One of OAC's most active recent threads has built on the notion of a web of explanations. Introducing this notion, M. Izabel observes that no single theory ever seems adequate as an explanation of the phenomenon to which the theory is being applied. Thus, "A web of theories is what is needed to get to the center of any matter that is problematic."
But what does a web of theories look like? This is not an idle question. The image with which we begin, when we start to address any topic, our "root metaphor" or "world hypothesis" affects the directions of our thought. What if, instead of starting with a web, we started with a three-dimensional space, in which different types of explanations move in different directions, the approach advocated by Andrew Abbott in Methods of Discovery: Heuristics for the Social Sciences and illustrated by the following diagram.
The three dimensions are the three types of explanations. for each of these, the origin stands for explanations focused on everyday particulars, on commonsense events. These are an anchor for each explanatory program, rooting it in the everyday world. From this base, "universalizing" moves reach from the origin toward abstraction along each of the principal axe of explanation. The syntactic program explains the social world by more and more abstractly modeling its particular action and interrelationships. The semantic program explains the world of social particulars by assimilating it to more and more general patterns, searching for regularities over time or across space. Finally, the purely pragmatic program tries to separate more and more clearly the effects of different potential interventions or causes from one another.
What is of particular interest in this scheme is, I would argue, a tacit fourth dimension that runs from the center to the extremes of all three axes, from informal, verbal accounts to formal, mathematical descriptions. Commonsense understanding expressed in everyday tropes is the origin for all three dimensions, but all three also move toward greater abstraction and formalization. On what is here the horizontal dimension, ethnography is more abstract than commonsense understanding; but pattern search, using, for example, data mining, is more abstract than ethnography. On the vertical dimension, historical narration becomes fully formalized in complex computational models. On the third dimension, commonsensical understanding is clarified through experimentation and abstracted in standard causal accounts (SCA), typically based on statistical data and techniques for statistical analysis, most commonly linear regression.
But even if you have no interest in these methodological subtleties, the critical point to note is that the goals of explanation diverge radically along the three dimensions. The semantic program's goal is translation, rendering the alien and at first incomprehensible in familiar terms. The syntatic program's goal is narrative, a story about how and why a certain sequence of events led to what we observe. The pragmatic program's goal is leverage, detecting key points at which intervention will be effective.
Translation, story-telling, or intervention? Historically anthropologists have been involved in all three. What remains unclear is how one could effect the other. It is all too easy to see why translation, which emphasizes cultural difference, comes to be seen as pointless obfuscation by policy-makers looking for leverage for interventions. Or why both translators and policy-makers have looked askance at pseudo-historical just-so stories. Returning to our starting point, I wonder what sort of fabric can be woven of threads pointing in two, let alone, three directions.
My jet-lagged brain begins to blur. Dear colleagues, what do you see?