A more daring approach to writing theory

“What if we took a more daring, modernist, defamiliarizing approach to writing theory? What if we asked of theory as a genre that it be as interesting, as strange, as poetically or narratively rich as we ask our other kinds of literature to be? What if we treated it not as high theory, with pretentions to legislate or interpret other genres, but as low theory, as something vulgar, common, even a bit rude—having no greater or lesser claim to speak of the world than any other? It might be more fun to read. It might tell us something strange about the world. It might, just might, enable us to act in the world otherwise. A world in which the old faith in History is no more, but where there are histories that still might be made—in a pinch.”

—McKenzie Wark (2019). Capital is dead.

The social model of disability as a case study of social ontology

Ontology is the study of what kinds of entities there are in the world and how they relate to each other. As Effingham (2013, p.1) explains, “You will not find ontologists rummaging around your wardrobe” cataloguing everything they find. Rather, the idea is to conceptualise more broadly the kinds of things there are, including material and abstract “things” like numbers and colours. Social ontology concentrates on entities relevant to social theorising at various levels of explanation from the sub-personal (including unconscious processes like those controlling finger tips on keyboards) to people, their interactions, institutions and beyond.

Debates in social ontology, such as on ontological individualism or emergentism, can be abstract and their relevance hard to grasp. There has even been a case to “rid social sciences of ontology altogether – of all philosophized metaphysics of how the social world is” (Kivinen and Piiroinen, 2007, p.99). This short post tries to make it clearer why it’s important to think about ontology, using an example from disability activism.

In 1975, the Union of the Physically Impaired Against Segregation, a group of disability activists, published a series of fundamental principles which challenged the ontology of disability:

“In our view, it is society which disables physically impaired people. Disability is something imposed on top of our impairments, by the way we are unnecessarily isolated and excluded from full participation in society. Disabled people are therefore an oppressed group in society. […] For us as disabled people it is absolutely vital that we get this question of the cause of disability quite straight, because on the answer depends the crucial matter of where we direct our main energies in the struggle for change. We shall clearly get nowhere if our efforts are chiefly directed not at the cause of our oppression, but instead at one of the symptoms.”

Here a distinction is made between impairment and disability. From this perspective, it doesn’t make sense to say that someone “has a disability”; individual people can have impairments, but it is society which determines whether someone is disabled. Note how the conceptualisation is used to unite people behind one social struggle.

This guide from the activist group Disabled People Against Cuts explains how social barriers cause disability:

“… we live in a society that’s designed by, built for, and used by non disabled people. Because of poor historic attitudes to disabled people […] disabled people were effectively locked away in hospitals, sanatoriums, in care homes or other kinds of institution.

“And that meant that we were excluded from the development of the way our society works, the way our buildings are designed, transport systems, education systems, machines and appliances, leisure activities and the world of work anything really that you care to think about was designed at a time when disabled people weren’t included in the process.

“And that means that all these things don’t work in a way that enables us to use them.

“And the upshot of all that is that in hundreds of different ways, some big, some seemingly small, its difficult for us to take a full part in all kinds of activities that non-disabled people take for granted.

“So we believe that its not our impairments that disable us, it is the social barriers that disable us. Our own impairments we can adapt and/or use aids to overcome, but social barriers are out of our control.”

Whether someone with a particular impairment becomes disabled is also affected by scientific and technological advances. For instance, many people who have a visual impairment wear glasses or contact lenses and wouldn’t consider themselves disabled (see Slorach 2016, p. 37).

A related example is illustrated in this piece on the difference between deaf and Deaf identity:

“To be ‘deaf’ (small d) is to fit into the medical definition of deafness as something to be cured and eradicated. Being deaf means you have a hearing loss, but you choose or don’t feel able to function within the Deaf Community. […] Deaf – with a capital “D” (and occasionally with capital E, A and F too) – is used to refer to people who are culturally Deaf. These people actively use British Sign Language; they see themselves as being culturally Deaf and part of the Deaf community. […] I consider myself to be culturally Deaf; this is my Deaf Identity. […] I don’t see it as a disability – there is nothing I feel I cannot do – rather, I see it as an important aspect of my character that makes and shapes me.”

These conceptualisations of impairment and disability, social barriers, adjustments, aids, deaf and Deaf identity, concern ontology. The debates on these topics occur naturally in social struggles and discussions of social policy, whether or not explicitly articulated as being about ontology. They also have clear implication for how social research is carried out and understood.

References

Effingham, N. (2013). An introduction to ontology. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Kivinen, O., & Piiroinen, T. (2007). Sociologizing Metaphysics and Mind: A Pragmatist Point of View on the Methodology of the Social Science. Human Studies, 30, 97–114.

Slorach, R. (2016). A very capitalist condition: a history and politics of disability. London: Bookmarks Publications.

From methods to goals in social science research

Note. This is quite a ranty blog post – especially the first two paragraphs. Readers may therefore wish to read it in the voice of Bernard Black from the series Black Books to make it more palatable. You may also be interested in this short BMJ comment.

History_of_Screaming.jpg

Onwards…

Many of the social science papers I read have long jargon-heavy sections justifying the methods used. This is particularly common in writeups of qualitative studies, though not unheard of in quantitative work. There are reflections on epistemology and ontology – sometimes these must be discussed by doctoral students if they are to acquire a degree.

There is discussion of social constructionism, critical realism, phenomenology, interpretation, intersubjectivity, hermeneutics. “But what is reality, really?” the authors ponder; “What can we know?” Quantitative analysis is “positivist” and to find or construct meaning you need a qualitative analysis (it is claimed).

Although I love philosophy, most of this reflection bores me to tears and seems irrelevant.

I think many differences between methods are exaggerated, clever-sounding –isms are fetishised, grandiose meta-theories concerning the nature of reality are used to explain away straightforward study limitations such as poor sampling. I bet some researchers feel they have to reel off fancy terminology to play the academic game, even though they think it’s bollocks.

But there are different kinds of research in the social sciences, beyond the dreary qual versus quant distinction as usually discussed. Might it be easiest to see the differences in terms of the goals of the research? Here are three examples of goals, to try to explain what I mean.

Evoke empathy. If you can’t have a chat with someone then the next best way to empathise with them is via a rich description by or about them. There is a bucket-load of pretentiousness in the literature (search for “thick description” to find some). But skip over this and there are wonderful works which are simply stories. I love stories. Biographies you read which make you long to meet the subject are prime examples. Film documentaries, though not fitting easily into traditional research output, are another. Anthologies capturing concise, emotive expressions of people’s lived experience. “Interpretative Phenomenological Analyses” manage to include stories too, though you might have to wade through nonsense to get to them.

Classify. This may be the classification of perspectives, attitudes, experiences, processes, organisations, or other stuff-that-happens in society. For example: social class, personality, goals people have in psychological therapy, political orientation, mental health problem, emotional experiences. The goal here is to impose structure on material, reveal patterns, whether it be interview responses, answers on Likert scales, or some other kind of observation. There’s no escaping theory, articulated and debated or unarticulated and unchallenged, when doing this. There may be a hierarchical structure to classifications. There may be categorical or dimensional judgments (or both, where the former is derived from a threshold on the latter), e.g., consider Myers-Briggs or the Big Five personality types. Dimensions are quantitative things, but there are qualitative differences between them.

Predict. Finally you often want to make predictions. Do people occupying a particular social class location tend to experience some mental health difficulties more often than others? Does your personality predict the kinds of books you like to read. Do particular events predict an emotion you will feel? Other predictions concern the impact of interventions of various kinds (broadly construed). What would happen if you voted Green and told your friends you were going to do so? What would happen if you funded country-wide access to cognitive behavioural therapy rather than psychoanalysis? Theory matters here too, usually involving a story or model of why variables relate to each other.

These distinctions cannot be straightforwardly mapped onto quantitative and qualitative analysis. As we wrote in 2016:

“Some qualitative research develops what looks like a taxonomy of experiences or phenomena. Much of this isn’t even framed as qualitative. Take for example Gray’s highly-cited work classifying type 1 and type 2 synapses. His labelled photos of cortex slices illustrate beautifully the role of subjectivity in qualitative analysis and there are clear questions about generalisability. Some qualitative analyses use statistical models of quantitative data, for example latent class analyses showing the different patterns of change in psychological therapies.”

People often try to make predictions without using a quantitative model. Others use quantitative approaches to develop qualitatively different groups. Cartoonish characterisations of the different approaches to doing social (and natural) science research stifle creativity and misrepresent how the research is and could actually be done.

 

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