Maxwell’s Hammer

[Note: This post originally appeared on Terra Nova.]

May 7, 2008

James Clerk Maxwell, image via Wikimedia Commons, time to time here on TN I’ve delved into methodological territory, and in my last effort, quite some time ago, I focused on the charges of “anecdotalism” that qualitative research in the social sciences sometimes faces, and argued that generalizable claims can be generated out of such methods. But, in retrospect, that piece did not confront the root of the problem directly, given the degree to which I do not there question generalizability itself as the core aim of scientific inquiry.[fn 1] As research on virtual worlds continues to increase, and as the different parts of the academy ramp up their efforts to fight for their funding (and perhaps thereby seek to discredit other approaches), it seems worthwhile (and consistent with the ecumenical spirit that largely characterizes TN) to consider how scientific the pursuit of other kinds of claims apart from the general are.[fn 2] And that’s where James Clerk Maxwell comes in…

When it came to generalizability, Maxwell (yes, that Maxwell) was ready to wield a not-so-subtle hammer against those he saw as seeking to hitch science to a positivist view of the world. He said (in a speech the text of which is available here):

It is a metaphysical doctrine that from the same antecedents follow the same consequents…[I]t is not of much use in a world like this, in which the same antecedents never again concur, and nothing ever happens twice.

By highlighting the irreducibly contingent nature of the world, Maxwell joined Charles Darwin in a view of scientific inquiry that saw its provisionality as perfectly consistent with a world that was not, in the last analysis, law-driven and ordered. Instead, they argued that the proper aim of science was to explore the processes that are in place under different conditions, with an awareness that those conditions never perfectly reproduce themselves (for Maxwell, this anti-positivism was also tied to his religious views).[fn 3]

In a sense, all academic research is based on critical observation of such situated events and circumstances. It may be concerned, yes, with making provisional comparisons across them when possible, but it is just as often concerned with understanding the specific processes in place that led to unique outcomes not generalizable elsewhere. For this reason attempts to trumpet generalizability as the primary (or exclusive) aim of the social sciences (where I see it happening quite often) not only marginalize particularist work by historians, sociologists, anthropologists, economists, and others, but (ironically, to me) thereby also seek to exclude a vast swath of the natural sciences (such as much work in paleontology, geology, and biology, to name a few).

As work in the sociology of science has shown, expert critical evaluation (usually associated with the humanities), observation, and hypothesis-testing are all used by all branches of the natural sciences. Efforts to claim special status for the natural sciences (or any field) by pointing to hypothesis-testing ignore not only this, but also the fact that, as Maxwell suggests, hypothesis-testing in the absolute sense does not, in fact, exist (what you have instead are very very very very close approximations of it, and this is only possible for certain kinds of conditions).

What this means for research on virtual worlds is that we must be wary of how the drive to fight for resources may prompt researchers to claim that a certain kind of project (generalization, particularization), or a certain kind of methodology is “scientific” (or, one might imagine, “humanistic,” although the comparative lack of money makes this more of a localized danger!), while others are not. A broad view of science, in all its variety, and, ultimately, of academic inquiry, should inoculate us from this kind of divisive maneuvering. Critical observation, exploratory research, and hypothesis-driven work are all going to be vital components of understanding what virtual worlds are all about.

[fn 1] Alert TN reader “Rex” (aka Alex Golub) pointed out this issue in the comments on that post, and I have long wanted to give that observation a proper response.

[fn 2] I am also moved to write this because there is something of an ongoing conversation about scientific “truth” and methodologies here on TN (one example).

[fn 3] For further critical discussions of the limitations of generalizability see the Preface of Anthony Giddens’ The Constitution of Society, and Chapter 8 of Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue.

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