reed, interpretation and social knowledge

This is the first in what I hope to be a series of notes on things I’ve read recently. This one opens discussion of Isaac Ariail Reed’s Interpretation and Social Knowledge: On the Use of Theory in the Human Sciences (Chicago 2011), a small but very ambitious book by one of the most interesting young pure theoreticians in sociology now.Reed is a protege of Jeffrey Alexander’s, and much of his extant published work is fairly close to Alexander’s programme of cultural analysis. This book, though, stands much more in the vein of classic sociological theory, reading contemporary theorists on the question of how the ontological status of social objects can be ascertained and understood. Hence:

…do disputes over method, when considered carefully, reveal other problems, problems not reducible to measurement and technique, problems that point to deep divides in our fundamental conception of how a community of inquiry can expect to know something about other human communities and their various dynamics?…. Debates about method often carry implicit disagreements about the nature and purpose of inquiry, the structure of social life itself, and the role of the critical intellectual or social researcher in comprehending it. (p. 3)

The book thus announces itself as addressing what is probably the paramount concern of 21st-century American social theory: the problem of method and its associated epistemology. Much of the work in this vein, though, looks more like method than theory. Consider, for example, Elster’s Explaining Social Behavior, Hedstrom’s work in analytical sociology, even John Levi Martin’s next-to-latest book, Social Structures. Each of these mostly uses method to address theory, and as such avoids the epistemological thorns that are front and center for Reed’s work.

The book, then, is divided into five chapters: Knowledge, Reality, Utopia, Meaning, and Explanation. These are familiar terms, each designed to explore the question of how to achieve “maximalist” analysis. Minimalist analysis is the capacity of social science to signify “social actions that happened” (p. 39); maximalist analysis, by contrast, is the interpretive capacity to offer deeper “resignification” of those actions. Maximalism, in other words, is I think related to what empiricists tend to call “generalization,” but without the epistemological baggage that allows a sample to represent (darstellen) the whole. Maximal interpretation may be resignification as a system of reality, or of critique (as in “utopia”), etc.

The important move here is to argue that maximalist interpretation is always tenuous, that is, always requires the active interpretation of the analyst. This move helps elide the strong distinction between normative theorists and analytical theorists, and thereby to enable what is certainly the shining success of the book: the careful, respectful, and enlightening reading of Habermas. Reed rescues from Habermas the beginnings of his own claim about the similarity between normative and analytical maximalism:

What Habermas articulates in these passages from The Theory of Communicative Action is a philosophical description of an epistemic mode for producing maximal interpretations–a mode whereby the investigator involves herself in a dialogue with her subjects that has as its subject normative validity. (p. 72)

I might note that, much later than most of his works Reed discusses here, Habermas considers this question directly and, I think, agrees very much with Reed’s reading: the function of a democratic deliberation is precisely its ability to refract epistemically correct positions out of a public, hence to maximalize analytically and normatively at the same time.

The book I’m reading at the moment offers an interesting contrast to Reed (and, for that matter, Habermas). It’s Boltanski’s Adorno Lectures, published in English as On Critique. I’m only through one of the talks, but I’m struck with the tendency among the current French pragmatists to reject virtually anything that smacks of what Reed calls maximalization. This fits with Bourdieu’s almost obsessive concern with reflexivity as opposed to scholasticism, and with Latour’s somewhat frustrating insistence that everything that’s going on is what can be immediately observed: a kind of absurdist pragmatism that I think undermines the point of sociology. But that’s a digression.

It’s a digression because Reed is clearly staking a position that takes seriously the post-positivist moment, but avoids the trap in which all interpretations are, well, just interpretations and therefore equivalently right, interesting, or convincing. “This philosophical move is a terrible idea and should be resisted at all costs” (p. 124, probably my favorite sentence in the book). Thus: the fact that all maximal interpretation is partial emphatically does not undermine its interest or importance; the implication is that it is through this interpretive work that social science has something interesting to say:

I would submit that this is the ultimate purpose of the pluralistic, contentious language game of social theory–to allow the investigator to travel in mind and in text and through the analysis of evidence, and thus to comprehend and communicate the way social life works in other times and other places. (p. 167)

As you can tell, I generally liked the book and find its approach stimulating and unusual. Its range of reference is truly astonishing, and it’s clear that Reed has really read and incorporated all this material. My concerns with the book are two-fold.

First, and more substantively, although the book seems to seek dialogue with empirical sociology, even in its quantitative, positivist mode, the approach doesn’t really find any common ground with it. I think even empirically-minded theorists like the ones I mentioned above would find it hard to care much about the high-minded theorization going on here. I think there are ways these connections could be drawn that would make that conversation very interesting, but unfortunately there just aren’t many “hooks” for those connections in the book.

The other concern is more pedestrian, but the book is, well–dense. I felt like I had hitched onto a speeding train and was being whisked along for speedy ride, rarely offered the opportunity to stop and get my bearings. That made for an exhilarating journey but a difficult read.

Author: andrewperrin

University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

One thought on “reed, interpretation and social knowledge”

  1. Hi Andy, this is an excellent review of Reed – which I too find very valuable. I’m afraid you may be right that more empirical sociologists won’t find it so attractive. It will hopefully get set for grad soc of knowledge and theory classes, and eventually strengthen methods debate. At least it has a couple of prizes. Best, Teresa Gowan


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