Discussions of methods (of any sort) rarely begin with reflective inquiry on the practice of science, on the historical situatedness of what it means to “do” science, to “be” scientific. As a result, methods appear to be free-floating tools unmoored in conceptual space (unless one reads also in the philosophy of science literature). But criteria for assessing the knowledge claims made by a study (such as reliability and validity)—indeed, the very act of claiming to know something with some certainty—reflect an understanding of the practice of science that has emerged over the last two centuries, as “science” has parted company from “philosophy” (e.g., natural science from natural philosophy) and developed its own identity. To situate interpretive methods as a scientific undertaking requires a brief excursion into the context of contemporary understandings of science as a practice.

To be “scientific” is, first off, to reflect a particular orientation toward the world in asking certain kinds of questions, and this involves claims making about the subject(s) of study. Built into this questioning practice is, at its core, as a character trait of the profession, an attitude of doubt. A reader of a scientific report can reasonably inquire of its author about the bases for its claims. “How do you know that which you are claiming about this event, or this government, or this organization, or this community? What is the foundation [or ‘truth value,’ in philosophical language] for your claim(s)?” Since the early 1700s, thanks to Newton, metaphysical accounts to explain an apple falling from a tree, such as Zeus and Hera throwing thunderbolts, are increasingly less likely to be invoked in modern and “modernizing” communities than “scientific laws”—in this case, gravity. Newton’s observations and those of other late-fifteenth- to early-eighteenth- century European thinkers, such as Copernicus and Galileo, laid the foundation for a conception of “science” that, for many, replaced religion as the source of certain knowledge. That conception still holds today and actively shapes understandings of what it means to do science or to be scientific.

It rests, first, on the understanding that humans possess powers of reasoning that they can apply systematically to the world surrounding them: They need not rely for explanations on the authority of tradition (or charisma, in a Weberian view) vested in religious or monarchic leaders.6 Second, the application of that reasoning yields a set of “laws” or principles considered to be universal—that is, holding at all places at all times for all persons (i.e., regardless of class or religion, race or gender, paving the way for non-Protestants, non-Europeans, and women to be understood as having personhood). Third, this universality implies a certain regularity or order inhering in natural and physical events (and it is discoverable, point one above). This, in turn, means that these events can be predicted—and, hence, controlled (for more on this history of ideas, see, e.g., Bernstein 1976, 1983; Dallmayr and McCarthy 1977; Rabinow and Sullivan 1979). The extension of this understanding of what “science” entails from the physical and natu- ral world to the social or human world was the foundation of nineteenth-century positivist thought (first as social positivism, reformulated mid-century as evolutionary positivism, and evolving toward the end of the century into critical positivism or empirio-criticism).

The differences among the versions of positivism are not central to the present argument, save for one point that becomes key to the interpretive philosophies that began to develop in engaging critical positivism. In the view of critical positivists, certainty of knowledge could be entrusted only to claims based on the senses (sight, sound, touch, taste, smell); to eliminate error, science had to be limited to sense descriptions of experience. Although this school of thought petered out toward the end of the nineteenth century, a resurgence of related ideas grew in the early twentieth century (especially strong between the two world wars) under the name logical positivism (also known as the “Vienna Circle” because of its proponents’ main location; on this history see, e.g., Abbagnano 1967, Passmore 1967, Polkinghorne 1983).8 It was primarily against the claims of the logical positivists that interpretive philosophies developed (see, e.g., DeHaven-Smith 1988; Hawkesworth 1988; Jennings 1983, 1987; Mary Hawkesworth’s chapter in this volume takes up the critique more fully).

Despite disagreements on ontological and epistemological matters, scientists working out of interpretive presuppositions, speaking broadly, share in common with those working out of posi- tivist ones the two central attributes of scientific practice (what it means to “do” science or to “be” scientific) named above: an attitude of doubt, and a procedural systematicity. Where they differ is in how these are enacted. Interpretive scientists share the appreciation for the possible fallibility of human judgment characteristic of post Popperian science (discussed more fully in chapter 2). Maintaining the attitude of doubt or testability toward their subject matter that derives from this orientation, interpretive researchers enact that doubt in other, nonexperimental ways. They contest the concept of universal and regular generalizability embedded in the notion of “law,” although they typically proceed from the assumption that human activity is patterned.9 They also have a different understanding of what it means to prosecute “rigor” in research (see the discus- sion in chapter 4); yet interpretive research, following its own canons of practice, is no less systematic than positivist-informed research, which renders the work “methodical” in different ways from that prescribed in the steps of the “scientific method.”

The research practices undertaken by scientists conducting their work, knowingly and consciously or not, in ways informed or influenced by interpretive presuppositions enact ideas developed during the first part of the twentieth century in two schools of philosophical thought, phenomenology and hermeneutics. These engaged the same sorts of questions concerning knowledge and social reality that occupied positivist philosophers. Interpretive philosophers argued that the analogy drawn by positivists between the natural and physical worlds and the social world (and calling, therefore, for a single form of scientific practice) is a false analogy. The latter cannot be understood in the same way as the former because of an essential difference between them: Unlike (to the best of our present knowledge) rocks, animals, and atoms, humans make, communicate, interpret, share, and contest meaning. We act; we have intentions about our actions; we interpret others’ actions; we (attempt to) make sense of the world: We are meaning-making creatures. Our institutions, our policies, our language, our ceremonies are human creations, not objects independent of us. And so a human (or social) science needs to be able to address what is meaningful to people in the social situation under study. It is this focus on meaning, and the implications of that focus, that the various interpretive methods share.


5. This is not to say that the doing of science originated in Europe at this time. There is ample historical evidence of what would be recognizable today as agronomy, astronomy, and other sciences in ancient Babylon, Egypt, Greece, China, Mexico, Africa, and India and medieval Muslem Spain, all long before Copernicus (see, e.g., Teresi 2002). My intention is not to engage in history of science debates, but to note that contem- porary understandings of what “science” entails developed out of Renaissance-era European work.

6. We have, in fact, not only replaced the authority of monarchic or religious knowledge with the authority of science, but vested increasingly more epistemic authority in technical-rational expertise, from physicians to planners to policy analysts, removing science from “just” humans applying their powers of reason based on lived, embodied experience (see, e.g., Jordan [1997] on the authority of obstetricians over women giving birth, or Yanow [2004] in the context of organizational practices and managerial knowledge; Harold Garfinkel’s point, in coining the term “ethnomethodology,” was that in everyday life, humans engage in just this sort of science-like inquiry). I return to this point below.

7. One might, in fact, reach back to Aristotle to justify these arguments about what constitutes “science,” as Alker (1996, chapter 2) does in making a claim for the study of politics as a science. There (76–7), he draws on two distinctions: between physis (nature) and nomos (law or convention), and among techne (craft, art), episteme (science), and phronesis (translated in the present volume as “practical reasoning”). The three ideal types of Aristotelian political science in Alker’s articulation revolve around defining science as the deliberative application of perception, practical reason, and intelligence in the development of systematic knowledge concerning regularities of belief, action, practice, and so on (77–86, passim). The three types he finds in Aristotle’s writings are distinguished by the relative place of art, science, and perfection, the latter, as I see it, akin to the nineteenth-century idea of progress as perfectibility that became inextricably interwoven with notions of scientific discovery and the scientific method.

8. The logical positivism of the Vienna Circle philosophers (e.g., Moritz Schlick, Otto Neurath, Kurt Godel, and Rudolf Carnap) is considered by many the intellectual descendant of nineteenth-century positiv- ism (see, for example, Abbagnano 1967), although this linkage of the two sets of ideas is not uncontested.

9. Even chaos theorists are, by implication, arguing that recurrent and widespread chaos is a recognizable pattern.


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