Hermeneutics and Social Science

Bauman, Zygmunt 2010 [1978]. Hermeneutics and Social Science. New York : Routledge Revivals

Men and women do what they do on purpose. Social phenomena, since they are ultimately acts of men and women, demand to be understood in a different way than by mere explaining. Understanding them must contain an element missing from the explaining of natural phenomena: the retrieval of purpose, of intention, of the unique configuration of thoughts and feelings which preceded a social phenomenon and found its only manifestation, imperfect and incomplete, in the observable consequences of action. To understand a human act, therefore, was to grasp the meaning with which the actor's intention invested it; a task, as could be easily seen, essentially different from that of natural science. (Bauman 2010: 12)
This realization has been reflected in philosophical hermeneutics in the notion of 'hermeneutic circle'. Understanding means going in circles: rather than a unilinear progress towards better and less vulnerable knowledge, it consists of an endless recapitulation and reassessment of collective memories - ever more voluminous, but always selective. It is difficult to see how any of the successive recapitulations can claim to be final and conclusive; still more difficult would be to substantiate this claim. The plight came to be seen as specific to the study of the social, presenting the 'understanding' sciences with problems unknown to the science bent on mere 'explaining'. (Bauman 2010: 17)
The individual psyche still reserved as their prototype, but it coult be accommodated to the new purpose only if subjected to a subtle transformation: what had been an individual's property became a supra-individual power; what had been the individual Steele turned into a collective Geist, and later Kultur; what had been a name for individual autonomy and freedom became the theoretical expression of the individual's submission to a larger community, the Volks- or Zeit-geist which no individual could transcend, as only inside it could he fulfil his individuality. (Bauman 2010: 24)
Hegel gave historical dimension to the two revolutionary ideas of Kant: that the 'object of knowledge' is essentially distinct from the 'object of reality' (and not its passive reflection, copy or replica); and whose impact no object of knowledge can be cleansed. The subject has been promoted from a distorting and unwanted factor of the cognitive act to a role as an indispensable condition of all knowledge. Subjectivity was shown to be inseparable from cognition; and objective knowledge, therefore, could not be reached, if at all, only through this subjectivity. (Bauman 2010: 48)
Social nature must mediate human understanding in so far as the true nature of human relations is mediated by distorting appearances.(Bauman 2010: 49)
Social action is only that action which is oriented towards other human beings, i.e. a part of social intercourse; but it must be a part of normatively regulated intercourse (e.g., economic activity is only social if, and then only in so far as, 'the actor's actual control over economic goods is represented by others'). And it must be motivationally oriented towards relations with other people, and hence be amenable to understanding. Thus the mass fury of a crowd, in which thoughtful control of behaviour is for a time suspended, is not a social action. Or, rather, both types of behaviour stand 'on the indefinite borderline of social action'. Somebody can, just, make imitation of conscious and deliberate principle of his conduct; for instance, a nouveau riche may wish to be accepted by the aristocracy of inherited wealth, and for this purpose to imitate their style of life lavishly. Somebody else may consciously seek in the anonymity of the crowd an escape from the responsibility which otherwise he would have to take individually and which he finds unbearable. Thus the specific cases of crowd behaviour and imitation can cross the boundary between social and non-social action in both directions. (Bauman 2010: 80)
...the instrumentality, or purposefulness of conduct (and therefore the possibility of viewing it as a quasi-rational behaviour), is taken by Weber as the defining feature of action as distinct from mere behaviour. (Bauman 2010: 81)
All this having been said and considered, the structure of the instrumental-rational action emerges as the only framework in which sociological study as an activity aimed at the objective understanding of human behaviour can take place. Human behaviour can be the subject-matter of sociology in so far as, and to the extent in which, it can be considered portrayed as having such a structure. In this, sociology is at one with the dominant tendency of modern society, which renders only instrumental-rational action socially relevant and therefore subject to normative regulation. Thus the stage has been set for a methodical analysis of the process of understanding itself. (Bauman 2010: 82)
Weber goes out of his way to make the distinction he promised in the preface as strict as possible. He tells us that 'the ideal type of meaningful action where the meaning is fully conscious and explicit is a marginal case'. Indeed, 'in the great majority of cases actual action goes on in a state of inarticulate half-consciousness of its subjective meaning'. As it were, 'the "conscious motives" may well, even to the actor himself, conceal the various "motives" and "repressions" which constitute the real driving force of action'. (Bauman 2010: 85-86)
And so the old problem, first brought to our attention by the allegory of the cave, is still with us: if I grasp the truth which resides outside the cave, how can I pass it over to the rest of the cavedwellers? Or, for this matter, how can I myself use it in my later life in the cave? Plato light-heartedly bypasses the question. Husserl asked it explicitly, but offered no answer. Instead, he proposed that we remain forever outside. Only the chosen few can afford to take up his offer. The rest will remain largely unaffected. They will have to continue to struggle with their misunderstandings using the self-same old and crude methods Husserl so distaintfully rejected. (Bauman 2010: 127)
As a motto for The Structure of Social Action, his first and most seminal of books, which launched his 'coluntaristic theory of action' as a foundation for a new sociology, Parsons selected a sentence from Weber stating that any thoughtful reflection on the ultimate elements of meaningful human action is above all related to the categories of 'means' and 'ends'. The selection is indeed a frank statement of the major message of the book and, for this matter, of the guiding idea of the entire majestic system of sociology which Parsons later developed. (Bauman 2010: )
This is nothing less than a statement of the logical necessity of society. Indeed, if interaction is a relation involving actors' responses to each other's expectations, a certain 'stability of meaning which can be only assured by "conventions" observed by both parties', as well as 'generalization from the particularity of specific situations' become the indispensable preconditions of action, in as far as the action is oriented towards the gratification of actors' interests. Therefore, the necessity of society (generalization of typical patterns of inter-situations) and cultural system (stability of meanings) are logically contained in the means-end scheme of action. (Bauman 2010: 141)
What Weber would portray as a resultant of the play of historical forces is for Parsons a stern and unquestionable requirement of reason. If rational action is a value, here are the unavoidable consequences, up to the requirement of 'apportioning sufficient power and prestige' to 'allocative and integrative roles' in society, i.e. to the people who are appointed (or self-appointed) to distribute differentially rewards and punishments and to spread the dominant ideas. (Bauman 2010: 144)
Heidegger's concept of historicity leaves many a problem unsolves. The sociologist would ascribe paramount importance to one, the role of human interaction, to which Heidegger pays only cursory attention. He satisfies himself with settling his differences with Husserl and declares 'the other' as originally and unavoidably present in my existence. But here his interest in 'the other' lapses. The fact that there are many people co-existing and engaged in manifold relations (linguistic exchanges being an aspect of virtually all of them, but only an aspect) does not seem to strike him as a profound or fateful feature of existence - and, consequently, of the practice of understanding. His Dasein is engaged in the dialogue with history, with the past and the future, much more often, much more intensely and passionately, than with his contemporaries. Heidegger effectively did away with most timeless essences attributed to man. (Bauman 2010: 168)
Other people are present in my world not just as other existences - a constant invitation to, and potential objects of, communication. What happens between us is not just linguistic exchanges. But Rede and Grede - speech and chatter - is the only typology of interhuman relations Heidegger is concerned with. We vainly search his writings for an account, or at least an acknowledgement, of the rich variety of ways in which one human existence can enter the existence of another: conflict ranging from quarrel to war, physical violence, political and economic subordination, barring access to information, etc. Are all these typoes of inter-human relations devoid of significance in the shaping both actiality and potentiality of understanding? Can the most acute and stubborn problems of understanding be truly posited if no account is taken of them? (Bauman 2010: 169)
As one of the most original of Shutz's follower, Aaron V. Cicourel, would say, 'Participants in social interaction apparently "understand" many things . . . even though such matters are not mentioned explicitly.'
The above statement can be only interpreted in one way: actors' understanding does not take the form of thoughts actually thought, brought by the actors themselves in the light of consciousness. If the word 'understand' is put in inverted commas, it is because this understanding, which is clearly not an empirical 'event' in time and space, is not what we usually mean by understanding: a purposeful act of consciousness. It appears in our analysis of action rather than in the heads of actors, and it appears as a necessary condition of the actors' occurrence, rather than as a report of what has actually happened 'out there'. If we say that actors 'apparently' understand many things they do not give any account of, what we mean is that, unless those things were 'understood', we would not be able to give a logical account of the action we observed. The action would not make any sense. (Bauman 2010: 178)
If it is some definition-like knowledge in the head of the speaker which gives words their meanings, what are we to do about the only-too-common cases of when we are supposed to give account of it'? Surely it follows that 'to know' in the sense of the first part of the sentence is not the same thing as 'to know' in the sense of the second part: to understand the meaning is not the same thing as to be able to give account of it, for instance to define the word, or to tell the motive of my action. What is it, then? (Bauman 2010: 179)
The stock of knowledge, as we already know, includes the information that other people like us exist and that their conduct has the same structure which we 'know' from the experience of our own behaviour. This knowledge renders other people potential partners in communication viewed as a 'trade of meanings', as a mutual effort to grasp the message conveyed by words, gestures, facial expressions, etc. Other people (again a piece of knowledge being an indispensable part of natural attitude) differ from all other types, and from inanimate objects in particular, in that they are to be understood; that is, their conduct is to be interpreted as a basically voluntary and purpose-oriented action. (Bauman 2010: 184)
Thus the manor and the village remained for centuries within each other's reach; there is no doubt that their respective 'world definitions' and behavioural codes were sharply distinct; still, the highly ritualized and otherwise restricted communication between the two, cast into a tight and stiff frame of inviolable etiquette, effectively preventing the possibility of the clash of meanings from ever actualizing in a way which could jeopardize the smoothness of mutual exchange. The village was allowed glimpses only of the outer, 'public' fringes of the manor; manor and village spoke different languages; tha manor could be approached and addressed only on special, strictly determined occasions and in equally strictly defined manners. These and many other simple cultural rules kept the manor and the village, however close to each other physically, in watertight compartments; on the whole, leakages which could spill meanings kept in one container over the content of the other were effectively controlled. (Bauman 2010: 198)
As long as it remains unchallenged, a dominance attained and guarded by force allows the dominant group to dispose of the problem of cultural variety by viewing other styles of life as either condemnable deviations from the right pattern, or patterns as inferior as they are strange. This view - the point demands repeated emphasis - would never suffice unless supported by the actual superiority of power or physical force. Viewing a pattern as superior can remain effective as a means of suspending communication (and, consequently, minimizes the chance of understanding being posited as a task) only as long as it supplements and reflects the actual relation of subordination. Alternatively, though for a relatively brief period, a similar view may draw its strenght from the aspirations of a group aiming at establishing its own dominance. (Bauman 2010: 199)
Positing another person or another culture as a subject to be understood, rather than an object whose behaviour is to be causally explained (i.e. reduced to external, objectified, circumstances), presupposes a degree of respect, and acceptance of an equality, however relative. (Bauman 2010: 202)
Wishing to learn 'how to go on', the ego accepts the alter's intentions as essentially unalterable conditions of action. He treats them as one treats natural phenomena, except for the acknowledged symbolic status of the observable human acts and, consequently, an allowance for possible deception, insecurity, or technical ineptness. The motive which triggers off the effort of understanding in this sense is the ego's intention to adjust his or her behaviour to requirements laid out by the alter's unquestionable power over the ego. This remains true even if, in the end, the ego seeks to use the acquired knowledge of the alter's intentions to manipulate the alter's conduct in his own interest. (Bauman 2010: 203)
It is being said that sociology must be an 'understanding' science since human behaviour is 'symbolic'. Symbols are objects which send us to something other than themselves. They, so to speak, have a meaning which resides outside them; only the person who is aware of the 'invisible link' between the symbol and the object for which it stands can grasp this meaning. Thus, for example, only a person who knows the Highway Code 'understands' a white triangle with walking silhouettes on it as a warning that children are crossing the road. Only a peasant of East Poland, well versed in local customs, will understand that his offer of marriage has been turned down when he is served a bowl of black gruel. The argument from symbols seems, however, unconvincing. Symbols may serve the twin purposes of understanding and control only if the link with the objects they symbolize is regular and reasonably stable. But the same applies to symptoms which help us to comprehend natural events. Thus for everybpdy but a permanent dweller in the desert a wet pavement 'means' recent rainfall. For every person versed in basic chemistry the redness of a litmus strip 'means' acidity of a solution. (Bauman 2010: 206)
Indeed, when I say, 'I do not understand', when confronted with an unfamiliar human gesture, a sentence of a strange language, or an implement I cannot attach to any known function, I tacitly assume that there is something to understand, that I would be led to its referent if only I knew the link between them. I assume, in other words, that the link exists in much the same objective way as between the we pavement and rainfall. It is exactly because of this assumption that understanding becomes a viable project. (Bauman 2010: 206)
Thus perceiving an object as human boils down to assuming that the object has its own 'inner reality' structured in the same way as ours. That is to say, that the object sets purposes to its activity, intends to 'express' something in the fashion of results of action, controlts the course of action in thoughts, reacts emotionally to situation and the changes introduced by the action, etc. Above all, we believe that the object's control over its own 'inner' reality is as limited as ours; that is, that the link between his 'overt' purposes, i.e. purposes as he sees them and gives account of, and the actual content of his action is somewhat less than perfect; that he cannot give a full and cogent account of the 'true' motives which guide his action; that he is incapable of conceptualizing all the contents of his 'inner' reality. Whenever account is given of the impact of 'inner' reality upon the actual conduct, the question of 'veracity' arises, different from the question of 'truth' in that it cannot be answered (if at all) by discourse and negotiation only, rather than by objective testing. (Bauman 2010: 211-212)
Do we in fact need insight into the psychical process in the mind of the actor in order to understand his behaviour? Do we actually reconstruct this mental process when engaged in the effort of understanding? It is true that we normally refer to such mental processes when accounting for out interpretation. We articulate our version of other people's conduct in terms like 'he thinks that', 'he does not like it', 'he does not wish, 'he wanted to', 'what he meant was', etc., all implying that we have penetrated the 'inside' of our partner's mind and found the meaning of his behaviour there. The question is, however, whether these are only the terms which we use to couch our interpretation, or whether they are a true expression of what we have actually done. (Bauman 2010: 213)
The paramount obstacle standing in way of true consensus is the structure of dominance, which defies both conditions of rational agreement. The discussion of the grounds of validity of behavioural norms is suppressed, replaced by sacred or secular, but always ideological legitimations of the authority of the source. (According to Michel Foucault, constitutive parts of the 'discursive formation' responsible for the socially accepted meanings are the question, 'Who is speaking? Who, among the totality of speaking individuals, is accorded the right to use this sort of language?' and the 'institutional sites' from which contributions to the discourse are made. This is, in Habermas's theory, an attribute of a distorted communication; an attribute which most ethnomethodologists tend to leave out of sight altogether.) (Bauman 2010: 244)
  • Anthony Giddens, New Rules of Sociological Method
  • Karl Mannheim, Ideology and Utopia; Introduction to the Sociology of Knowledge
  • Florian Znaniecki, Cultural Sciences: Their Origin and Development
  • Florian Znaniecki, The Method of Sociology
  • Zygmunt Bauman, Towards a Critical Sociology
  • Paul Ricoeur, The Conflict of Interpretations, Essays in Hermeneutics
  • Talcott Parsons, The Structure of Social Action
  • Talcott Parsons, The Social System
  • Alfred Schuts, Thomas Luckmann, The Structures of the Life-World
  • Aaron V. Cicourel, Cognitive Sociology
  • Gregory Bateson, Steps to an Ecology of Mind
  • Claude Lévi-Strauss, Structural Anthropology
  • Claude Lévi-Strauss, The Scope of Anthropology
  • Claude Lévi-Strauss, The Savage Mind
  • Jürgen Habermas, Knowledge and Human Interests
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