Mapping scientific activity: An argument for action as generality

What’s the point of talking about something? To make it clear, to communicate it, to affect it – whatever it is. Not, generally, to know it. We do not speak the truth for the truth’s sake. When asked what God knows, people don’t answer that he knows the number of grains of sand in the Sahara, the average number of toes humans had in 1556, or the colour of John the Baptists’ right eye. It is not the case that God, being omniscient, would not know these things. It is that he seems not to be interested in them, presumable because we are not interested in them. I think this insight is central to understanding what makes something worth pursuing in the field of knowledge – that we as humans have bodies, beliefs, desires, and intents. Taking into account science as a directed human activity does not necessarily make a science’s account less systematic, or its findings unworthy of truth. It only makes them important.

I think this is a necessary frame for understanding the significance of social science. For the purposes of my case, I will take anthropology as a particular case of scientific of activity to exemplify. I do this because it seems the science most eager to differentiate its methods from what could be called the ideal of logical positivism, and yet the most pressed to defend itself against just such a picture. One paper is nervous to apologize for its discipline, to defend it as empirical against a tide of accusations claiming insignificance. Another offers guidance to those concerned about how statistically valid their work will be. A third declares such aims are irrelevant for the field’s hermeneutic tradition. At the heart of these claims is the issue of generalizability.

I hold that such an apology is not necessary. This is not because science should does not need to be generalizable, I believe it needs to strive for just that. Rather, I hold that the findings in anthropology are generalizable; their apologetics only make their case appear weaker. They should instead focus on the ways their field does produce truthful findings useful for human needs. They should make explicit in just what way their findings are generalizable, ways in which their competitors cannot be. Those means by which, by the very nature of their methods and heuristics, each science adds a descriptive mode of understanding that fulfills our interests in unique and, ideally, complimentary ways.

It cannot be the case that anthropologists do not find, or at least want, their results to have a more general application. How else can we explain the prevalence of theory in the field? Theory is meant to do just that, to stylize the massive, complex, even contradictory experience of the researcher into a useful metaphor that uncovers changes and trends. Through theory, researchers make their own experience usable for other cases, so that others can use a metaphoric method of ‘seeing as’, elucidating patterns in their own experiences. Anthropology is thus able to make clear what is necessary or sufficient for an occurrence and the effects produced by that occurrence. It is, in other words, able to generate scientific knowledge.

Anthropology generates theory through descriptions of events that a researcher has witnessed. Yet there is a resistance that social sciences have with the word ‘description’. Their admonitions exude an aura of bad faith. Professors demand reasons not description, they want an answer to ‘why’ not ‘how’. I think this search for a feeling of deepness is often misplaced, and it is not uncommon to feel disheartened when research progresses to the point where the occult to the mundane. They are reticent to publish anything that only makes changes in the social world, even changes that could affect millions, available to public attention.

Too quickly we forget that Newton only saw his work in terms of description. Whose work could strive to greater generality or usefulness, yet he did not see his work as uncovering deeper causes. Perhaps his greatest asset was to sustain a feeling of curiosity and wonder about the world that drove him to describe what he observed. So anthropology too can take the same tact, sustain wonder enough to describe what his beautifully hidden in plain sight in our social forms. Yet this desire to go deeper or beyond in the social sciences shows a desire for something more powerful. It is the desire to say something that will be not just true but meaningful to other people in other places. It may not be deeper – only a description – but his should be championed. It is its ability to give apt descriptions that makes it a properly scientific undertaking.

Theory does not come with its own problems. Perhaps the worst is when it, in its attempt to be avant-garde – becomes self-indulgent, detaching from its object of study and retaining only the pretense of being useful for others. It speaks of itself as it speaks of nothing. This may be the cleanest way to distinguish a philosophical mode of thought from what can be disparagingly called ‘Theory’ – philosophy remains about something, even if is about meta-referential topics of language, ideas, discourse, or truth. Theory can be about whatever it wants, and often what it wants is resentment. Good anthropology, however, remains philosophical. The converse is true as well.

A second problem is how theory lends itself to being reduced to a memetic phrase. With the discursive field of use, the spirit of the word is lost for the letter. A demonstrative catch phrase rich in coherence is severed from its contacts to subject and appropriate use conditions. A metaphor that uncovered trends and traced connections becomes reduced to a proper name. It is then used to season an author’s own writing with the savor of authority or the spice of antagonism. This is the greatest ignominy of success – an author sees her own work whittled away to an emotive straw-man, only drawing life through discursive battles. At least is it a success. Those that are less successful at their aims simply attach themes as an afterthought. They are unable to show through the systematic exposition of their work the suitable conditions for use of the term of what actions and beliefs entertaining the theoretical propositions makes one beholden to,

Theory thus cuts both ways, it is necessary but when reduced to routine science it loses contact its animating force. Our interaction and amazement with the world. But any tradition contains the capacity of scholasticism. While theory may be dismissed by intellectual chauvinists and luddites, we observe from the outside its lack of degeneracy. It has sustained productive research programs for over a century, inspiring successive generations. How could this be possible if its findings did not say something meaningful outside their own time and place? Anthropology objectively speaks to people beyond a single time or culture.

It does so by taking the specifics it uncovers and generalizing them into a higher level of abstraction that can be understood, discussed, challenged, and adapted. It can be used to justify claims, to find agreement, to generate hypothesis, and to bridge differences. It teaches ways of organizing information and coordinates collective ways of responding to information. These are indications of anthropologies discursive rationality, its form of material and consequence at a higher level of generality, albeit one of a different mode than other forms of reasoning. If this was not the case, foreign works of anthropology could simply not be digested by anyone at all, they would remain only so much intellectual keratin.

What anthropology – just as economics or organic chemistry does – is help coordinate our beliefs and actions as they pertain to a certain domain of knowledge about systems of causes and effects. The products of scientific activity, and activity done by people and in history, is symbolic. This is to say it is constructed socially, not that it is radically socially constructed. The things it talks about are real, they have resistance, we can interact with them – but the theorems, equations, and ethnographies we produce work through symbols that can be read by others due to our unique linguistic capacity for coherence and counterfactual belief. It is only this way that the ideas they cause through symbolic representation can have reality in their own right, having real effects on people and the world itself. Capitalism is a theoretical stylization, but the way we interpret it has real consequences beyond human life.

While it may be proper within certain language games to talk of facts and truth, I conceive of a science in its general contours as a project that systematizes worldly interactions under a particular form of description. This forms dialects of language that are often irreducible to and non-interchangeable with each other, yet form coherent inferences about the world. We do this for fun, we do this for money, and we do it to elucidate the word of God. We do it for all sorts of reasons, but I find these to be parasitic on the innate communicative rationality humans use to get about in doing what interests them.

These different dialects of science allow for communities of practice that produce tools, theories, and representations that tend can be schematically drawn into a gradient. Toward one end is the reductive ideal of mathematical sciences, which aim for certainty, replicability, and prediction. On the other end we aim towards a full description of a thing in all its states, relations, causes, and effects. Its aim is to be familiar, to enable facility with its object, knowing how to go about using it read-to-hand, and to notice what about it cannot be paraphrased.

To exemplify this process I will steal, blatantly and with no remorse, Borges’ metaphor of a map and a culture that becomes obsessed with a perfect map that fully represents the world.  This is of course a picturing relationship, and the story I want to tell is one of communication and behavior in a world of human activity. People make maps for others and to do specific things. This is what any proper science does – through human activities in the lab or in the field, a science intervenes in the world to find out more about it. Toward one end of the spectrum is the maps that are most elegant, and at the other are the maps that are the most perfect. An elegant map is simple, easy to use, and begs a sort of puritanical reverence. Which kind of map we prefer seems determined by an ineluctable aesthetic drive. The perfect map is full, beautiful, and engenders a sort of polytheistic ambiguity.

The elegant map is a map of reduction. It wants to get down the most essential and necessary features of what it describes. It is easy to explain. It can be used with repeated success by people from vastly different worlds. It can predict how he contours of bodies will change. It makes it easy to categorize different landmasses, and it allows us to hypothesize what has happened to ocean currents when the eddies we encounter differ from the map’s contours.It makes no sense to tell a sailor buying the map not to go to the island itself. We would not point to the map the actual island is derivative and an altogether less beneficial destination than the map itself. Most science does not go about this way. They are used to test questions and to build bridges, not to create truth and debar other methods of fruitful inquiry.

Yet sometimes, as in the fields of formal logic or economics, it sometimes happens that the model becomes valued above both what it stands for. Its truth becomes more significant that and how it enables people to meet their needs. Some economists look to lower wages as one factor among many to locate a business, including shipping costs, local regulations, existing infrastructure, and established business relations. They see trade as one way among many to help enrich a nation and benefit its citizens. 

Some, however, become fundamentalists. They do not asking how we should go about achieving ends, but even go so far as to banish discussion of ends and debar consideration of means outside what they see in their map. They forget that many neoclassical models consistently fail to match empirical evidence and frequently fail to accurately predict outcomes. Economic theory when it is applied to real situations as a model, as a benchmark to see how things are changing and finding ways to track that change. It is when practitioners become fundamentalist and refuse to give up theory in light of the evidence that formalists become the least scientific. They see supply and demand curves as real entities, mistake error terms for productivity, and believe factor endowments should decide what a country produces. When we forget that markets are abstractions from decisions made by people and that profit is decided by more than factor endowment, the beliefs we are entitled to from a theory incongruent with empirical evidence rationalizes intents that have disastrous results.

While the aesthetic draw of elegance correlates with some subject matters, it is not only the natural sciences that are drawn to its reductive perfection. Social sciences also try to produce their most elegant maps. I am not just speaking of the social sciences over reliant on statistics or models, I mean foremost those that speak of their output as ontological work. They don’t ask what effect their subject has or the causes it requires to exist. Rather, they seek to define it, the claim what is essential.  

To do so is to take their subject out of history, out of the messiness of similarity and probability, and to finally subvert other claims to their own. They also seek generality, what could be me general than a definition. Not that definitions are useless, if one makes them with an eye toward a particular problem or use. But all too often they play with words in search of their platonic ideal clothed in Deleuzian language, without any reference to what difference it makes. This is often when the human sciences give up what make them unique and become their least scientific. They try to say what things are, and it is a poor fit for their subject matter.

Elegant maps lend themselves to hypostatization. A description can be so graceful, and indeed so useful, that it beings to seem more real than reality itself. The map seems such a perfect depiction of the borders of our world that we forget the things it does not elucidate, like the communities that live across them. We can confuse the idea, the representation, and the process because our depiction of how things change seems to stand out of time and to be untouched by contingency. However, a map produced only for its own sake would be useless. A map deified is no longer a map.

The social sciences, however, often fall into the trap described by Borges. The subject of their science naturally falls on the side of the particular. It does not easily lend itself to the generation of formulae and models. They are most productive when they seek details of human experience. By studying the complexity of social change and representing it as someone inextricably tied to that change, they do not give up on the making general claims of human existence.

What makes anthropology so interesting is its ability to craft the phenomenal thickness of experience and the self-referential complexity of interaction into a coherent representation. By communicating the particularities of peoples and places at more general abstraction, anthropology takes what is true for humans qua human. Anthropology does this, just as physics does for engineering, in providing methods and tools that help others get about. Ethnographies, by connecting abstractions to a web of particulars, help us notice what is similar and what is different. It enables a researcher entering a new environment to see not just the obvious differences of a new culture, but the subtle and small differences between ways of being that are so hard to directly translate. Due to the anthropologists deep familiarity with a subject, they can draw different grids to make hypotheses, to know what to look for when something seems amiss, to have eyes for the changes that might otherwise go unnoticed.

This very nature of how the human mind must engage with sociological subject matter may compel  a social scientist to draw out a perfect map, one so apt it could never be used for other subjects. The perfect map loses itself in itself. It is unable to be a tool to guide human belief or social action. It can no longer communicate how to get to the island now unreachable by any boat not already featured in the map. At the extreme, the foolishness of this cartographer is insist on the impossibility of prediction. No island will be like another. She refuses to mark down where sediment may have changed the flow of a river since she left it because the forest’s ecosystem is too complex. Who knows what fish may have swum nearby or which trees have fallen? The temptation is to idolize the complexity itself, and celebrate the particularity only for being particular.

To retain particularities is important because they make a difference. It changes how systems of resource extraction are realized in different geographies, and it changes how supply chains are managed between different cultures. To act as if all firms are the same is to miss the difference between working in a Google office and an Amazon factory. But that does not require us to forego all generalization. When an institution, however imperfect, wants to develop a tool that will help women gain greater access to formal financial systems based on previous success with a non-gender specific project, science cannot answer, “Well, it’s more complicated than that.” No one was helped; no one knows better how to engage in practical activity. The anthropologist answers instead, “In my experience, this case will be different in these ways. I believe the best course of action is to change your system thusly, thereby taking this normative behavior into account. Then we may be able to do better. Try it and I will go take a look at how it works in context.”

It’s not so much that reductive and complex accounts work on different scales, although often they do. It is not even that they employ different amounts of reduction, although that is certainly the case. It is that they bring out different aspects for us to discuss and act upon. Both support our needs depending on which question we are asking and which goal we have in mind. They are different ways of taking what we do, or what things do, or what social systems do, or what it is possible for us and them to do, and make them explicit to others.

This is to give reasons for why a certain state of affairs is the case, and these reasons can be tested and challenged. To work out situations in which it makes sense to use certain procedures or concepts, which can then be open to experimentation and adjustment. To work out what our posited propositions and theories entitle us to believe and commit us to act, so that we can better work out what these beliefs and actions will entail and cause. Our different styles of reasoning, once they are opened up by asking new questions, add to our knowledge by creating new propositions that are capable of being true or false, which require novel methods of testing and verification, and  ultimately generate new institutions composed of novel kinds of people.

How can scientists remain true to the truth of their subject while remaining aware of its symbolic quality and its role in human action? How can anthropology be true to what gives spirit to its practitioners without having to give up on generalizable findings or fight a losing battle by adopting the terms of someone else’s debate? I argue that the best method for this is to worry a bit less about or differences of method. Of course we must discuss and refine how we perform our activities. Without knowing how to do something science ends up in something like Meno’s paradox – we always are trying to span an impossible gap between action and truth. The proof of the sciences is in their plum puddings. If the method does not stand up to a trial of inquisitive peers and repeated application it will not sustain itself out of nothing.

I believe that we must maintain a teleological view of our scientific activity. I can hear the rebuttals already, one group saying they cannot compromise the purity of correspondent truth with pragmatism, the other defending the purity of moral intentions with instrumentalization.  I am not asking us to give up the rigor of our methods, to be disloyal to the virtue of our subjects, or water down the passion of our art. I only claim that we keep in mind why we engage with science as an action that can be taken up by other people. We have plenty of reasons – to depict conditions that affect individuals differently from the past, to speak against the suffering of others, to better understand the fundamental properties of an object, to create more just social contracts, to produce profitable VR devices. A side effect for the social sciences is that, by keeping in mind its importance to others in our shared human community, their work by nature must remain generalizable. A side effect for the more hard-nosed sciences is they might not miss the trees for the forest.

The best way I can conceive of how to connect teleology to the importance of subject matter and method is by applying Roman Jakobson’s and J.L. Austin’s ideas on language. The content of science matters, but so does context of scientific discourse. Findings in the sciences are like speech acts – they have effects. The illocution of science changes states of affairs, indeed can create whole new categories of people who become responsible for their own futures. The perlocution of science commits people to predispositions of action, it changes how people view their environment and how they will make the causes of their actions explicit. Who the researcher is matters, in their likes, interests, and proclivities. Who the recipient is matters, because the communities that receive the finding will need to be able to use it. The code in which it is transcribed matters, for the materiality of our articles and conferences shapes the content that we send and how it is received. The phatic mode of science’s contact matter, because it enables the continuation of research programs and fields of discovery.

Even the poetic function matters, despite my attacks on truth for truth’s sake. The beauty of our maps, of our truth, and of our activities motivate us just as much as our engagement with practical activity and the striving towards a better future. It would be foolish to deny it. For those in the social sciences who want their work to be beautifully useless, all I can say is that any argument against your work as unscientific should not bother you. There is no point for you to argue against those that demand the general or reproducible, just as it there would be no point for James Joyce or Picasso. A work of art has aesthetic, spiritual, even monetary value. I would even argue that, if an artwork is great, it must be reach a level of generality by its ability to communicate metaphoric shifts in consciousness, but it cannot claim to be scientific. 

All I have stressed is that for something to be general is something that can be taken up by others in a way that can be put to use. I do not want to replace one core – fact, method, or goal – for another. I only want to keep in mind the differences and inherent relations between different aspects of science, and to give a defense of how different methods in sciences can be general and attain effects without having to be homogenized. It is not a case that anything goes – the movement against vaccines is still unbelievably wrong even if its followers justify their beliefs by the goals of their actions. Their intention to do the best for their children does not justify their actions – it is the radical lack of fit between the actions entitled by their beliefs about vaccines and the actions entitled by their intention to protect their children that makes the antivax phenomenon so absurd. It is perhaps for this reason that their beliefs are so resistant to being characterized as incorrect as shown by empirical fact. I imagine attending to the situation from the point intention, human action, and social movement would be more effective.

In offering this scheme, I have added little new to the discussion. Everything I am saying here I have stolen from somewhere, all I have done is stylize it in a way that was beneficial for my own thinking as someone who has practiced natural and social science. Both are invaluable, and both have practitioners that are insufferable in their obscure or myopic dogmatism. I find in debates on these issues that one viewpoint attacks the general faults of the worst practitioners on the other side. We rarely have ideas or great works in our sights, but the sycophants and ignorant functionaries that follow them.

I can see the pathos of those that defend themselves is equal to the zeal of those that attack others, on both sides of our methodological fences. I’m not sure I can fully empathize with either, but I believe that by focusing on what is different only about out content or our methods we will remain unable to communicate. If we are able to keep the use of our ideas in mind, we will be required to make our reasons explicit at a higher level of generality. This level is one we all share, our lived world on a rather small planet. Certainly there is no shortage of disagreements about how we should live together. Indeed, my feeling is that many of our disagreements about what constitutes truth or justifies valid science are motivated by our commitments at this higher level general human action. By bringing our scientific discourse, action, and intention to this level, I hope we will be better able to find contentions, reach agreements, adjust our justifications, and to alter our historical navigation.

People I stole from

Austin, J.L., 1975. How to do things with words. Oxford university press.

Boltanski, L. and Thévenot, L., 2006. On justification: Economies of worth (Vol. 27). Princeton University Press.

Borges, J.L., 2002. Of exactitude in science. QUADERNS-BARCELONA-COLLEGI D ARQUITECTES DE CATALUNYA-, pp.12-12.

Boyer, P., 2008. Religion explained. Random House.

Brandom, R., 2009. Articulating reasons. Harvard University Press.

Davidson, D., 2001. Inquiries into truth and interpretation: Philosophical essays (Vol. 2). Oxford University Press.

Hacking, I. and Hacking, J., 1999. The social construction of what?. Harvard university press.

Heidegger, M., 1996. Being and time: A translation of Sein und Zeit. SUNY press. (Just for Mike)

Jakobson, R., 1960. Linguistics and poetics. In Style in language (pp. 350-377). MA: MIT Press.

Wittgenstein, L., 2009. Philosophical investigations. John Wiley & Sons.

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