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Essay: Studying politics as if it were a science

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  • Published: 12 October 2015*
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The principal concern of the question is what it means to study a subject as if it were a science. This text will explore if the concept of analysing politics (and therefore society) by using the scientific method of observation and experiment is compatible with Critical Theory. The backbone of this essay is the Frankfurt School and its criticism of scientific analysis, with Critical Theory presenting other arguments. A definition of ‘a science’ begins this essay, and then turns to an analysis from Critical Theory in general and will proceed to arguments from Frankfurt School academics. The text will analyse ontological and epistemological differences between science and Critical Theory.
To study politics as if it were a science implies many things. Science implies a special kind of reliability (Chalmers, 2013, p. xix) and a systematic method of continuing investigation (Elfner, et al., 2006, p. 130). A further implication is that ‘the facts are presumed to be claims about the world that can be directly established by a careful, unprejudiced use of the senses’ (Chalmers, 2013, p. 1). Scientific ontology leads one to believe that facts are an objective understanding of the world. These facts arise through observation, and experiment. The 17th century Enlightenment cultivated nascent ideas of modern science and this encapsulated the traditions of Empiricism and Positivism, which share the common scientific view explained above. There are two main schools of this view of science, the British Empiricists of the 17/18th century, and the Logical Positivists of the 1920s Vienna Circle (ibid, 2013, p. 3).
Critical Theory does not give epistemic privilege to scientific analysis for a plethora of reasons; one being that Positivism regards no positive content in metaphysics (Slater, 1977, p. 50 ). Metaphysics, specifically of ‘the opposition between appearance and reality’constitutes the core of Critical Theory’ (Friedman, 1981, p. 209) and pushes it away from an acceptance of science. Positivism claims there is nothing more than the politically neutral observations of independent reality: no discrepancy between the appearance of a physical item and what it has ‘the potential to become’. This lends vital ideological support to the status quo by ‘denying that alternative possibilities are latent within existing social structures’ (Rodger & Samhat, 1961, p. 15). This exposes science’s epistemology to critique from Critical Theory, as scientific theory is harmonious with existing power structures and rejects the possibility of any item having an un-viewable nature lying beyond its analysis.
Critical Theory, being concerned with ‘the discrepancy between internal aim and the actual reality of an item’ (Sherratt, 2006, p. 201)(my emphasis) aims to explore this discrepancy and find hidden potentials which can be put to use for society’s eventual ’emancipation and enlightenment’ (ibid, 2006, p. 201). The point of any critical theory is to immerse one’s self in the hidden potentialities of society; use them to construct a better, and fairer reality because ‘the philosopher is not only interpreting the world but fully of it and in it’ (Calhoun, 2007, p. 362). Thus, the point of theory is to interpret the world without any facsimile of objectivity. Critical Theory therefore opposes the hypocritical scientific view, which denies internal aim exists yet is unyielding in its belief of the internal objectivity of empirical data. To science, empirical measurements constitute what is real, and there is no thought given to internal aims. Empiricism in political analysis irks and offends critical theorists because it ‘assumes the sovereignty of data” (Bryant, 1985, p. 122). Sovereignty of data implies data has an internal objectivity and thus an internal aim that is epistemologically truer than any dialogic method. This castrates any emancipatory philosophy as it is scorned as being unscientific and thus unreal.
Positivism concerns itself only with the appearance of objects and not the processes or dialectical relationships that forged them. This assumes an object’s appearance is the real actuality and there is no underlying essence capable of transforming the object (INTO WHAT) and thus is a limited theory for any critical theorist. Critical theorists deemed this an ahistorical understanding of society that contributed to faith in the current rigid and domineering social structures (Brincat, 2012) and a monotonous understanding for what constitutes knowledge and social reality. Ultimately, this led to privileging one particular understanding of what constitutes knowledge and reality, and leads to a reductive and rigid understanding of society, people and politics. ‘Critical Theory, properly conceived is the brainchild of the Early Frankfurt School’ (Sherratt, 2006, p. 175). Critical Theory is in one sense a continuation of the Enlightenment, and in another, can see the Enlightenment as a source of domination. The Enlightenment ideas of reason and science lead ‘scientifically informed experts [thinking they] alone possess the knowledge necessary to make optimal choices’ (Bohman, 2005, p. 357). This is in direct opposition to the open and multidisciplinary approach (for constructing knowledge) of Critical Theory and its commitments to freedom and cross-boundary methodologies (Kellner, 1989) which promote self-determination and potentialities for emancipation, not an egotistical ‘possession’ of knowledge. The idea of a scientifically class of people making choices sits uneasily with critical theorists; it is totalitarian for one falsely informed class to subjugate the rest of humanity, on the basis on an ideologically informed epistemology, and decide what is socially ‘good’. This furthers the irreconcilable beliefs of Critical Theory and Positivism (Kellner, 1989b) (Bryant, 1985, p. 119).
Dialectics of Enlightenment (1997) cultivated an idea, that beyond the scientific observation of facts, which attempted to summarise an item’s identity into empirical data sets, there was an additional essence of things; a ‘uniqueness, which cannot be subsumed into categories’ (Kellner, 1989b, p. 96 ). Scientific modes of analysis that thought of themselves as being able to subsume essence into categories were totalitarian and incompatible with the emancipatory ideals of Critical Theory. It reduced metaphysical essence into sentences within research papers. Critical Theory provides a passionate analytical framework for analysing current modes of structural oppression and provides a resonating analysis of how power and capitalist society have led to scientific epistemology dominating thought and vanquishing epistemic variety. Critical Theory centres epistemology in helping uncover injustice and empowering citizens. The passionate heart of Critical Theory is its historical ontology (reality that was once deemed plastic has crystallised (Guba & Lincoln, 1994)), and its subjectivist epistemology (knowledge is influenced by power relations in society and socially constructed), which combine to provide humanity the epistemic tools for emancipation. Hence, the point of research is to be a catalyst for change and help enrich the lives of participants.
To Positivism ‘appearance constitutes the sole knowable attribute of a thing’ (Friedman, 1981, p. 119) and this leads to a hegemony over thought; knowledge is ‘the fact’ and any simultaneous criticism evaporates. Because of this, ‘whatever cannot be counted’is unreal’ (ibid, 1981, pp. 127-128). Critical Theory views traditional theory that uses positivistic analysis as ‘reductive and to privilege science’ (Kellner, 1989b, p. 45 ) because it reduces the social totality into isolated parts of empirical analysis. This reduction is how positivistic research claims to know the reality of a situation, yet for critical scholars the workings of Positivism do little but reduce the value of phenomena. Data sets and statistics about wages and voting preferences become the reality of the working class. Critical Theory as an analytical framework would interpret working class voting preferences very differently, where their human essence plays a central role; their hopes (of what the party will achieve) and reasons for voting (individual reasons, political affiliation, religious reasons etc.) are presented as opposed to the inelastic and injudicious positivistic analysis of asking which party they voted for. Whereas Positivism would reduce the opinions of the working class to one empirical evaluation, a critical analytical framework would acknowledge the significance of their human essence (through interviews and dialogues) and aim to articulate their desires for a better political society.
The Frankfurt School was highly critical of instrumental reason. Science epitomises instrumental reason ‘ we learn natural laws only by slavishly imitating the lawfulness of nature itself (Alford, 1993). Science is man’s attempts to master nature; this is evident when the researcher subjects his every action to the ‘stringent discipline of experimental controls’ (ibid, 1993, p.209). The instrumental reason of scientific analysis means that man must reject the parts of human nature that are outside the controls of scientific experiment, a rejection that was deemed impossible by critical theorists, for human social life cannot be edited into tidy positivistic chunks. The Frankfurt School lambasted Positivism for conflating ‘reason with instrumental reason’ (Bryant, 1985, p. 123), which asserts that there is an independently observable meaning prior to humans. For the Frankfurt School, ‘meaning is never prior to human beings’it is created by human historical activity’ (Sherratt, 2006, p. 225). Through their Nietzschean philosophical roots (Friedman, 1981, pp. 62-63, 68-70), the Frankfurt School thought the ‘conquest of the world by reason had as its final moment Positivism, which also represented the triumph over man by brute facticity’ (ibid, 1981, p. 65). Brute facticity and sovereignty of data supposed an epistemological privilege over human activity and emancipation; it separated humans from the analysis of reality, and replaced it with ‘science, which sought to subjugate nature’but had subjugated man as well’ (ibid, 1981, p. 113). This amputation of humans from human activity means science cannot provide the critical perspective needed for the analysis of politics, or for the pursuit for human freedom (Slater, 1977, pp. 40-41).
Marcuse, a prominent member of the Frankfurt School, was a vocal critic of science and technological rationality because it imposed unyielding rules and structures upon thought (Marcuse, 1964). Positivism caused to the ‘functions of thought [to] recede’ (Marcuse, 1977, p. 50). Inclusive critical thought was imperative to any analysis, yet impossible to achieve using positivistic analysis. Alongside Adorno, Horkheimer, and Habermas, Marcuse can be said to adopt an anti-scientific (in terms of its use as a method of social analysis) ideological approach as critical theorists believed certain ‘thought forms stipulated specific orientations towards the world’ (Arato & Gebhardt, 1978, p. 512). These orientations forced uncritical views of the world onto people. This then annihilated the free thought of people, and thus curtailed any evolution to an enlightened society. Adorno and Horkheimer (1997) felt science and scientific thought had become part of ‘the apparatus of the current systems of domination’ (Kellner, 1989b, p. 85): it had lost its potential for social insight and critique. To use science would be a desecration of Critical Theory, which Horkheimer saw as a voice for the voiceless. This fostered a distrust of science’s reasoning, as it had become part of social domination and an instrument of oppression. Adorno was passionate in his critique of empirical social research (Outhwaite, 1987) and refuted the idea of scientific analysis in politics.
Adorno presented many ideas incompatible with scientific analysis of politics, such as non-identity thinking (Sherratt, 2006, p. 211). This involves ‘go[ing] beyond the concept and to reach out to the object instead’ (ibid, 2006, p. 213), which is to go beyond the narrow horizons of scientific analysis, as for science, appearance is the only reality, while critical theorists want to confront the object with the concept of what it should be. A practical application of this would be the confrontation between the concept of an enlightened world free of cruelty and the real object, the contemporary world where cruelty is endemic. Adorno and Habermas criticised Karl Popper’s Positivism. It had ‘a linear, mechanistic and undialectical framework’biased towards technology and instrumentalisation’ (Brincat, 2012, p. 224). Popper’s thesis was criticised for depicting science as normatively neutral, which for any critical theorist exposes its deep ideological slant ‘ substantial bias toward the existing structure posturing as neutrality. Adorno felt this methodological slavery ‘reflected the lack of freedom in society itself’ (ibid, 2012, p. 226). The Frankfurt School provided a major anti-positivist influence during the mid-1960s, with Habermas’ famous critique of Positivism in Knowledge and Human Interests (1978). Positivism had reduced epistemology into the ‘mere methodology of science’ (Outhwaite, 1987, p. 13). However, Habermas did not want to ‘refute the positivist account of natural scientific methodology, [but] to limit its intrusion into the realm of social theory’ (ibid, 1987, p. 14). This intrusion concerned Habermas, he felt scientific thinking would engulf society (Sherratt, 2006). Habermas, feeling there could be no separation of facts and values, opposed Positivism in social science because it attempted objective knowledge and endeavoured to dictate the thought of society to construct reality around empirical facts.
For Horkheimer, the subject and object were mutually interrelated. Any ‘adequate social theory needed to grasp the interplay of both aspects and not ‘separate’ them as divergent reality’ (Brincat, 2012, p. 224). As Positivism denied any supressed alternative reality, Horkheimer felt it reflected its support of oppression and its academic inadequacies. Horkheimer saw Positivism as an empty vessel for social investigation because it attempted to scrutinise the appearance of an item without any dialectical thinking. Horkheimer was ‘no friend of positivism’ (Slater, 1977, p. 10). Horkheimer criticised scientific analysis of politics because, ‘through positivism, the subject disappears and theoretical reflection is reduced to an ordering of fixed judgements’ (ibid, 1977, pp. 50-51) and involves no critical reflection. Horkheimer found this absurd as it crushed the ‘social totality’ (Gorman, 2008, p. 67 ) by ordering the mesh of society into detached threads of data. Reason becomes an instrument ‘for the support of the social order’ (Friedman, 1981, p. 121). Critical Theory was irreconcilable with science, because brazen, uncritical, and disengaged dissection of society was the method of science.
The ontological perspective of Critical Theory is that proclamations of objective knowledge are misleading, because any observer (in an analytical situation) is ‘one practical agent among many’ (Bohman, 2002, p. 503) and is related to the subject of analysis: this contradicts the positivistic ontology that the observer remains neutral and supplies objective gen. This neutrality rests on a dogma of controlling and segregating the world into untroublesome fragments of statistics, which is diametrically opposed to any critical theorist and their attempt to ‘deny the neutrality and objectivity between the theoriser and the world’ (Rodger & Samhat, 1961, p. 15) and limit the fragmentation of essence. Critical Theory’s ontology believes reality is produced and directed by social bias. A critical theorist uses dialogic methodologies (ethnographic studies, observation, conversation, open-ended interviews, and reflection) to challenge assumptions. The point of a critical methodology is to change the situation. ‘The aim is to expose existing institutions’to critical scrutiny as a means of promoting alternatives and bringing those alternatives to fruition’ (Hay, 2002, p. 138). The research paradigm is normative; it judges reality, and its methodologies involve critical discourse analysis, critical ethnography, action-research, open-ended interviews and ideology critique.
To conclude, in social science it is clear that Critical Theory cannot be reconciled with Positivism. Positivism, while claiming neutrality, supports oppressive social structures, projects a data privileged epistemology, and ontologically denies the existence of realities beyond the appearance of an item. This denies critical insight or alternative social configurations. These factors lead Positivism to be uncritical and in opposition to Critical Theory, which strives to expose power structures and inequality for the hope of an enlightened and emancipated human world, free from the rule of brute facticity. For a critical theorist, reality is modifiable by human action where Positivism does not concern itself with this; it attempts to explain the appearance of an item and nothing more. Positivism in social science is dangerous as it removes the human (the subject) from any analysis of humanity; it removes humans from their own humanity and they become designated empirical categories, which in turn come to define them and their productive capacity.

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