A Privileged Source of Information


Piki Ish-Shalom


To explain, to understand, to explore facts and relations between facts, to find causal mechanisms, to theorize social reality, to expose what is otherwise unknown, to disclose hidden truths on society; all these terms and expressions describe the mission of the social scientist. Yet, we can use a different notion to convey this mission: transparency. The role of the social scientist is to make the social world transparent, both to the observer and to the participant.

Using the notion of transparency is not only a matter of ornamental terminology. It is a substantial move that carries within it a moral significance. The social world (contrary to the natural world, which is the subject of inquiry for the nature scientist), is a world of moral subjects. To make this world of moral subjects transparent entails exposing the innermost intimacies of human minds. And, according to the moral principal of reciprocity, those who make others transparent should be also transparent.

By studying human society social scientists involve themselves in illuminating human desires and beliefs, making them known, and causally connecting them with social mechanisms; how, for example, human risk-aversion shapes consumer behavior; how rational calculations mold the balance of threats and mutual deterrence between states; and how one’s identification with one’s group leads to solidarity. As these examples demonstrate, inner states of mind are an important element in theoretical understanding of social phenomena. This is not to claim that they are the only explaining element, nor even that the causal relations are only from states of mind to social structure. On the contrary. It is also social structures and social processes that shape human states of mind. But nevertheless, human states of mind are an important aspect in the working of social science. Moreover, by exposing what are otherwise hidden and unknown social mechanisms, theory, at times, begins social dynamics that without theoretical knowledge would never have occurred. Thus, knowledge about risk-aversion might help when planning strategies for marketing life insurances; understanding the operating mechanisms of mutual deterrence was a crucial factor in managing the Cold War in a manner that prevented its escalation to a full-scale war; and a Machiavellian leader can exploit what we now know about group identity to secure his regime.

Those two aspects – making inner states of mind transparent and the socio-political effects of making them transparent – should produce public interest in committing social scientists to the rules of transparency, and in addition, it ought to produce in the social scientists themselves a commitment to the rules of transparency. These rules of transparency involve disclosing and acknowledging the ideological foundations of theories and the normative commitments of theoreticians.

Social science is the systematic search for patterns in society and in human conduct and the subsequent effort to explain those patterns. One of the most important tools in the systematic search for explanations is theory. Theory is the assertion explicating the causal patterned relations between different phenomena; how one phenomenon causes another. It is the scientific apparatus of making the hidden causal mechanisms of the social world evident and apparent, i.e., transparent.

But there is a catch here. An unbridgeable gap manifests itself between theory and the social world. Theory performs an unperformable task; that of finding order where there is none. So how does theory perform the unperformable? How does the theoretician determine from the sheer vastness of facts and occurrences what is theoretically important, what is less so, and what is of no importance at all? What helps the theoretician in reducing the social complexity into neatly theoretical, namely parsimonious, assertions?

As facts do not order themselves objectively into parsimonious theory, the social scientist needs an extra-theoretical mechanism to sort out and to filter out data to be able to construct theory. And this extra-mechanism is constituted by the scientist’s a-priori assumptions of normative, ontological, and epistemological types; a-priori assumptions that constitute the innermost intimacies of the theoretician's mind and by necessity come prior to theory. It is those a-priori assumptions which enable theory's construction by sorting out and filtering out data. There can be no theorizing without a-priori assumptions and this actuality gives theory an ideological bent, as those a-priori assumptions are also the building blocks of ideological thought.

In other words, there can be no theory without ideological foundation and without normative commitment. Yet, this extra-theoretical mechanism, which is fundamental to theorizing, is usually left unacknowledged and undisclosed. Hence, the process of theorizing is left in the dark; it remains outside the realm of transparency.
This lack of transparency is morally unjustified; those who seek to make the innermost intimacies of other human minds transparent should lift their veil and lay open the innermost intimacies of their own minds.

Furthermore, theory has the tendency to affect the social world which it attempts to explain. There are a number of dynamics that contribute to the influence of theory on the social world, and they all involve the publicizing of the information that is being discovered and theorized. For example, theory can become prediction that refutes itself. When Marx presented his economic theory and its ensuing forecast that unavoidable economic processes will result in the uprising of the proletariat and consequently in the collapse of the capitalist economy and bourgeoisie order, the conservative Bismarck took it as a warning and introduced the first set of welfare laws. Thus, he alleviated the social tensions of the period and by that may have contributed to the refuting of Marx's economic theory. Alternatively, theory can be mobilized by policy makers to help them devise policies. When Kennedy took office in 1961 he focused his attention on the deteriorating relations with Latin America. He approached academia and recruited Walt Rostow to the administration. Kennedy hoped that applying Rostow’s modernization theory would bring about democratic changes in Latin America that would foster positive relations in the region. Rostow and his theory became, for a short while, agents of change in the Americas. Alternatively, theories might assist policies that are contrary to what the theoreticians had in mind while theorizing. I suspect that those that theorized the theories of democratic peace (“democracies do not fight each other”) did not intend that their theories would be used to legitimize and justify wars of democratization in the Middle East. Yet, as a consequence of both public misunderstanding and cynic political mobilization, this is how these theories are being used nowadays.

What does it all mean? It means that the public should have an interest in committing theory, which at times is an agent of changes, to the rules of transparency.

Add to that the moral principle of reciprocity and we get a moral obligation of theoreticians to bring theory and theorizing under the auspices of transparency. The extra-theoretical mechanism – namely, the ideological foundations of theories, as well as the normative commitments of theoreticians – that enables the construction of parsimonious theory out of unbounded social complexity ought to be unveiled to the public.