Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Narrative as an Investigatory Tool: History, Science, and the Social Sciences

Now this post is inspired by John Lewis Gaddis's book The Landscape of History: How Historians Map the Past. I finished this book some time in the last week or two and was very impressed by what he had to say. The thing that I liked the most was his ability to show how some twentieth century sciences has started to adopt methods that resemble the historical method.

In particular, he discusses how certain sciences have embraced narrative as a way of exploring possibilities when evidence proves inadequate. The best examples are astronomy, geology, paleontology, and evolutionary biology. None of these disciplines have enough factual data to establish a definite or predictive understanding of how things came to be. Observations of outer space, rock samples, and fossil records do not reveal nearly as much as the observation of the physical or molecular world (physics and chemistry). Gaddis says, instead, these sciences must observe contemporary structures and try to determine the processes that created them. Narrative is the tool that allows these scientists to see process and continuity despite the gaps in their information.

This use of narrative is very similar to historical study, but stands in contrast to chemistry, physics, and the social sciences. First I'll talk about history and how historians utilize narrative. Then I'll run through the sciences and how they engage with narrative, starting with chemistry and physics which don't really need it, and moving to astronomy and paleontology and other sciences that utilize narrative. Last I'll talk about the social sciences and Gaddis's arguments on how they relate to other forms of science. Particularly, Gaddis claims that the social sciences have lost touch with 20th century sciences that explain processes through narrative. Instead, he thinks, the social sciences have stuck to the 19th century model of science that is based on reduction, theorizing, and attempts at prediction.

History and Narrative
As far as I know, narrative has been one of the cornerstone tools of historical method for quite a long time. My general historiographical knowledge isn't super strong, it seems. But, narrative seems indispensable to any modern form of history that claims accuracy.

History's reliance on narrative comes from two aspects of historical study. One is the incomplete nature of historical evidence. Narrative is required to fill in the gaps. Second, history is about the study of humans thoughts and actions, and narrative is the best way to communicate the continuity of experience that we know people feel. So, history uses narrative to expand in the incomplete picture provided by the evidence, and to fully capture the experiences of those we study.

So, why does historical evidence need narrative? Well, historical evidence can be very fragmented. We are left with expressions of thought from past eras and it is the historians job to find the continuity in the time, place, and individuals. A narrative allows historians to build a more complete picture of what people did, what they were thinking when they did it, and what was going on in the world that could make them think that particular way. Narrative allows historical explanation. Narrative itself becomes a way of investigating thoughts and actions from the past.

When I think of historians using evidence to construct narratives of thought and action, I think of R.G. Collingwood. Collingwood is very clear on the role of the imagination in writing history, and in the connection between writing history and writing a novel. He believes that both historians and novelists try to structure a narrative in which characters act in accord with their personalities and their environment. If a character in a novel or a character in a historical narrative acts out of accordance with their times or their general character, their will be faults in the novel or history. The major difference between the two is that historians are trying to write about things that actually happened. Novelists have the liberty of making their characters do whatever they want, but historians have to try to enter other (real) people's minds.

I think Collingwood's treatment of the imagination is very interesting. He discusses something he calls the a priori imagination. By this he means that the narratives are often produced in the mind of a historian or a novelist without their direct construction of the narrative. It is something that comes out naturally, that falls into place on its own. Novelists may say they don't feel like they write the endings to their stories. They simply create characters and the novel has to turn out a certain way based on how they understand those people. The imagination is not deliberately controlled, it is something that unfolds, that produces itself.

Collingwood says it can be much the same with historians. They will read lots of documents or writings produced by a certain person, and the continuity of that persons thought becomes apparent in some deeper part of the mind. The a priori imagination simply unfolds and provides the historian with a narrative that he did not exactly produce on his own.

I'm not sure how this relates to the use of narrative in science exactly, but I have a few ideas. It seems that it would 1. make the imagination a crucial concept for both disciplines, and 2. it implies that the imagination works at some unconscious level. We can't have direct control over all of the things we imagine. We have to sort through them rationally once they have been 'dreamt,' so to speak. In The Principles of Art, which I have only skimmed briefly, Collingwood says the imagination is responsible for creating different worlds that reason can deal with.

So science could perhaps embrace this model. They observe contemporary structures, rock formations, fossils, etc., and they allow an unconscious process of imagination (a priori imagination) create possible processes that could have given rise to these structures. Science should embrace the usefulness of narrative and the unconscious nature of the a priori imagination.


Science and Narrative

Now I want to discuss the sciences as they relate to narrative. First I will discuss the reductionist scientific approach, which doesn't utilize narrative because it has no real need for it. Reductionist science is about reducing reality to its smallest components, and creating models that can predict behavior. Then I'll discuss the ecological scientific approach, which needs narrative and imagination due to the limited nature of the evidence available. An ecological approach focuses on structures and processes. Again, I'm mostly summarizing Gaddis in Landscape.

Reductionist Scientific Approach
Chemistry and physics are the best examples of a reductionist scientific approach that has no need for narrative. With both disciplines reality is reduced down to its smallest possible component, down to the molecular level. In these experiments it is typically clear what the independent variable is. Chemists and physicists typically know what variables they are removing or inserting, and so it is easier to attain results that allow forecasting or prediction.

Attempts at forecast and prediction are perhaps the key difference between reductionist and ecological scientific approaches. Reductionist methods have to attain a state of prediction in order to be correct. Chemists and physicist have to break down reality to the point that they understand it like clockwork, so to speak. An ecological scientific approach, however, cannot break down its evidence into its smallest components, and must rely on imagination and narrative.

Ecological Scientific Approach
The best examples of an ecological scientific approach are astronomy, paleontology, meteorology, and geology. In all of these disciplines scientists must focus on structures and processes. They must observe present day structures (stars, fossils, rocks, etc.) and dry toimagine the processes that could have shaped them. Paleontologists have to examine the incomplete fossil records to determine how and why species evolved as they did. Astronomers have to examine existing cosmic structures to determine how they came to be that way. The subject of these sciences are not timeless. These sciences have to understand dynamic processes that have given rise to things that exist now. Independent and dependent variables are not clear. Everything is interconnected. These scientists have to use their imagination to construct a narrative that can explain contemporary structure. Contemporary structures are clues to the past, but the imagination is indispensable, and narrative is the only way to explore possibilities.

These disciplines, therefore, do not aim at prediction, but of accurate understanding of past processes. This makes these disciplines very akin to history. Both are examining dynamic processes, contingent structures. Both use incomplete evidence to build their narratives of process that can explain structure. Interesting stuff. Now Gaddis uses this to draw some interesting conclusions about the social sciences and how they relate to contemporary science.

The Social Sciences and Narrative
Gaddis's main concern is that the social sciences have not kept up with the diversification of scientific method that took place in the 20th century. Namely, he thinks social scientists have not incorporated the creative use of narrative seen in paleontology, geology, etc.. Moreover, Gaddis thinks that social scientists have stuck to the 19th century positivist scientific model, which aims to predict reality. This is essentially the reductionist/Newtonian model of physics in which perfectly round spheres effect other spheres in predictable ways. It was thought most sciences could obey this model of description and prediction. Sciences concerned with change(ecological view), however, are incapable of predicting the future. There concern is different, they want to understand past change that has created present structures.

By following the reductionist model too closely, Gaddis claims, the social sciences rely too heavily on the theoretical side of their work. They tend to favor the rigidity of theory than accurately represent their subject. Gaddis says many social scientists insist on determining the independent variable in a case study, even though it may be impossible. Over reliance on theory and the notion of an independent variable, the social sciences present theory heavy narrative. Historians and ecological scientists, on the other hand, present theory laden narratives. The narrative is the primary mean of exploration and explanation, and theory is their to augment and enhance the data. Narrative, however, is always the driving force behind history and ecological science.

The social sciences, therefore, need to embrace narrative as a means of exploring reality. Predictive or forecast based theories are not necessarily attainable in the study of human affairs. It is not always clear what is an independent variable, and trying to make that data fit into a theory may lead to a distorted picture of reality. Accurate description of reality must be the most important thing. Describing human reality, however, can't be done on the model of the reductive sciences. We can't break down human interactions into the smallest possible categories because we function beyond the molecular level. We can't determine what the independent variables are in society because everything is far too interconnected. Predictive science cannot guide the social sciences.

Ecological science, though, has some valuable lessons to offer. Examine contemporary structures, use contemporary evidence, and try to determine process. Explore that process through narrative. This isn't very clear. I don't want to draw lots of conclusions right now. But narrative is a fascinating subject. It can tap us into experience, and the social sciences need more of that. Science uses it too, its tight. Didn't know until Gaddis how crucial the imagination was in the sciences. This adds a lot to what Heidi Scott is talking about in her work. I dig it.

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