Creating a Dialectical Social Science: Concepts, Methods, and Models


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1. Hegel’s description of his dialectical method

Thirdly, what is an entity and what an attribute? The relationship between them is one of the unity of opposites.

A given thing can be either an entity or an attribute depending on its context. There is no hard and fast distinction, just as there is not between a part and a whole. This book, its leaves, its letters, or their parts are they units? Where do I begin, where do I stop? In the same way, I may call a library with many volumes, a house, a farm and finally the whole universe, a unit.

Is not everything a part, every part a thing? Is the colour of a leaf less of a thing than the leaf itself? The fluidity of these basic categories by into which we divide the world does not ultimately come from the particular formalism used nor even from the vagueness and ambiguities of the natural language we use to name things though this does contribute, as Stamper and Kent suggest. Rather it originates in the basic forms of interaction between human cognition and its objects.

This leads us to the - for some, alarming - conclusion that using more sophisticated formalisms - whether they supply semantically richer primitives, as with semantic data models, or even attempt to embody human purpose and subjectivity, as with Stamper's logic of norms Stamper, - will still be subject to the same forms of contradiction. Modelling change In data modelling we do not have the tools to deal with change adequately.

Data models are 'snapshots' Bubenko, n. This is also true of other disciplines based on formal logic Marquit, and points to the problematic nature of attempting to capture the process of change so that it be the subject of consistent symbol manipulation. Some questions cannot be answered without having a more sophisticated conception of change than is provided by the snapshot concept.

For example, Kent asks with regard to the modelling of entities in a database:. At what point is it appropriate to introduce a new representative into the system, because change has formed something into a new and different thing? The problem is one of identifying or discovering some essential invariant characteristic of a thing, which gives it its identity. That invariant characteristic is often hard to identify or may not exist at all. In dialectical thought such characteristics cannot exist - at best they appear invariant over considerable periods of time while the imperceptible processes of change remain invisible.

Changing models As the world changes, models have to change too if they are to maintain their property of 'being taken to represent something'. However the most common assumption of the data modelling literature is that models are stable and do not need to change often.

For example, Marche quotes a number of examples of which Bravoco and Yadav is typical:. As Marche points out, even on a simplistic understanding of data models, they are not stable at all. Typically the rate of change of the model will lag well behind that of its 'application reality', for reasons such as cost of change, difficulty of change and not least because changes do not always make themselves felt until well after they have begun.

The relationship between the processes of change in the model and that which it is modelling can be explained using the concepts of dialectics. Let us assume that at the start the model does - in the partial way we have described - correspond to what it is modelling and is generally accepted to do so.

As reality changes and the static model does not, a contradiction will appear between them. At first, small changes may be reconciled with the model. At a certain point, however the model will have diverged so far from the reality that it turns into its opposite and becomes a purely historical description. Now the stability has been undermined and the old model has become an obstacle to carrying out the task for which it was created. This contradiction now becomes the spur to human action to overcome the contradiction through the creation of a new model. This does not take us back to where we started, but instead creates a new synthesis.

However the latent contradiction has not been - and cannot be - resolved and the stage is set for a new divergence between the model and what it describes. The status of models: reflection, construction or both? Materialist dialectics offer a third alternative with a viewpoint distinctive from both. When Phelan asks "Is a data model a reflection or a construction of reality? A model must reflect what it is modelling, but cannot do so directly without abstraction, which implies human action and human choice.

The relationship between model and that which is being modelled must be a non-arbitrary one based on real interconnections and shared properties, yet it is not a one-to-one relationship in which reality is directly reflected 'as it is' in the model, in which case abstraction and the model itself would not be necessary. Rather it is a many-to-many relationship in which the model is constituted by human choice from a multiplicity of possible real world interconnections and conversely one representation may be used to model different realities.

Models must be reflections of reality insofar as they are going to be useful in some form of practice or in any sense correct , but cannot avoid being human constructions. To the extent that they do become inserted into human practice, they in turn become a real, material factor in defining the nature and the course of the activity and thus in changing the reality from which they emerged. Examining maps as a form of model makes these distinctions clear. To be useful a map has to have a relationship with the terrain it is describing.

Yet a map is a human artefact and there is more than one way to map a given terrain e. A map is not a direct reflection of the land as "highways are not painted red Once we have established some relationship to what it describes, it is precisely the form of translation between the two and the context of use that tells us whether and in how far a map is useful in a given situation. An accurate map may be useless for a given purpose because it is the wrong scale. When taken on a walk in the countryside, a map may determine we go in the right or the wrong direction - either because of its form as translation of the real landscape or because of its incorrect use or interpretation.

Artz , who poses the same dichotomy as Phelan in relation to object-oriented modelling, describes our position as one where "classes are constructed in the mind of the observer through some cognitive process of abstraction based on cues derived from the real world". He adds: "If class conceptualism is correct, then class formation may be influenced by a wide variety of social and cognitive factors that may influence the abstraction process.

Further, validation becomes very difficult. Validation must take place in three respects which correspond to different aspects of the process as a whole, namely:. That there are many different possible "cues" or as we prefer, interrelationships does not mean that models can do without any degree of conformance to the real world, even though the form that conformance takes may be far from obvious. Equally, some abstractions may fail despite that conformance because they are inadequate conceptualisations for their purpose e.

We now bring these elements together to give us a view of modelling as a whole, as a dialectical movement in which both reflection and construction are aspects of the process taken as a whole, but are both antagonistic and interdependent. The modelling process moves from a given reality through the practice of various means of conceptualisation such as abstraction to the existence of the model. This is however only the first part of the movement - from being via its reflection the multiplicity of possible real world interconnections and then construction abstraction, formalisation etc to concept a model.

At this stage, the model may be "taken to represent something", but it has yet to be tested for its adequacy to its purpose - we have a map of a certain scale, but do not yet know if it will help us on our walk in the countryside. If the model is to fulfil a purpose, it must be embodied in a form of activity or praxis , which begins the second part of the movement and forms the test of the model's appropriateness for that purpose. The movement is now from concept to an activity, within which the conceptualisation in the model plays or fails to play an active role.

After some time, the activity reaches a point at which the model may be assessed in terms of the process as a whole - its goals and its separate aspects. At this point, two paths are open. If the model is considered to be adequate, the process comes to an end, albeit temporarily as even the most adequate model will be subverted by changing reality into becoming an obstacle, as we have seen.

Alternatively, it may be necessary to go through reiteration of the process as a result either of the activity changing the reality being modelled or of it demonstrating the need for a different or more adequate model. What drives the process through its different stages or 'moments'? It is the inadequacy or incompleteness of each moment taken on its own and the need to both subsume and transcend it in passing to a higher stage.

Furthermore, as part of its becoming capital Ollman also explains Marx's vantage point, "or place from which to view the elements of any particular Relation and According to Ollman, "for capitalists, just the opposite is the case. Their lives and work incline them to start making sense of their situation with the aid of 'price,' 'competition,' 'profit,' and other abstractions drawn from the marketplace.

Dance of the Dialectic consists of 12 chapters, broken down into five steps. While most of the chapters were first published as essays in scholarly journals or other books over the years, their subject matter, dialectics, remains as timely as ever. Anybody interested in a better understanding of Marx's dialectical method should read Dance of the Dialectic.

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Hegel’s Dialectics (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

Bertell Ollman has been a lively presence in the field of Marxian studies for over thirty years. His most distinctive contribution lies in his elucidation of Marx's method, specifically dialectics. Here he gives us 'the best of my life's work on dialectics. The whole forms an ideal introduction to his thought for newcomers, and a useful compendium for those renewing their acquaintance with it.

Ollman's book has two major themes: the philosophy of internal relations first expounded in Alienation and the method of multi-variant abstraction the central chapter of Dialectical Investigations. These I will summarize in a moment; but first let us attend to what Ollman thinks about dialectic in general.

One is struck by its epistemological and methodological characterization: Dialectics is a way of thinking that brings into focus the full range of changes and interactions that occur in the world. As part of this, it includes how to organize a reality viewed in this manner for purposes of study and how to present the results of what one finds to other people. Dialectics is a method one 'puts to work,' not the way reality works, although to be sure it is useful because of the prevalence of 'changes' and 'interactions' in the world. Only in a late chapter does Ollman become self-conscious about this peculiar modality of his dialectic, and make a gesture towards ontology.

The Scientific Method and the Dialectical Method

But much more could be said. Of course 'change and interaction' is a banal phrase on its own. What makes Ollman's work interesting is when he insists that these features determine what a thing is. Strictly speaking there are no things, only processes and relations; interactions are 'inneractions.

He introduces this idea with an acute observation on Marx's writing regarding the impossibility of finding in it neat definitions, because the meaning of a term shifts with its context. Here is Ollman's explanation: The philosophy of internal relations With relations rather than things as the fundamental building blocks of reality, a concept may vary somewhat in its meaning depending on how much of a particular relation it is intended to convey.

This approach certainly clarifies much that is obscure in Marx's discourse. This prior not only to Marx's materialism, but to his conversation to Hegel later the same year, cited by Ollman. For Ollman, it appears, all relations are internal relations. This view is implausible; a mind, a society, a solar system, are different realms of being with the 'parts' having differing status in relation to the whole. With an all-embracing philosophy of Ollman's kind there is a double danger: first, of 'thinning' out the concept of internal relation such that it can indeed cover 'everything,' at the cost of being uninformative; second, of overextending the range of a 'thick' concept to cases where it does not really apply, at the cost of mysticism.

I do not doubt that much of Marx's work, especially Capital , treats with great sophistication totalities characterized by internal relations. But in my opinion this derives not from a general philosophical position, but from the peculiar character of his object. At all events, given that 'everything' forms a totality, discrimination of parts necessarily involves 'abstraction' in a strong sense a whole constituted by external relations must also be studied through abstracting parts, but in this case one simply reads off the relevant unique distinctions from the reality.

Ollman considers the chapter on abstraction to be 'the most important chapter' of his book. To think 'change and interaction' in an adequate way requires 'the process of abstraction. In an otherwise unexceptional passage on Marx's interest in change, Ollman mistakenly cites as evidence the frequency of the term 'moment. Marx follows Hegel in using this metaphor. Thus when he says circulation is a moment of production he does not refer to a temporal phase but to the leverage it exerts on production. The ubiquity of the term is relevant less to the temporal than to the systematic relations of capital.

The two aspects of Ollman's philosophy are connected in so far as It is the philosophy of internal relations that gives Marx both license and opportunity to abstract as freely as he does, to decide how far into its internal relations any particular will extend Since boundaries are never given and when established never absolute it also allows and even encourages reabstraction, makes a variety of abstractions possible, and helps to develop his mental skills and flexibility in making abstractions. Ollman distinguishes these conjoint aspects to abstraction: 'extension, level of generality, and vantage point.

The second brings into focus a specific level of generality for treating the material thus designated. The third aspect refers to the perspective on it flowing from the research agenda. Ollman's discussion of abstraction in general and of these three aspects is very useful. It should be taken into consideration by all social scientists aiming to achieve clarity about the salience of their study. Ollman is also certainly correct in pointing to the flexibility and fertility of Marx's use of abstraction. But in so far as Ollman's concentration is on the methodological process of abstraction in theory, this means the ontological issue of abstraction is relatively neglected.

He briefly notes that Marx recognized that there is something strange about capitalism in this respect: Abstractions In the abstraction, certain spatial and temporal boundaries and connections stand out, just as others are obscure and even invisible, making what is in practice inseparable appear separately and the historically specific features of things disappear behind their more general form Marx labels these objective results of capitalist functioning 'real abstractions,' and it is chiefly real abstractions that incline the people who have contact with them to construct ideological abstractions.

It is also real abstractions to which he is referring when he says that in capitalist society 'people are governed by abstractions. Ollman devotes a chapter to 'a critique of systematic dialectics,' a view attributed to 'Tom Sekine, Robert Albritton, Christopher Arthur, and Tony Smith. Ollman does not deny that this interpretation offers important insights into Marx's expositional strategy, but he wishes to take 'Systematic Dialectic' to task for the following reasons: 1 Marx had other aims in Capital beside the presentation of a categorical dialectic; 2 Marx employs many other strategies of exposition, especially in other parts of his corpus; 3 it is wrong to restrict Marx's dialectical method to that of presentation instead of combining ontology, epistemology, inquiry, intellectual reconstruction, exposition and praxis.

Speaking for myself, the short reply to these criticisms is that I have never doubted any of these points. Systematic dialectic addresses itself to a very specific problem: the exposition of a system of categories dialectically articulated. I never said this was all Marx did, or needed to do. It is simply incorrect to state that ontology has been ignored in Systematic Dialectic. Indeed, the guiding principle is the need to identify the logic proper to the peculiar character of the specific object , as Marx himself recommended in his notes on Hegel.

There is no universal method guaranteed to unlock all secrets. Capital is characterized by an ontology peculiar to itself in so far as it moves through abstraction. Theory must follow this real process of abstraction, and elucidate what is negated in it. I argue for the relevance of Hegel's logic because capital grounds itself in a process of real abstraction in exchange in much the same way as Hegel's dissolution and reconstruction of reality are predicated on the abstractive power of thought.

The task of the exposition is to trace capital's imposition of abstraction on the real world. Once this has been done it is perfectly possible to change the vantage point and present it as a system of alienation, reification and fetishism. But, once again, fetishism is real , not just how things are 'viewed.

Ollman has a distinctive position worthy of attention. Much that he says about the relevance of the philosophy of internal relations to Marx's work is certainly illuminating, and much of the methodological advice about the handling of abstraction is to be taken on board. But there is also a certain one-sidedness; the pertinence of internal relations is overgeneralized, and the discussion of abstraction is primarily from the vantage point of method, whereas Marx's ontological insight about the rule of abstractions leads us into a dialectic of capital itself.

Why is this so? A craft object is created by a unique worker who oversees and integrates the related labors of production, but, in industrial work, "the finished object These three domains of reality can be graphically depicted in the following table:. Again, this knowledge must always be of something, an ontological object of knowledge. By means of counterfactual thinking, social experiments, studies of pathological and extreme cases and comparative case studies, the researcher infers from the empirical phenomena at hand to their transfactual conditions. In turn, this might again be seen as an example of the abovementioned aporetic contradiction.

As a result, it stands for no less than the abandonment of a strict division between the social and natural sciences. Social science can therefore never be predictive and always has to be self-reflexive in its explanatory effort. This in fact is the pivot point for any realist approach to objects of social science, as the cornerstone-definitions of society not only define the object itself, but in the long run also influence the situated subjects and thus scientific knowledge.

This sounds like a structuralist position. But according to Bhaskar, it is equally true, that human intentional agency is crucial for the social forms as opposed to the natural. And human agency is both typically work generically conceived , i. Yet, he does still not answer the question to what actually links both, finitely mediating the unsatisfying dichotomy. He further elaborates his view by highlighting the importance of social relations as a key to this problem. The incoherence is obvious in the definition of ii.

How are we to make sense of this? I would argue that Bhaskars failure to satisfactorily deal with this most general stratum of social theory is founded in his reluctance to apply a truly dialectic approach. While all what we have just heard is implicitly dialectical, insofar as the major problem of the subject-object dichotomy is dealt with in a congenial way, dialectics are not treated as such.

This goes hand in hand with a philosophical theoreticism, that extracts problems of social ontology all too much from their substantial, hence socio-theoretical discussion.

Critical Realism upholds that all questions of social science must be reducible to philosophical ones insofar as their foundation is a framework of abstract models. To the contrary, problems of social ontology are remaining purely abstract, forming a super-historical grid of more or less fixed socio-ontological preliminaries.

These preliminaries are important for uncovering certain basic guidelines of social scientific practice in the form of analytical binary systems that are related in a topological way. We thus have to talk about society itself in terms of theory of society, abandoning the possibility of an ultimate retroduction to the purely philosophical.


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There has to be something external, a nameable something, to maintain such a viewpoint. As it might not have become totally clear what this has to do with dialectics, I will now try to narrow it down to its very basic scheme. This will also give leads for a possible applicability in the social sciences, substantiating concepts that have already been worked out by critical realism.

At the core of formal logics we find the scheme of syllogism as the most instructive model of coherent argumentation. A possible example would be:. Analytically, the syllogism is the most simple and still customary procedure of propositional logic. Yet it is still a form of argumentation and as such in principal an expression of language. We can analyse it in terms of the three dimensions of language:.

The effect of absolute persuasive efficacy of this scheme could be viewed as its pragmatic moment. Formal logic and with it the general epistemology of most analytical scientific approaches will usually not go beyond this basic scheme. Systematically, one could say that we find Deduction III. The process of coherent inference is put into a formal logical guise so as to analyse it in terms of basic laws of linguistically and formally correct reasoning. It is clearly marked what can and cannot be said and therefore truth and scientific objectivity seem to be once and for all established.

The problem with this approach is not only the purely epistemological orientation, which can, with Critical Realism, be accused of omitting problems of ontology. It can also be shown, that it is itself not totally coherent by its own standards. The backbone of logical reasoning as exemplified in the syllogism is the assertion that any propostion is either true or not true. In the abovementioned example, Elmar has to be either a Cretan or not. But there are special cases that make it impossible to hold this law of non-contradictoriness.

This simple proposition is syntactically correct, as there is no logical inconsistency. Semantically, we are not faced with any problems at first; it might be intelligible, that all Cretans are in fact liars. But when we take into account the specific pragmatic stance that Elmar is a part of the semantic content Cretan and thus referring to himself, we have a problem.

The difficulty becomes even clearer, when we narrow this sentence down to its basic form:. In a peculiar way, syntactical, semantic and pragmatic dimensions seem to be merged into one whole, which is itself permanently producing a binary version of purely syntactical oppositions. One has to constantly jump from one position to the other but there is no end to the problem, no analytical closure as in syllogistic inference.

The logic of quantum physics

This again cannot be dissolved out of its pragmatic stance, as it leads to an infinite regress of questions for the truth of each consecutive proposition. Taking the example of me being a Cretan and stating that all Cretans lie, it is evident, that I talk about myself. This brings us to the next condition for the existence of a strict antinomy. It is therefore necessary that the proposition is not also self-referential but also negative.

Again, negative assertions are not themselves a problem, but combined with reflexivity they are. We are thus faced with two contradictory propositions, which are not only equally true, but also imply each other. Also, reciprocal implication is no anomaly but rather logical normality.

Creating a Dialectical Social Science: Concepts, Methods, and Models Creating a Dialectical Social Science: Concepts, Methods, and Models
Creating a Dialectical Social Science: Concepts, Methods, and Models Creating a Dialectical Social Science: Concepts, Methods, and Models
Creating a Dialectical Social Science: Concepts, Methods, and Models Creating a Dialectical Social Science: Concepts, Methods, and Models
Creating a Dialectical Social Science: Concepts, Methods, and Models Creating a Dialectical Social Science: Concepts, Methods, and Models
Creating a Dialectical Social Science: Concepts, Methods, and Models Creating a Dialectical Social Science: Concepts, Methods, and Models

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