Life is not a problem to be solved, but a reality to be experienced. – Soren Kierkegaard
I need to understand the basics of scientific thinking so it’s useful to start at the beginning. What do we know and how do we know it?
A theory is an explanation you have about something in the world – why something works the way it does.
For example, one particular theory says that the reason we have day and night is because we live on a flat world and the sun goes around the Earth. Day is when we can see the sun and night is when it’s below us.
This theory makes sense on the basis of the data you have – the empirical evidence. Empirical means the stuff you can see and try for yourself – not stuff that’s just made up. And if you look around it’s clear that the world is flat and day follows night so this theory explains what you see.
But the theory we’ve put forward doesn’t explain everything – it doesn’t explain why ships out at sea seem to slowly vanish below the horizon, their masts being the last to go. It doesn’t explain the behaviour of the stars. And eventually the theory is found wanting and we get a new one – the Earth is round, someone says. That explains everything we see and makes sense.
This dance, theory as an explanation and the evidence of your eyes as support, is the basis of the scientific approach. It’s a very powerful way of thinking and has achieved more than all the other ways that came before it.
So that’s theory and empirical work – but there’s also this idea of “meta-theory”, something that sits outside these. Meta-theory has to do with us and the nature of our relationship with the world – who are we in relation to the world around us. And there are two main meta-theories and one that’s come along more recently that looks interesting.
The 800-pound gorilla in the room is positivism. Positivism says there is a real world out there – trees and comets and giraffes – the objective world. This world can be studied and measured and you can come up with cause and effect explanations of why things are the way they are. That’s all that matters. Anything that’s just in your mind can be ignored.
In reaction to this interpretivism says that what’s in your mind matters. In fact, your mind might be all there is. It might not, of course, but how can you tell? Reality is something you construct in your mind – you see a rock but do you really see it or is it something your brain conjures up based on light signals hitting your eyes. Is the rock out there really brown or is your brain making things up. What you’re seeing might be what’s there but how can you tell?
Both these meta-theories have problems and advocates and critics. Critical Realism, developed by Roy Bhasker in the 1970s, takes a middle way. It accepts that there is a reality out there, and there are things and there are flows of information and communication. But it also says that the way in which we make sense of what’s going on in our minds. And when it comes to social situations in particular we have to understand that people are different, they are the only creatures that can exist in reality and at the same time think about their place in reality – so that means what’s in their minds matters.
It turns out that all these meta-theories are nice ideas but doing them in practice is harder. Positivism is the easiest when it comes to the hard sciences. It works great there but it’s much less helpful when it comes to social situations. Interpretivism recognises that what’s in the mind is important but can struggle when it comes to making things happen. Critical Realism is perhaps a middle ground, a way of taking reality at face value and working on improving the way you think about it.
The takeaway is that we think in the ways we think but we don’t always ask why we think that way. Your thinking preferences are influenced by the way you’ve been taught and the culture you grew up in. It might be a good idea to check out what other approaches are being used out there.
Hoddy, E.T. (2019)r. Critical realism in empirical research: employing techniques from grounded theory methodology. /International Journal of Social Research Methodology. 22:1, pp 111-124