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8.5.05

Spirals and Saw-teeth

(I'm going to wind up doing a lot of fairly academic posts for the next month or so, because I'm studying for my oral exams.)

I'm reading B.L. Turner II's "Spirals, Bridges, and Tunnels" article, in which he argues (in surprisingly magnanimous fashion) that the social sciences that lack paradigms (i.e. all of them but economics) are subject to an oscillation or dialectic between positivistic and humanistic approaches. As he presents it, it's a fairly balanced movement, as the difficulties inherent in each approach become apparent and researchers spiral back to take a fresh look at the other approach's possibilities. But I think the spiral is a bit more saw-toothed. The evenness of the balance between the two perspectives is distorted by the looming presence of the natural sciences. The prestige and empirical/practical success of natural science, combined with its unified positivist paradigm, exerts a strong pressure of temptation on social scientists. The disorganized and un-prestigious humanities have no similar allure. On the other hand, positivism has a repulsive effect in the social sciences as well, a combination of resentment of its success in natural science and frustration with the difficulty of applying it to social questions. Thus the movement toward the humanities in social science is as much a push against positivism as a move toward humanism. Humanities theories are tapped as a resource for fending off positivism. The effect of this is to create a series of sharp rejections/rebellions against the natural science perspective, followed by a slow slide back.

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