Neither a Rationalist Nor an Empiricist Be: The Primacy of Interpretation Over Theory or Data

There is a dramatic diversity in the methodologies employed by social scientists, even within a single field. These range from in person ethnographies and interviews (which may be relatively structured or not) to structured surveys, and all the way up to statistical analysis of aggregate, socioeconomic or demographic data. When controversies flare up over the validity of particular approaches, a predictable pattern plays out.

The modern empiricist makes the seemingly obvious point that theory doesn’t mean much if it doesn’t line up with reality. Data is about collecting information about reality, therefore one should begin with the data.

The modern rationalist replies that you need theory to tell you what data would be salient in the first place, and to understand the meaning of the data you do collect.

The empiricist replies that it doesn’t take much theory to get off the ground, as long as you focus on making your theory testable (or more popularly, falsifiable). But a strong emphasis on theory tends to insulate ideas against the real world, rendering them worse than useless; perhaps actively harmful.

The rationalist replies that these are all theoretical considerations, checkmate empiricist!

The empiricist rolls his eyes at this example of the kind of unhelpful tautological thinking rationalists engage in.

And so on.

Neither theory nor data reign supreme; interpretation does. Data is not self-interpreting, and theory can guide interpretation but is never the whole story. The scope of possible interpretations we can make is constrained by what Gadamer called our horizons. We speak of people having broader or narrower horizons, and that’s more or less what Gadamer had in mind.

The Zebra Storyteller” is a silly, simplistic version of how this works. It’s not so much that broader horizons increases the scope of what you believe, but of what you are capable of believing, or even of imagining. Having more and varying life experience, but also fiction, art, poetry, and conversation, can all broaden your horizons, expanding the different ways in which you are capable of understanding something. This is the heart of the human capabilities required to make theory or data actually useful; indeed, usable.

Horizons can be broad or narrow as a general matter but they can also be relatively broad or narrow in a specific domain. In science and in scholarship, reading about the different theories, approaches, and analyses available in one’s field (or outside of it!) are key ways to expand one’s disciplinary horizons. But that does not mean the resources from the rest of your life cannot be brought to bear; a novel interpretation of the data may occur to you due to experiences quite apart from those in your discipline or even in any discipline. A theorist may devise a new model based on a favorite story from childhood. And so forth.

And then, once you’ve written your paper, your interpretation is submitted to the larger disciplinary conversation. Other people whose horizons have been formed by different experiences, studies, stories, art, and conversations, can criticize your interpretations, perhaps even see things about why you would leap to that interpretation you yourself did not realize.

A healthy discipline absolutely needs practitioners that submit themselves to the rigors of formal theory in order to promote clear thinking. It also absolutely has to orient its practitioners towards making observations of the actual world, rather than remaining confined to models built up axiomatically. But unless those practitioners also have broad horizons, enriched through intra- and inter-disciplinary reading and discussion, general life experience, and even (especially) any and all forms of art—they are unlikely to produce much of merit.

This is the good version of what is meant when people say “we need the humanities.” It’s quite possible that the actual humanities as currently taught don’t promote this well enough. I couldn’t say; I was a history undergraduate, and while that certainly expanded my horizons, that was one field of the humanities at one college 13 years ago now. I can’t vouch for the state of the humanities and feel no need to; we live in an era absolutely saturated with storytelling. The classics—nonfiction and fiction—are largely available for free or cheap online. Streaming services offer vast libraries of films. Moreover, top scholars are usually accessible via email or sometimes even venues like Twitter. I have never sent an email to a scholar with a question and failed to receive a generous, helpful reply.

The theory vs data debate is useless and ought to be scrapped. The conversation instead needs to focus on making sure practitioners are exposed to a wide range of theories and observation methods, are engaged in fruitful conversation with their peers, and in general are doing what they can to continue to grow, as scholars but also as human beings.