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The practice that many researchers today love to hate, however, is neither the positivism of Auguste Comte nor that of the Vienna Circle. It is, instead, what Christopher Bryant (1985:137) called instrumental positivism.

In his 1929 presidential address to the American Sociological Society, William F. Og- burn laid out the rules. In turning sociology into a science, he said, ‘‘it will be necessary to crush out emotion.’’ Further, ‘‘it will be desirable to taboo ethics and values (except in choosing problems); and it will be inevitable that we shall have to spend most of our time doing hard, dull, tedious, and routine tasks’’ (Ogburn 1930:10). Eventually, he said, there would be no need for a separate field of statistics because ‘‘all sociologists will be statisticians’’ (p. 6).


That kind of rhetoric just begged to be reviled. In The Counter-Revolution of Science, Friedrich von Hayek (1952) laid out the case against the possibility of what Ogburn imagined would be a science of humanity. In the social sciences, Hayek said, we deal with mental phenomena, not with material facts. The data of the social sciences, Hayek insisted, are not susceptible to treatment as if they were data from the natural world. To pretend that they are is what he called ‘‘scientism.’’

Furthermore, said Hayek, scientism is more than just foolish. It is evil. The ideas of Comte and of Marx, said Hayek, gave people the false idea that governments and economies could be managed scientifically and this, he concluded, had encouraged the development of the communism and totalitarianism that seemed to be sweeping the world when he was writing in the 1950s (Hayek 1952:110, 206).

I have long appreciated Hayek’s impassioned and articulate caution about the need to protect liberty, but he was wrong about positivism, and even about scientism. Science did not cause Nazi or Soviet tyranny any more than religion caused the tyranny of the Crusades or the burning of witches in 17th-century Salem, Massachusetts. Tyrants of every generation have used any means, including any convenient epistemology or cosmology, to justify and further their despicable behavior. Whether tyrants seek to justify their power by claiming that they speak to the gods or to scientists, the awful result is the same. But the explanation for tyranny is surely neither religion nor science.

It is also apparent that an effective science of human behavior exists, no matter whether it’s called positivism or scientism or human engineering or anything else. However distasteful it may be to some, John Stuart Mill’s simple formula for a science applied to the study of human phenomena has been very successful in helping us understand (and control) human thought and behavior. Whether we like the outcomes is a matter of conscience, but no amount of moralizing diminishes the fact of success.

Today's truths are tomorrow's rubbish, in anthropology just as in physics, and no epistemological tradition has a patent on interesting questions or on good ideas about the answers to such questions. Several competing traditions offer alternatives to positivism in the social sciences. These include humanism, hermeneutics, and phenomenology (Further Reading: positivism).


Humanism is an intellectual tradition that traces its roots to Protagoras’ (485-410 вс) famous dictum that ‘‘Man is the measure of all things,’’ which means that truth is not absolute but is decided by individual human judgment. Humanism has been historically at odds with the philosophy of knowledge represented by science.

Ferdinand C. S. Schiller (1864-1937), for example, was a leader of the European humanist revolt against positivism. He argued that as the method and contents of science are the products of human thought, reality and truth could not be ‘‘out there’’ to be found, as positivists assume, but must be made up by human beings (Schiller 1969 [1903]).

Wilhelm Dilthey (1833-1911) was another leader of the revolt against positivism in the social sciences. He argued that the methods of the physical sciences, although undeniably effective for the study of inanimate objects, were inappropriate for the study of human beings. There were, he insisted, two distinct kinds of sciences: the Geisteswissenschaften and the Naturwissenschaften—that is, the human sciences and the natural sciences. Human beings live in a web of meanings that they spin themselves. To study humans, he argued, we need to understand those meanings (Dilthey 1989 [1883]) (Further Reading: Dilthey).

Humanists, then, do not deny the effectiveness of science for the study of nonhuman objects, but emphasize the uniqueness of humanity and the need for a different (that is, nonscientific) method for studying human beings. Similarly, scientists do not deny the inherent value of humanistic knowledge. To explore whether King Lear is to be pitied as a pathetic leader or admired as a successful one is an exercise in seeking humanistic knowledge. The answer to the question cannot possibly be achieved by the scientific method.

In any event, finding the answer to the question is not important. Carefully examining the question of Lear, however, and producing many possible answers, leads to insight about the human condition. And that is important (box 1.3).


The ancient Greek god, Hermes (known as Mercury in the Roman pantheon—he of the winged hat), had the job of delivering and interpreting for humans the messages of the other gods. From this came the Greek word hermeneus, or interpreter, and from that comes our word hermeneutics, the continual interpretation and reinterpretation of texts.

Modern hermeneutics in social science is an outgrowth of the Western tradition of biblical exegesis. In that tradition, the Old and New Testaments are assumed to contain eternal truths, put there by an omnipotent creator through some emissaries—prophets, writers of the gospels, and the like. The idea is to continually interpret the words of those texts to understand their original meaning and their directives for living in the present (box 1.4).

The hermeneutic tradition has come into the social sciences with the close and careful study of all free-flowing texts. In anthropology, the texts may be myths or folk tales. The hermeneutic approach would stress that: (1) The myths contain some underlying meaning, at least for the people who tell the myths; and (2) It is our job to discover that meaning, knowing that the meaning can change over time and can also be different for subgroups within a society. Think, for example, of the stories taught in U.S. schools about Columbus’s voyages. The meaning of those stories may be quite different for Navajos, urban African Americans, Chicanos, and Americans of northern and central European descent.

BOX 1 .3


Just as there are many competing definitions of positivism, so there are for humanism as well. Humanism is often used as a synonym for humanitarian or compassionate values and a commitment to the amelioration of suffering. The problem is that died-in-the-wool positivists can also be committed to humanitarian values. Counting the dead accurately in Darfur is a really good way to preserve outrage. We need more, not less, science, lots and lots more, and more humanistically informed science, to contribute more to the amelioration of suffering and the weakening of false ideologies—racism, sexism, ethnic nationalism—in the world.

Humanism sometimes means a commitment to subjectivity—that is, to using our own feelings, values, and beliefs to achieve insight into the nature of human experience. In fact, trained subjectivity is the foundation of clinical disciplines, like psychology, as well as the foundation of participant observation ethnography. It isn't something apart from social science. (See Berg and Smith [1988] for a review of clinical methods in social research.)

Humanism sometimes means an appreciation of the unique in human experience. Writing a story about the thrill or the pain of giving birth, about surviving hand-to-hand combat, about living with AIDS, about winning or losing a long struggle with illness—or writing someone else's story for them, as ethnographers often do—are not activities opposed to a natural science of experience. They are the activities of a natural science of experience.

The hermeneutic approach—the discovery of the meaning of texts through constant interpretation and reinterpretation—is easily extended to the study of any body of texts: sets of political speeches, letters from soldiers in battle to their families at home, transcriptions of doctor-patient interactions. The idea that culture is ‘‘an assemblage of texts’’ is the basis for the interpretive anthropology of Clifford Geertz (1973). And Paul Ricoeur, arguing that action, like the written word, has meaning to actors, extended the hermeneutic approach even to free-flowing behavior itself (1981, 2007). In fact, portable camcorders make it easy to capture the natural behavior of people dancing, singing, interacting over meals, telling stories, and participating in events. In chapter 18, we’ll look at how anthropologists apply the hermeneutic model to the study of culture (Further Reading: hermeneutics).


Phenomenology is a branch of philosophy that emphasizes the direct experience of phenomena to determine their essences, the things that make them what they are. Gold, for example, has been a universal currency for centuries, but variations in its price are accidents of history, and do not reflect its essence. This distinction between essential and accidental properties of things was first made by Aristotle in his Metaphysics (especially Book VII) and has influenced philosophy ever since.

The philosophical foundations of phenomenology were developed by Edmund Husserl

BOX 1.4


Rules for reconciling contradictions in scripture were developed by early Talmudic scholars, about a hundred years after the death of Jesus of Nazareth. For example, one of the rules was that ''the meaning of a passage can be derived either from its context or from a statement later on in the same passage'' (Jacobs 1995:236). Another was that ''when two verses appear to contradict one another, a third verse can be discovered which reconciles them'' (Jacobs 1995:236). Today, the 13 Talmudic rules for interpreting scripture remain part of the morning service among Orthodox Jews.

Scholars of the New Testament have used hermeneutic reasoning since the time of Augustine (354-430) to determine the order in which the three synoptic gospels (Mark, Mathew, and Luke) were written. They are called synoptic gospels because they are all synopses of the same events and can be lined up and compared for details. Whenever there is a discrepancy about the order of events, Mark and Mathew agree or Mark and Luke agree, but Mathew and Luke almost never agree against Mark. There are many theories about what caused this—including some that involve one or more of the gospels being derived from an undiscovered source. Research on this problem continues to this day (for a review, see Stein 1987).

Today, in the United States, constitutional law is a form of biblical hermeneutics. Jurists take it as their task to consider what the writers of each phrase in the U.S. Constitution meant when they wrote the phrase, and to interpret that meaning in light of current circumstances. It is exegesis on the U.S. Constitution that has produced entirely different interpretations across time about the legality of slavery, abortion, women's right to vote, the government's ability to tax income, and so on.

Although they have not influenced Western social science, there are long exegetical traditions in Islam (Abdul-Rahman 2003; Calder 1993), Hinduism (Sherma and Sharma 2008; Timm 1992), and other religions.

(1859-1938), who argued that the scientific method, appropriate for the study of physical phenomena, was inappropriate for the study of human thought and action (see Husserl 1964 [1907], 1999). Husserl was no antipositivist. What was needed, he said, was an approach that, like positivism, respects the data that we acquire through our senses but that is appropriate for understanding how human beings experience the world (Spiegel- berg 1980:210). To do this requires putting aside—or bracketing—our biases so that we don’t filter other people’s experiences through our own cultural lens and can understand experiences as others experience them (Giorgi 1986; McNamara 2005:697; Moustakas 1994).

Husserl’s ideas were elaborated by Alfred Schutz, and Schutz’s version of phenomenology has had a major impact in social science, particularly in psychology but also in anthropology. When you study molecules, Schutz said, you don’t have to worry about what the world ‘‘means’’ to the molecules (1962:59). But when you try to understand the reality of a human being, it’s a different matter entirely. The only way to understand social reality, said Schutz, was through the meanings that people give to that reality. In a phenomenological study, the researcher tries to see reality through another person’s eyes.

Phenomenologists try to produce convincing descriptions of what they experience rather than explanations and causes. Good ethnography—a narrative that describes a culture or a part of a culture—is usually good phenomenology, and there is still no substitute for a good story, well told, especially if you’re trying to make people understand how the people you’ve studied think and feel about their lives (Further Reading: phenomenology).

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