should accept that social constructionism is relativist. What is said to be ‘the way things are’ is really just ‘the sense we make of them’. Once this standpoint is embraced, we will obviously hold our understandings much more lightly and tentatively and far less dogmatically, seeing them as historically and culturally effected interpretations rather than eternal truths of some kind. Historical and cross-cultural comparisons should make us very aware that, at different times and in different places, there have been and are very divergent interpretations of the same phenomena. A certain relativism is in order, therefore. We need to recognise that different people may well inhabit quite different worlds. Their different worlds constitute for them diverse ways of knowing, distinguishable sets of meanings, separate realities. At the very least, this means that description and narration can no longer be seen as straightforwardly representational of reality. It is not a case of merely mirroring ‘what is there’. When we describe something, we are, in the normal course of events, reporting how something is seen and reacted to, and thereby meaningfully constructed, within a given community or set of communities. [ibid: 64]

It is interesting that having just rejected idealism, Crotty says: ‘What is said to be ‘the way things are’ is really just “the sense we make of them”.’ Note the use of ‘just’. Without that, this would not be so heady. (That is, it would be possible to think of this as a bit of bad writing meaning to say that our only take on the way things are is our take on the way things are.) But with it, it seems to be saying that the ways things are, the facts, are just our construal of them. And that is simply idealism.

He goes on to say sensible if obvious things about diverse views having been held in the past but concludes utterly untrivially: ‘We need to recognise that different people may well inhabit quite different worlds. Their different worlds constitute for them diverse ways of knowing, distinguishable sets of meanings, separate realities.’ The key question is whether he means this literally. If so, it does not follow from the social history of error. Nor does the next idea follow: that from the fact that we have been wrong in representing the world, that representation cannot be the aim of the activity: ‘description… can no longer be seen as straightforwardly representational of reality’. Why not? Just because we have sometimes got representation wrong does not show that it is incoherent as an aim. But then this is glossed trivially: ‘When we describe something, we are… reporting how something is seen’. Well obviously! (This is what makes non-philosophers who make philosophical claims hard to deal with. They say something outrageous but then gloss it in the very next sentence in truistic terms. Which is meant? Are they being trivial or obviously daft?)

Here’s what seems to me to be happening. Concepts have histories. That’s the beauty of the history of science. Crotty is interested in the way that our contingent concepts enable us to carve up the world in particular, and contingent ways. Other people at other times and places have done this differently. But then he makes two further daft claims. The fact that we rely on contingent concepts to carve up the world shows that the world itself depends on the contingent history of human concepts. I can see why one would be pushed in this direction but the claim is obviously not a happy outcome but shows a misstep. Second, in trying to characterise his objectivist opponent, Crotty is almost too nice to them. No one could miss the importance of the conceptual in framing descriptions of the world so the objectivist must accept this but then - being an objectivist - she places the concepts or the meanings in the world itself. Perhaps because he himself likes constructionism, the more obvious objectivist assumption that the world itself is meaningless simply passes him by.

The second bit where I am nicer to Crotty is here.

Crotty, M. (1998) The foundations of social research, London: Sage.