There is a conception of social explanation that provides a common starting point for quite a few theories and approaches in a range of the social sciences. I'll call it the "rational, material, structural" paradigm. It looks at the task of social science as the discovery of explanations of social outcomes; and it brings an intellectual framework of purposive rationality, material social factors, and social structures exercising causal influence on individuals as the foundation of social explanation. Rational choice theory, Marxian economics, historical sociology, and the new institutionalism can each be described in roughly these terms: show how a given set of outcomes are the result of purposive choices by individuals within a given set of material and structural circumstances. These approaches depend on a highly abstracted description of human agency, with little attention to deep and important differences in agency across social, cultural, and historical settings. "Agents like these, in structures like those, produce outcomes like these." This is a powerful and compelling approach; so it is all the more important to recognize that there are other possible starting points for the social sciences.
In fact, this approach to social explanation stands in broad opposition to another important approach, the interpretivist approach. On the interpretive approach, the task of the human sciences is to understand human activities, actions, and social formations as unique historical expressions of human meaning and intention. Individuals are unique, and there are profound differences of mentality across historical settings. This "hermeneutic" approach is not interested in discovering causes of social outcomes, but instead in piecing together an interpretation of the meanings of a social outcome or production. This contrast between causal explanation and hermeneutic interpretation ultimately constitutes a major divide between styles of social thinking. (Yvonne Sherratt provides a very fine introduction to this approach; Continental Philosophy of Social Science.) Max Ringer, one of Weber's most insightful intellectual biographers, places this break at the center of Weber's development in the early twentieth century (Max Weber's Methodology: The Unification of the Cultural and Social Sciences). (See earlier discussions of two strands of thought in the philosophy of social science; link, link, link.)
On this approach, all social action is framed by a meaningful social world. To understand, explain, or predict patterns of human behavior, we must first penetrate the social world of the individual in historical concreteness: the meanings he/she attributes to her environment (social and natural); the values and goals she possesses; the choices she perceives; and the way she interprets other individuals' social action. Only then will we be able to analyze, interpret, and explain her behavior. But now the individual's action is thickly described in terms of the meanings, values, assumptions, and interpretive principles she employs in her own understanding of her world.
Most of the arguments in support of interpretive approaches to the human sciences have come from the continental tradition -- Dilthey, Ricoeur, Gadamer, Habermas. So let's consider two philosophers who have made original contributions to the historicist and interpretivist side of the debate, within the Anglo-American tradition. Consider first Alasdair MacIntyre's discussion of the possibility of comparative theories of politics ("Is a science of comparative politics possible?" in Alan Ryan, ed., The Philosophy of Social Explanation). MacIntyre poses the problem in these terms: "I shall be solely interested in the project of a political science, of the formulation of cross cultural, law-like causal generalizations which may in turn be explained by theories" (172). And roughly, MacIntyre's answer is that a science of comparative politics is not possible, because actions, structures, and practices are not directly comparable across historical settings. The Fiat strike pictured above is similar in some ways to a strike against General Motors or Land Rover in different times and places; but the political cultures, symbolic understandings, and modes of behavior of Italian, American, and British auto workers are profoundly different.
MacIntyre places great emphasis on the densely interlinked quality of local concepts, social practices, norms, and self ascriptions, with the implication that each practice or attitude is inextricably dependent on an ensemble of practices, beliefs, norms, concepts, and the like that are culturally specific and, in their aggregate, unique. Thus MacIntyre holds that as simple a question as this: "Do Britons and Italians differ in the level of pride they take in civic institutions?" is unanswerable because of cultural differences in the concept of pride (172-73).
Hence we cannot hope to compare an Italian's attitude to his government's acts with an Englishman's in respect of the pride each takes; any comparison would have to begin from the different range of virtues and emotions incorporated in the different social institutions. Once again the project of comparing attitudes independently of institutions and practices encounters difficulties. (173-74)These points pertain to difficulties in identifying political attitudes cross-culturally. Could it be said, though, that political institutions and practices are less problematic? MacIntyre argues that political institutions and practices are themselves very much dependent on local political attitudes, so it isn't possible to provide an a-historical specification of a set of practices and institutions:
It is an obvious truism that no institution or practice is what it is, or does what it does, independently of what anyone whatsoever thinks or feels about it. For institutions and practices are always partially, even if to differing degrees, constituted by what certain people think and feel about them. (174)So interpretation is mandatory -- for institutions no less than for individual behavior. So MacIntyre's position is disjunctive. He writes:
My thesis . . . can now be stated distinctively: either such generalizations about institutions will necessarily lack the kind of confirmation they require or they will be consequences of true generalizations about human rationality and not part of a specifically political science. (178)Now turn to Charles Taylor in another pivotal essay, "Interpretation and the sciences of man" (Philosophical Papers: Volume 2, Philosophy and the Human Sciences). Taylor's central point is that the subject matter of the human sciences -- human actions and social arrangements -- always require interpretation. It is necessary for the observer to attribute meaning and intention to the action -- features that cannot be directly observed. He asks whether there are "brute data" in the human sciences -- facts that are wholly observational and require no "interpretation" on the part of the scientist (19)? Taylor thinks not; and therefore the human sciences require interpretation from the most basic description of data to the fullest historical description.
To be a full human agent, to be a person or a self in the ordinary meaning, is to exist in a space defined by distinctions of worth. . . . My claim is that this is not just a contingent fact about human agents, but is essential to what we would understand and recognize as full, normal human agency. (3)
Thus, human behaviour seen as action of agents who desire and are moved, who have goals and aspirations, necessarily offers a purchase for descriptions in terms of meaning what I have called "experiential meaning". (27)One way of putting Taylor's critique of "brute data" is the idea that human actions must be characterized intentionally (34 ff.) in terms of the intentions and self understanding of the agent and that such factors can only be interpreted, not directly observed.
My thesis amounts to an alternative statement of the main proposition of interpretive social science, that an adequate account of human action must make the agents more understandable. On this view, it cannot be a sufficient objective of social theory that it just predict . . . the actual pattern of social or historical events. . . . A satisfactory explanation must also make sense of the agents. (116)Taylor's discussion of ethnocentricity is important, since it provides a way out of the hermeneutic circle. He believes it is possible to interpret the alien culture without simply covertly projecting our categories onto the alien; and this we do through meaningful conversation with the other (124-25). This is a point that seems to converge with Habermas's notion of communicative action (The Theory of Communicative Action, Volume 1: Reason and the Rationalization of Society).
It isn't entirely clear how radically Taylor intends his argument. Is it that all social science requires interpretation, or that interpretation is a legitimate method among several? Is there room for generalizations and theories within Taylor's interpretive philosophy of social science? What should social science look like on Taylor's approach? Will it offer explanations, generalizations, models; or will it be simply a collection of concrete hermeneutical readings of different societies? Does causation have a place in such a science? (He says more about the role of theory in "Neutrality in political science"; Philosophical Papers: Volume 2, Philosophy and the Human Sciences, 63.)
Both MacIntyre and Taylor are highlighting an important point: human actions reflect purposes, beliefs, emotions, meanings, and solidarities that cannot be directly observed. And human practices are composed of the actions and thoughts of individual human actors -- with exactly this range of hermeneutic possibilities and indeterminacies. So the explanation of human action and practice presupposes some level of interpretation. There is no formula, no universal key to human agency, that permits us to "code" human behavior without the trouble of interpretation.
This said, I would still judge that the "rational, material, structural" paradigm with which we began has plenty of scope for application. For some purposes and in many historical settings, it is possible to describe the actor's state of mind in more abstract terms: he/she cares about X, Y, Z; she believes A, B, C; and she reasons that W is a good way of achieving a satisfactory level of attainment of the goods she aims at. In other words, purposive agency, within an account of the opportunities and constraints that surround action, provides a versatile basis for social action. And this is enough for much of political science, Marxist materialism, and the new institutionalism.