Meditation on the Ethics of Method

By Max Lockie

Vladmir Let us not waste our time in idle discourse! (Pause. Vehemently.) Let us do something while we have the chance! It is not every day that we are needed. Not indeed that we personally are needed. Others would meet the case equally well, if not better. To all mankind they were addressed, those cries for help still ringing in our ears! But at this place, at this moment of time, all mankind is us, whether we like it or not. Let us make the most of it, before it is too late! Let us represent worthily for once the foul brood to which a cruel fate consigned us! – Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot

How can the question, “What does it mean to study politics,” be answered in any definitive way? All concrete definitions draw a line in the sand by saying what is political, and what is not; that this is the proper way to study politics and this is not; that this is why we study politics, and this is not. Regardless of the decision made, the student has drawn a perfect triangle in which he finds himself hamstrung by intellectual commitments.  All that can be done at this point is to sink deeper into jargon and drivel, since all of the meaningful questions were answered before the inquiry began.

This is not to say that the decisions should never be made, that one should be like Vladmir and Estragon in Beckett’s Godot, forever waiting for the grand answer to the meaning of inquiry, critique, politics, life.  However, this tendency to wait, observe, and hesitate, perhaps indefinitely, before taking action characterizes many of students of politics and of the social sciences generally.  I myself am not any different, and like most, I want to have a positive net effect on the world.  I study politics to arrive at a personal understanding of how I may go about this, and what a positive effect would look like.  This is not to say that time spent reading and writing is inactive or indecisive.  Once a piece has been written, a position – whether intentionally or not – has been taken on the question of what it means to study politics.

In this sense, we can conceive of two types of meaning that are generated from the study of politics. The first and most immediate is the set of conclusions that a political researcher arrives at through the measurement or interpretation of events and dynamics.  In the second sense, the methodology of the researcher is  problematized and turned inwards in order to understand what systems of authority impact the nature of research and analysis. It is through careful attention to this second meaning that, as a student of politics, I can sit in a classroom with literary theorists, anthropologists, sociologists, and philosophers and sustain a mutually intelligible conversation.

These two meanings each have their own partisans and an underlying logic that sustains them. On the one hand methodological positivists advance the position that there is an objective, context-independent truth of the social world, a truth that is beyond ethics. This type of inquiry finds its meaning in discovering these truths through well designed research methods.  These types of political scientists stress that the methods employed can be either quantitative or qualitative, and that often both methods are necessary to determine causal inference and to discover the real mechanisms that link the cause and effect in a given observation.  However, such authors ground their claims in causal homogeneity. This means that the researcher’s own bias and potential intervening independent variables – anything from cultural practices to the time of year that the research was conducted – have been accounted for and “controlled” through sophisticated research design. In this case an independent variable will produce the same effect on the dependent variable – usually a social action such as voting, consumption, relocation, etc. – regardless of context.

On the other hand, are authors whose research attempts to develop context-specific knowledge.  In his article, “A Perestroikan Straw Man Answers Back: David Laitin and Phronetic Political Science,” Bent Flyvbjerg develops an appealing genealogy of knowledge that helps explain the dominance of positivism in the social sciences.  This genealogy begins with Plato’s forms in which Flyvbjerg locates the association of reason with epistemic truth claims. This then culminates in a critique of the enlightenment as ultimately having neglected common sense and the development of practical judgement as a scientific pursuit in favor of a fetishism of universals.  Furthermore, Flyvbjerg argues, this positivist position has been reinforced over the past two thousand years by the advance of the natural sciences, and the real material gains that have been procured through the universal application and replication of scientific research. Non-positivist authors, on the other hand, take their cue from Aristotle’s tripartite division of knowledge as either epistemic, technical, or phronetic. This last term can be roughly translated as practical or context-dependent knowledge. This acknowledgment of phronetic knowledge production therefore endorses truth claims that are dependent on particular situations and subjective observations, and are therefore incompatible with the use of epistemic language alone.

In the interest of implicating myself in my own work, it is worth briefly mentioning here that my first political theory course, “Major Texts in Political Theory,” consisted in a semester-long reading of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. From this point forward I have, perhaps unduly, been susceptible to any literature or argument that references Aristotle. It is germane to point out that Aristotle wrote treatises on a wide variety of subjects, and has even been called the last person to know everything there was to know in his own time (Niell and Ridley, 488).  Perhaps the strongest argument to be made for phronesis is therefore a historical one; out of the entirety of Aristotle’s corpus, the works that are of lasting significance are those that made suggestions, based on examples, as to how to properly exercise one’s judgment.  All of his natural science has been discredited or forgotten over time.

It is with some irony, then, that the man who Aquinas refereed to as simply The Philosopher here directs us towards a crucial distinction between political theory and political philosophy in his insistence on generating context-specific knowledge as opposed to an intellectually lazy mind-body dualism that protects human thought from its implications in networks of power.

In recognition of this ethical burden, I mention that a majority of politics professors at the New School do not identify as positivists, and that an education in the political science department includes an attack on the position of positivism in the field.  These attacks generally take the form of one of two arguments.  The first claims that positivism rests on the untenable assumption that it is possible to design an empirical study that truly accounts for its own biases and is able to incorporate all of the contextual elements of the population under inquiry.  The second is that the enterprise of positivism, and its negation of the observer is a dangerous, unethical practice, which forms an unconscious alliance with authoritarian or liberal political practices (Wedeen, 2010).

Once more I must pause and acknowledge my debt to Aristotle’s Ethics and ask: Is it possible for us to find a middle way between these positions, at once acknowledging the benefit granted through positive-scientific research while accounting for the perils of research that does not countenance the conditions of its own construction and the structure that may be forwarded through a lack of ethical reflexivity?  In reflection it is worth briefly mentioning Timothy Mitchell’s “Can the Mosquito Speak?,” which offers a critique of the hubris of public policy. To crudely summarize, Mitchell tells the story of the construction of a dam in Egypt, which is built up not according to local knowledge, but according to advice from outside experts. The dam suffers disaster after disaster, drains state funds, contributes to mosquito infestations, and dominates the local political agenda for a generation. Mitchell’s case study reveals issues that arise when positivist natural and social sciences attempt to deploy epistemic truth claims in a context apart from that in which they developed without input from local sources of knowledge.

Mitchell and Flyvbjerg are therefore arguing for an interpretivist social science, which privileges an acknowledgment of the fact that research is an interpretation of events, not a definitive distillation of them into epistemic truth.

Having presented the two sides of this methodological debate, I admit that I am still torn as to where I stand in regards to the purpose and meaning of political and social science.  On the one hand I see a great deal of value in the arguments of the interpretivists, which claim that knowledge is particular, and that omitting context from inquiry can lead to false or even dangerous results.  Nevertheless I am cautious of ruling out a middle ground between these two schools of thought.  In other words, I’m not prepared to rule out question of discovering epistemic, universal truths.  This hybrid research would have to somehow use interpretive methods in order to develop epistemic, context-independent truths. Perhaps this type of research is currently untenable, indeed the only methods I could conceive of that would approach an epistemic interpretation would require total disclosure of the author, where one would essentially write an autobiography around the research question, or have someone write a biography about the researcher while the researcher conducts the research, or both at the same time, which are then published together in an attempt to triangulate the analysis between the observed, the observer, and an observation of the observer.  Still, this seems unsatisfactory, and perhaps positivism and interpretivism are in fact mutually incompatible.

I must also concede that my choice to work in the field of political science at the New School is necessarily an endorsement of epistemic knowledge.  If phronesis, context specific practical knowledge, was my only goal, I would do better to pursue a graduate degree in international relations at GPIA, or some other school that stressed the application of political science to specific scenarios or contingencies. Thus, on some level, the quest for truth is at the heart of my decision to study at the NSSR.

Perhaps, more than anything, it was my time spent in the theater that made me aware of the possibilities of other worlds where life could be truthfully experienced and explained outside of the deterministic straightjacket of risk and reward.  Here I am referring to the artistic revolution spawned by Constantin Stanislavski’s “method” acting approach which instructs the actor to focus on the submission of the self to the character and the imperative to “play the truth” of the scene.  This method raises the possibility of developing a complete (read epistemic) knowledge of a character through complete self-deconstruction, which involves an examination and refusal of every physical and mental process that one takes as natural to oneself.  The rationalist in me says that this type of self-criticism can never be complete, and that therefore the knowledge, even of oneself, can only be partial. My experience tells me, however, that this is a cynical outlook and that self-mastery is possible, though perhaps improvable through or incompatible