Semantics in Social Science

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Semantics in Social Science

"We should altogether avoid, like the plauge, discussing the meaning of words." - Karl Popper 1973 A group for those who feel that semantic discourses potentially undermine the integrity of the social sciences.

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Readings on semantics and use of language. 1 Reply

thought I might include a few of the books which have really influenced my position on semantics and social science. any futher additions are very very welcome:John Locke - Of The Abuse Of Words [or…Continue

Tags: popper, readings, gellner, locke, linguistics

Started by Toby Austin Locke. Last reply by Toby Austin Locke Nov 21, 2010.

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Comment by Larry Stout on March 9, 2013 at 3:44pm

I wonder what Popper (et al.) would say about this:

http://writing-program.uchicago.edu/toys/randomsentence/index.htm

Comment by Johannes Castner on October 29, 2011 at 11:00pm
Has the Sokal Affair had an impact on Anthropology?
Comment by ryan anderson on November 24, 2010 at 8:57pm
Hi Toby:

Some books that might be of interest:

"Language Change: Progress or Decay?" By Jean Aitchison
"Discourse Analysis" by Barbara Johnstone
"Linguistic Anthropology: A Reader" By A. Duranti (2007)

For some foundational/classic readings check out the work of Dell Hymes and William Labov.
Comment by ryan anderson on November 21, 2010 at 7:54pm
Hey Keith, I think that your selection brings up some good points, especially Bill's last segment:

And often people will just throw out a few one-liners about how we all understand that money is just like language. I want to stop and say, well, no. We don’t all understand that. What do you mean by language? Is language just a system of representation? That’s how you’re treating it. But language also is a series of speech acts. It does work. It doesn’t just represent things.

Language (words, etc) is something more than just mere representation, since these speech acts are actual occurrences. As Bill points out, language is active, not just some passive abstraction. And of course, language has its material implications--it doesn't just point or refer to material realities but is part of the process of creating and shaping those realities. Thanks for posting this.
Comment by M Izabel on November 21, 2010 at 7:39pm
Keith, thanks for reminding me of that word/term/concept, pragmatics, that had eluded my memory in this discussion. Isn't pragmatics still related to contextual information, which is also important in generating or inferring meanings?

Since we have now touched the domain of linguistics, I believe every word can be anaphoric and deictic. It is a linguistic phenomenon in itself that requires a contextual information or a set of function words before its meaning, usage, and utterance are understood. No word can just represent only one thing without considering its context. "Apple" coming from the mouth of Steve Jobs is not necessarily a fruit.

"River," for example, can be a body of water, an expression of abundance, a life, a murmur, an endless flow of tears, etc. We need contextual information such as its gender context, social context, verbal context, economic context, literary context, visual context, etc. to truly understand it. In short, semantics is inherent in any language and has a purpose: to extend the function or usage of a word.
Comment by Keith Hart on November 21, 2010 at 6:59pm
I wondered if it would be useful to introduce pragmatics as opposed to an approach focused on representation and meaning. I have posted elsewhere excerpts from a conversation with Bill Maurer, The politics, pragmatics and promise of money This is from the section, Pragmatics of money (B = Bill, K = Keith):

B: What do I think about pragmatics? Well, first of all, it’s always important to remember the distinction between Bourdieu’s practice theory and pragmatics. Bourdieu’s theory of practice is still aiming to help us get a more adequate representation of reality. This involves my whole issue going back to Mark Shell of the relationship between money and many of our standard analytical procedures or vocabularies, which derive from the attempt to weld words together with things. When I think about pragmatics, in contrast, I think about the American tradition. Peirce, James, Dewey, Holmes. There, the question isn’t so much, can knowledge be devised to gain an adequate representation of the world, but rather, can knowledge help us approach or approximate a target to get something done that we’re trying to do. And it doesn’t really matter if it’s true or not. It just matters if it works.

B: For me it was a huge breakthrough to realize that I could think about money in those terms. That I didn’t need to solve the problem of money’s representational failure or adequacy, which is what so many money people have talked about. Just about everyone who writes on money has worried about this problem even if only a little bit. You don’t worry about it at all. It’s refreshing.

K: This is one of the reasons I like Kant who says that science grew out of cooking, you know, metals and fermentation, and really it’s a series of recipes. The recipes either do the job or they don’t, but they do so within a range of accuracy. Kant’s anthropology from a pragmatic point of view is saying, what do we need to know about humanity as a whole that will enable us to live as world citizens?

B: I am drawn again and again back to the greenbacker/bullionist debate after the Civil War. I would like to write it not as a tale from the history of representation, which is how it’s often done, but as one of the history of the resolution, or temporary resolution of the pragmatic problem of the money supply. This may be more like the way an economist would tell the tale. I don’t necessarily want to tell it as an economist would, but I do want to put the brakes on the kind of culturalist semiotic thinking that takes over when we think about money’s substance, you know, paper versus gold versus whatever.

K: The demon of mimesis or representation is something I never had to slay for some reason. I don’t know why.

B: That’s British social anthropology. It’s remarkably free of all that “culture and symbol” stuff that Americans have to deal with all the time.

B: In my Annual Review piece I try to kind of do some brush clearing. There is a lot of work in anthropology about money but it’s rarely by people who actually study money. Instead, it’s done by people who want to talk about money as a side interest to their main concern. So someone is studying socially responsible investing somewhere. Efforts to create micro credit somewhere else. And often people will just throw out a few one-liners about how we all understand that money is just like language. I want to stop and say, well, no. We don’t all understand that. What do you mean by language? Is language just a system of representation? That’s how you’re treating it. But language also is a series of speech acts. It does work. It doesn’t just represent things.
Comment by ryan anderson on November 21, 2010 at 4:16pm
My ideas of how one may practice social science with out semantics are certainly still in development (as I imagine the always will be), one of the reasons I chose to start this group. I would not expect such an approach to entirely exclude discussions of meaning., as you say Ryan “Isn't a lot of social and cultural anthropology about meaning”.

So you want to practice social science without semantics, but you do want to include discussions of meaning. And since semantics is the study of meaning, it seems to me there are some logical gaps in this proposition.

I see it engaging the concepts and ideas one is attempting to understand rather than the words.

Ok. So you want to pay close attention to concepts. And since concepts are often communicated through words, how do you propose to engage in this endeavor?

What I am suggesting when I say that meaning can be weakened: when a word which has regularly been used out of its original context is applied to its original signification it can often need much more explanation than it did previously, several paragraphs are required where previously one could have perceivably used a single word.

So...are you arguing that older words have more explanatory power? Does that mean that you think the Greek "anarchos" is automatically "stronger" than contemporary uses of the term "anarchy"? Where and how do you determine "original context"?

Anarchism, to most people does not signify the ideology of Bakunin and others but rather represent as popular cult movement connected to punk rock etc. the meaning of the word has not changed as some people certainly still use it to represent the original concept where as other don't, in its use for its original signification the 'strength' of the word has been lessened: it requires more explanation.

So before Bakunin the term had no meaning? The term "anarchy" was certainly not invented by Bakunin in the 19th century. While he may have re-define "anarchy" into a specific political philosophy called "anarchism," to cite this as "original context" completely ignores the historical trajectory of the term.

...when I talk of a 'the bank of the river Thames' and 'the bank of England' am I not in the immediate use of language ignoring the other signification?

You're attributing meaning based upon context.

I am calling for clear, analytic and communicative use of language which engages with meta-physical ideas that hold some implication rather than simply discussions of symbols and definitions.

Sounds good to me. What social scientists are arguing that we need to simply look at "discussions of symbols and definitions"?

If you're arguing that some people aren't very clear writers, and that they get bogged down on long-winded, convoluted, poorly written discourses, then I am right there with you. But that doesn't require a move a way from "semantics" by any means.

John wrote: "We can, I believe, usefully distinguish between questions which attempt to clarify what a speaker or writer means in a some particular context and attempts to to establish, once and for all, an a priori meaning in relation to which all other possible senses are dismissed as errors. It is the latter which lead to the sort of semantic debates to which, if I am not mistaken, Toby objects."

And you then replied: this is certainly one of the areas of semantics to which I object. Academics should be about cooperation not one-upmanship. An external, or even internal, observer viewing some of the scholarly discourses which revolve around dismantling another use of language may often perceive them as pointless ramblings.

I think that John has misread your position. Either that or your argument is somewhat untethered. Your example with the term "anarchism" above is, as I see it, a perfect example of what John is talking about in the second sense (ie the one that you supposedly object to). You are basically arguing for an a priori "correct" meaning of the term "anarchism," and dismissing contemporary uses as "weak" or, as John puts it, erroneous.

Overall, I don't really think you're making a consistent argument here. You want to dismiss meaning, but you still want to look at meaning. You want to avoid academic one-upmanship, but you argue that particular terms have certain "correct" or "strong" definitions and that others reduce clarity. And I find it interesting that you're using John Locke and Karl Popper as your primary resources for talking about meaning and language. No linguists? No linguistic anthropologists? Why not?
Comment by ryan anderson on November 19, 2010 at 7:31pm
Well stated, John.

I think it's absolutely critical to differentiate between taking cheap shots and more productive explorations and mappings of terms/meanings. Great points.
Comment by M Izabel on November 19, 2010 at 6:51pm
If a term is contextualized, I don't think a definition is still needed.

I will use something ethnographic as an example. A bet caller in a cockfight ring or cockpit in the Philippines is called "Kristo" (Christ) because of his stretched arms when he calls the attention of bettors whether they are "sa pula o sa puti" (on red or on white).

When I say, "Kristo siya sa sabungan" (He is the Christ in the cockpit), I certainly do not mean that the cockfight caller is a revered person who is morally upright. He is simply a caller who fixes bets in a cockfight. It is so because of the context in which 'Christ" is used.
Comment by John McCreery on November 19, 2010 at 6:43am
Speaking in support of Toby's position: We can, I believe, usefully distinguish between questions which attempt to clarify what a speaker or writer means in a some particular context and attempts to to establish, once and for all, an a priori meaning in relation to which all other possible senses are dismissed as errors. It is the latter which lead to the sort of semantic debates to which, if I am not mistaken, Toby objects.

To Toby and others of a similar frame of mind, I recommend a book that I have mentioned before: Howard Becker (1998) Tricks of the Trade: How to Think About Your Research While You're Doing It. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Chapter 1 "Tricks" begins with the following paragraph,
Undergraduates at the University of Chicago, when I was a student there, learned to deal with all difficult conceptual quetions by saying, authoritatively, "Well, it all depends on how you define your terms." True enough, but it didn't help us much, since we didn't know anything special about how to do the defining.

This is, I suggest, the predicament of too many of us who engage in academic debates. We are too easily distracted by what I call the George E. Moore game. What I learned from reading Moore (not, I am sure, what he intended) is that any argument can be destroyed by choosing a term or phrase and asking, "How do you define that?" The response is sure to be another string of words. One has only to repeat the process until the other, irritated or enraged gives up.

To play this game is, of course, a cheap shot. Anyone can learn to do it in a couple of minutes. Much harder but also more productive is to examine the context in which a term is found, map the range of possible meanings available in that context, and determine which of those possible meanings the other intended (remembering the possibility that they, too, are confused).

Then, proceeding a little further, we can also examine the process by which the meaning(s) in question was (were) selected. Here is where the important differences between commonsense, religious, aesthetic, businesslike and scientific meanings emerge, in the taken-for-granted quality, cosmically asserted faith, rhetorical/artistic effects, instrumental rationality or empirical and logical grounding associated with them.
 

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