All posts filed under: Market Square

How Not to Criticise Social Theory

There is no universal agreement about what the proper objectives of theory should be. Perhaps for that reason commentators can often be seen to criticise theories or theorists in ways that seem unfair. To assess a theory adequately it is necessary to consider what it is actually trying to achieve. With that in mind, Baert and Carreira da Silva have identified four common mistakes critics make when registering their dissatisfaction with a theory: 1. Explanatory Reductionism: the explanatory reductionist assumes that all theories are about explaining, or predicting social phenomena. That may be a common goal but it is not ubiquitous. Some theories aim to provide understanding rather than explanation. The authors talk about some theories designed to develop self-understanding: ‘they allow us to consider some of our presuppositions and to re-describe and assess our present societal constellation’. 2. Perspectivism: here the critic focuses on the perspective of the theory, that slice of social life it aims to describe (power, agency, values). The critic often implicitly suggests that there is no independent measure by which …

To Cybersemiotics through Bateson, Peirce and Luhmann

This post introduces a very interesting presentation from Søren Brier, Professor for Semiotics of Information, Cognitive and Communication Science at Copenhagen Business School. It is entitled ‘Cyber(bio)semiotics: Transdisciplinary Through Bateson, Luhmann, and Peirce’. As you might expect from the title, Brier discusses the intellectual currents and developments that led to cybersemiotics. It is a little slow-moving, particularly at the start, but it is rich in content taking in the impact of Norbert Weiner, Gregory Bateson and Heinz von Foerster on cybernetics, information theory and general systems theory; the important concepts of autopoiesis and structural coupling from Maturana and Varela, Luhmann’s social systems theory which allows new approaches to communication, and Pierce’s biosemiotics. Apart from achieving its own aims, the presentation usefully (if partially) contextualises Luhmann’s work. Here is the bio Brier provides: I am an interdisciplinary researcher that has moved from an MA in biology (ecology and behavioral sciences) over a gold medal thesis in psychology (philosophy of ethology) both Copenhagen. U. through a PhD in philosophy of information sciences (Roskilde U.) after 10 year teaching …

Science, Objectivity and the Passion for Explaining

In this essay Maturana negotiates several complex philosophical questions in a surprisingly accessible way. In it he answers three questions: What characterises cognitive constructivism? Why, under this view, is it not possible for science to achieve true objectivity? If this is so, why does science not slip into relativism? As ever, the term ‘science’ encompasses the social sciences as well. Maturana sees no justification for a cleavage between the two – certainly not the old distinction between quantitative and qualitative methodologies. Throughout, he considers these issues not as a philosopher but as a biologist reflecting on science as ‘a cognitive domain generated as a human biological activity’.   First, what kind of person is the scientist? What is the motivating force not only of the scientist, but the domain of science itself? For Maturana, the fundamental emotion that enlivens science, that determines it as a domain in which science takes place as a human activity, is curiosity; curiosity which emerges as a desire or passion for explaining. In this domain explanations are adequate – they …

Knowledge and Power

In their book The Power of Scientific Knowledge Grundmann and Stehr ask two important questions: How does scientific knowledge become powerful in practice? What counts as knowledge for this purpose? This post presents some of the key points they highlight. The authors are not aiming to produce a general theory of knowledge application, but rather to provide ‘some historical-analytical tools and data for such an endeavour’. [It should be noted that they employ the more inclusive German understanding of the word ‘science’ which encompasses knowledge produced by the social sciences] What Counts as Scientific Knowledge? Harold Kroto, a British chemist and Nobel laureate, presents a simple answer to the question ‘what counts as knowledge’. Kroto argued that there are many theories but only a few that are true. True theories are facts that have been found to work in practice through experimental work. This explanation is not sufficient to explain how some knowledge becomes powerful while other knowledge is largely ignored. It presents only an ex post facto response to the question, taking no account …

Why do Theory?

“Why do theory? You have to put so much into it and you get so little out of it.” Given the increasing drift towards empiricism and clinical studies, and the associated de-emphasising of theoretical research across the disciplines, this becomes an important question to consider (and what follows constitutes only a first attempt to provide some explanation) . Doubtless the first half of the equation is true. ‘Doing’ theory has always placed considerable burdens on the researcher. What is less often acknowledged, however, is the many additional burdens placed on the contemporary scholar – and not by the complexities inherent in a particular theory, but by the academy. What do I mean by this? Firstly, of course, any theory capable of describing all or some aspects of the very complex dynamics of modern society demands a great deal of our time and attention. This is perhaps particularly true of the kind of theory I am drawn to; theory that abandons the a priori. It always seems to me that the a priori maps out, prematurely, …

The Knowledge Society

In an early formulation, Nico Stehr details nine key characteristics of what he terms the ‘knowledge society’. Stehr adopts this term in preference to ‘post-industrial’ society because, he argues, industry and manufacturing will always be with us even if they are no longer the dynamic drivers of growth and innovation that they once were. Accordingly, Stehr argues that “… the advance of science into the life-world and economic production may be described in various terms: As the penetration of most sphere of social action, including production, by scientific knowledge (‘scientization’); As the displacement, although by not means the elimination, of other forms of knowledge by scientific knowledge, mediated by the growing [11] stratum of and dependence on experts, advisers and counsellors, and the corresponding institutions based on the deployment of specialised knowledge; As the emergence of science as an immediately productive force; As the differentiation of new forms of political action (e.g. science and educational policy); As the development of a new sector of production (the production of knowledge); As the change of power structures (technocracy …