Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

Situating (university) research in an encompassing social theory

As far as I can tell, research at most South African universities – and I would even include overseas universities in this – is conducted in such a way that it is guided principally by individual researchers’ interests, and/or their interests in so far as they overlap or dovetail with those of other researchers under the aegis of a common research theme – in other words, team-research. In addition, universities are guided by what they envisage as “focus areas” of research – those that are deemed especially important for the broadly “developmental” needs of the country’s economy, and are therefore promoted by universities (and by industries).

Both of these kinds of research – individual and team-research – are usually encouraged, although the emphasis in South Africa has been more on the latter type lately, partly to encourage experienced researchers to impart their knowledge to younger researchers who have to step into the breach when they finally retire – “finally”, in light of Minister Blade Nzimande’s recent remark, that academics’ retirement age should be lifted to the age of 80, instead of 60, where it currently stands in most cases. This was good sense on the part of the minister, but here I want to concentrate on something else, which, as far as I can tell, is sadly lacking in this country, namely the ongoing project of formulating an encompassing social theory to orientate research.

I specify such a desired project as “ongoing”, because knowledge is never final – any such claim to finality is patently ideological. Instead, as the history of the sciences shows, it is always revisable, and a social theory is no exception. But why a social theory for the orientation of research? Simply because, unless one has a non-ideological, social-scientifically informed grasp of society, one is unable to assess, always in a provisional, revisable manner, how the wide variety of sciences and disciplines are related to one another in terms of supplementarity, contrast or imbrication.

In other words, one needs a “map” of sorts, of the social structures and dynamics that comprise society as a whole, both “internally” (regarding social relations between and among individuals and groups of all kinds), and “externally” (in relation to the natural environment, organic as well as inorganic). In the absence of such a social-scientific map – one reciprocally and systematically informed by the knowledge embodied in ALL the sciences, lest any detractor of the social sciences should see in this proposal an attempt to lord it over the natural sciences – one is unable to see the proverbial wood for the trees: already such specialised knowledge of a large number of “trees” exists, but where does one look for an encompassing map of the forest that would show its various regions and what one may encounter there?

An obvious objection would be that I am clearly suffering from historical amnesia, and that I should remind myself that the era of encompassing (metaphysical) systems – of the kind that flourished from the 17th to the 19th centuries in the work of among others Descartes, Leibniz, Spinoza and especially Hegel – is long gone. And besides, as the Hegel scholar W.T. Stace once observed about Hegel’s all-encompassing philosophy of Spirit, it resembles a medieval castle – beautiful from the outside, with its moat, portcullis, turrets and battlements, but uninhabited. Would a social theory to orientate the sciences in their differences as well as their interrelationships not be similarly alien to extant “reality”? It could easily degenerate into such a vacuous construction, but it need not, if scientists were to contribute to its construction and regular revision. But what about a starting point?

A variety of starting points are available, and possible, including Cassirer’s philosophy of symbolic forms, or Foucault’s marvellously intricate grid of societal “mechanisms” for the control of discourse. For present purposes I shall briefly focus on the methodological theoretical framework outlined by Jürgen Habermas early in his career in the book Knowledge and Human Interests, where he articulates his theory of the “three cognitive interests”, corresponding to different groups of sciences, each of which is grounded in a particular area of social life. This comprises a theory within which researchers could situate their own work, and at the same time come to understand the differences as well as the interconnectedness between different kinds of science.

In more detail (but briefly), Habermas’s early theory amounts to this. It articulates the correlation between what Habermas regards as three “cognitive interests” (values) which guide certain groups of sciences, and are rooted in three distinct fields of human existence. The three cognitive interests and the corresponding groups of sciences are as follows, keeping in mind that although these are predominantly methodological and epistemological considerations, they point towards a social theory that would accommodate and explain the need for such sciences to exist.

First there is the technical interest in control, which underpins the empirical-analytical sciences (including engineering, physics, chemistry, computer science, accounting, but also sciences like psychology, in so far as they are practised with a view to exercising control through, for instance, psychometrics). Then there is the practical (i.e. ethical) interest in mutual understanding, underlying the historical-hermeneutic sciences (such as history, literary studies, linguistics, philosophy, anthropology, communication studies, and so on). Thirdly, the emancipatory interest supporting and driving the critical social sciences (like sociology, social and critical psychology, political science, psychoanalysis, critical economics and philosophy; it will be noted that philosophy straddles the second and third group of sciences, because it incorporates both kinds of interests).

Each of these ‘interests’ (and therefore each of the groups of sciences), is rooted or grounded in a distinct aspect of human social existence: the technical interest is grounded on work or labour (necessary for survival), the practical interest on (communicative) interaction, and the emancipatory interest on power as an inalienable aspect of human existence. One could put this the other way around as well, this time in developmental terms, by saying that the work or labour that has always been necessary for the reproduction of social life through the exercise of a measure of (broadly) technical control over one’s environment, has given rise to those experiential sciences which lay the cognitive basis for securing social life in all its ramifications. Parallel to, and interwoven with this, the social practice of communicative interaction that has, from time immemorial, been required as a “praxis” (ethical practice) for societies to exist, has led to the emergence of sciences of a broadly historical and hermeneutic (that is, interpretive) nature. Lastly, the ubiquitous existence of asymmetrical power relations (from within families to between social and political groupings) has called into being the need for emancipation, or liberation, which, as a distinct interest or value, has resulted in the establishment of the critical social sciences.

The important thing to notice here is that each distinguishable group of sciences, while being rooted in the social practice concerned (work, communication and the exercise of power), and being driven by the values or interests concerned (technical, practical and emancipatory) has the important reciprocal function of serving to strengthen these social practices by reinforcing the different interests. And even more importantly, Habermas intimates that, just as work or labour is necessary for social or cultural communicative interaction to flourish, both of these are prerequisites for social and political emancipation to become a reality. Similarly, the corresponding empirical-analytical sciences and historical-hermeneutic sciences point towards, and in a sense promote the possibility of the critical social sciences, because “freedom from” oppression, and “freedom to” actualise one’s potential in society is the highest value or interest of them all. Against this backdrop it should be clear why Habermas’s theory ultimately leads to, or implies, an encompassing social theory.

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    • David Hurst

      Well. It must be true, but at the same time this article is a painting. To try to explain a painting may depend on the painter, maybe not. Science is what we all do, test reality. Nothing special. Art in the eye of the beholder, I would say that I see that somehow hard science needs to come closer to social science as a message here. Indeed, as technology progresses, ‘soft’ sciences such as psychology become hard.

      As a synthetic/medicinal chemist and molecular biologist, the above seems a stew of a loose use of the word science. Indeed Biology is not mentioned as best I can tell. Biological anthropology would I imagine encompass sociology as well as its evolution, and, if one looks closely, not only defines it, but as well any of many concepts such as emancipation, history, organization of humanistic values into a modern clarified overview, etc.

      Science: engineering, accounting, history, ‘critical economics’,
      political science etc., what isn’t science, and how is it extraneous to social issues?

      Physics, once “Natural Philosophy”, exemplifies a virtue of science, simplification, which may take may take precedence in actually accomplishing social endeavor and the making of a new history within a context of…science, explanation vs. a complex stew of verbosity.

    • Bert

      David – much as you may wish it were not so, there are many different sciences, each tailored to its ‘object-field’, and with a little bit of thinking you should be able to see where molecular biology fits in. I often encounter the insights of molecular biologists when I read about evolutionary biology, and I can see that it helps us understand the origins of human beings better than before. But sociology, psychology, political science and philosophy also have their place. In fact, one of my favourite authors, Leonard Shlain, who is a neurologist turned philosopher, often makes use of the findings of molecular biology. My point with this piece is simply that, in order to understand where every science ‘fits in’, as it were, one needs a social theory. You would not deny that science has a social function, over and above its cognitive scientific function, would you?

    • Rene

      Makes sense to me. It’s not as if every science would not be acknowleged as making its contribution, but getting an idea about the contribution each makes to the workings of society, no matter how abstract or how concrete..

    • ian shaw

      The designation “science” is used far too losely for areas such as psychology, politics, sociology, medicine, and the like. Does any of these disciplines use the so-called scientific method that equires experimental verification of theories? Physics, chemistry and engineering use mathematics, while the above quoted disciplines use statistical methods to establish the veracity of findings. For example, these “scieces’ take a small sample of a population to support their theories (accepted as “experimental results”) and this is why one can find so many different “truths”, standpoints, theories, and opionions among their practitioners. Unfortuntaely, mathematical methods have not been generally successful in describing biological psyhcologicla, economical and political systems..

    • David Hurst

      Thank you for responding Bert. I see your point.

      My perspective is on the division of technology, seen as the broad ways things are done, say with engineering, and as well sociology and indeed bringing it into the larger modern context of civilization, and in particular specific applicability to the context of the understanding and needs of humanity as a larger picture.

      The division also is on applying science to the specific process of experimental observation, and with peer-reviewed measure of reproducible data that supports hypothesis, which extends beyond classical hard sciences, and today is vastly expanding not only science, but the context in which science exists.

      Indeed, a cultural condensation, I brought up Biology in general, is the aim of the latter, and indeed incorporates social , encompenance, whereas social theory is both politically desired, it is yet subject to, for example, a bio-sociological anthropological hard science scrutiny. Both games must be played at once, humanistic implications of modern change, along with always arguable expanding hard science interpretation.

      The place of the University may be proposed as, as here, a place of thought, perhaps care might be necessary to deal with science in two complimentary dimensions, humanistic context, and that which we measure, including, say, biology of anthropology, past, future, cultural, and within macro and molecular biology.

      Clearly much thought has gone into your article…

    • Bert

      David – Thanks for elaborating. It is good to see that you, too, are reflecting on the place and relational function of your own discipline within the broad context of ‘civilization’. This requires that one look beyond the narrow confines of the specialization you are engaged in, and is of utmost importance if scientists – both social and natural – are to get anywhere near to grasping their complementary roles as far as knowledge-advancement, and its impact on civilization are concerned.

    • The Creator

      “Wetenskap”, as opposed to “wiskunde”, I suppose.

      But, sorry, I don’t buy into the notion that Habermas’ theorising provides us with an overarching theory. I’d say there are quite pragmatic issues involved in the furthering of research, but that a great deal of it involves the power-relations at universities and in government. Obviously, I’m glad that a colleague of mine has won a chair in primatology, but few would claim that primatology is either of great significance for the economy or for the government or indeed for my local university — if anything, primatology represents a huge threat to some of the interest-groups involved locally.

      Most likely the goal was simply to grant a chair to the only remotely worthy proposal, in order not to be accused of completely ignoring HBUs. (Didn’t work, since they got denounced in the Dispatch anyway.) But I suspect that the real motives and issues are intensely complex and personal. I think Habermas, clever as he seems, is way too “reasonable” to make sense of human interactions.

    • MLH

      Forgive me for digressing (perhaps it’s the only bit of Olivier’s post I understand), but I find it immensely interesting that Blade N has suggested that anyone outstays the normally accepted retirement age.

      I have long held that this country lost its first crop of highly experienced people with the ‘early retirement’ process during the latter 80s and early 90s and has, since then, continuously been only too keen to dump experienced, mature people for various reasons like AA, BBEEE and a growing younger population without jobs. Is it just possible that Blade has hit on something that, if used more widely, could contribute significantly to getting SA back on its economic feet?

      I know an enormous number of qualified people who were squeezed out of the marketplace and have always believed that they would make marvellous mentors for post-matrics who cannot afford formal teriary education. They learnt why things are done a particular way (using accounting as an example), because they did not learn their profession on computers and could set valuable exercises (such as internal audits) for interns in all three levels of government and in other organisations that badly need better accounting habits, such as universities. The mentor would only need to work part-time and the interns could take a longer-than-normally-expected time doing the exercises. This could benefit all concerned.

    • http://none Lyndall Beddy


      Did you know that Minister Pandor has just created 75 new research fellowships? I don’t know in which fields.

    • Garg Unzola

      Very interesting post. Efforts have been made to formalise the study of social networks, with the most progress made in graph theory from mathematics. (Coincidentally, where would mathematics fit in the 3 spheres?).

      Some related themes that may be of interest:

    • Bert

      Lyndall – No, I did not. I know that more than a hundred Research Chairs at universities have been created by her, mostly in the natural sciences, but some in the humanities and social sciences. At least the present government seems to be serious about furthering research, but I still believe, as argued in this post, that it is without much of an idea of where all the sciences ‘belong’ in a broad societal context. Of course, Habermas’s work is only one source among many for formulating such a social theory.
      Garg – Thank you for these links. Mathematics would belong in the first group, I believe – the ’empirical-analytic’ sciences, although it is not ’empirical’ in the ordinary sense. It is broadly analytical, although Kant argued that it is ‘synthetic’ in that it adds to knowledge. If he was right, it would also make mathematics broady ’empirical’ – not in the sense of being based on experience, but in as far as it allows one to anticipate experience, as in theoretical physics or applied maths. If this were not the case, one could not work out the trajectory of the Apollo mooncraft beforehand. And clearly, mathematics serves the cognitive function of ‘technical control’.

    • Rene

      Didn’t Habermas develop this much further in his later work?