My fourpenn'orth on totality

Let us get into this discussion slowly, and begin with some commonsense observations. It is obvious, for example, that a large number of factors and variables affect human action, and that no one study can possibly pin them all down. In practice, large numbers of variables are effectively discounted, while just a few tend to get studied in far more depth. But why do people choose the specific variables to investigate that they do? What makes these variables the most important ones? And where does the choice of methods fit  in?

Let us stick with a concrete example for now. Imagine our interest was the recent poor performance of the English football team. How might we go about researching the factors that might have led to such poor performance?

People will immediately start focusing in on the factors that they have been trained to see as relevant. This training will have delivered as part of an academic package -- a course in a particular subject, or perhaps a PhD, or even post-doctoral research. This academic training immediately predisposes us to start looking at factors such as:

The physiology of the players concerned, their fitness. This might be broken down still further to examine particular players and their levels of attainment in speed, endurance, or strength. Physiology can be examined from the perspective of biology, or possibly from the perspective of more specialist sports sciences or biomechanics.

The psychology of the players concerned, their motivation, their reaction to stress of various kinds, the extent to which they have bonded together as a team, and perhaps the ways in which they might prepare for competitive games.

The cultural factors that might have changed the importance of playing football. There might be important cultural alternatives to playing football, it might attract less status than it once did. Maybe the most talented people are not coming forward to play football. Conversely, football playing might have achieved new cultural prominence, so that players themselves become associated with celebrity culture, mass media coverage, and all the stressful ambivalences directed towards the rich and famous. Cultural factors might also affect the crowd, which can affect performance, and the nature of public attitudes and loyalties.

Sociological factors, including the ways in which football players actually make their way into the national team, and, particularly, whether any talented players encounter barriers to entry or to further success, including the usual ones of social class, gender and sexuality, ethnicity, and age.

I am sure that a little thought will reveal all sorts of other additional factors. The point is that the way that academic life is organised tends to lead people to focus on one set rather than the other, and ignore the whole picture. That  'whole picture' gives us our first clue about what might be meant by the term  'totality'.

Now what I have been describing is a pretty limited notion of totality, compared to the way in which critical theorists operate. I have described a kind of empirical totality, a collection of lots of factors and variables. They would want to include all sorts of other elements, including some which operate to produce those empirical factors and variables in the first place .

Before we proceed any further though, let's just think a bit more about what we have discussed so far. Conventional academic research tends to be selective, we have suggested, and we have already identified academic subjects and academic traditions as being one factor. If you are trained as a sociologist, you tend to assume that the sociological factors are the most important ones, while psychologists would clearly emphasis the psychological ones -- and so on. Let us probe more deeply. Why does conventional academic research tend to be selective like this?

It is obvious that resources have to be focused, and no one can possibly pursue academic research in several fields. Traditions tend to establish themselves. Academic fashions come and go. Academics tend to invest their efforts in particular research traditions or programmes, and they get funds and status from pursuing those programmes .

We are starting to see that there may well be political and economic issues here as well. Certainly, at the level of universities and the sector they occupy, there is often fierce rivalry and a local loyalty that amounts to 'tribalism' affecting subject specialists, and even different research traditions inside overall subject groupings. Quite understandably, biologists want to get sufficient resources to pursue their interests, and they might well find themselves in some competition for those resources with psychologists and sociologists.

It is also the case that outside agencies can have considerable political and economic effects. There is much discussion about the UK policy designed to allocate research funding to universities and university subjects (the quinquennial Research Assessment Exercise). Some commentators feel that the results show clearly that politicians are much more ready to fund  'hard' sciences like biology or physiology, rather than the 'softer' subjects like sociology and psychology. Commercial sponsors probably have the same sort of preferences -- clearly, it is more prestigious to have the company name associated with medical research on cancer, rather than with media studies or cultural studies. Of course, there are some interesting exceptions. It is also the case that traditional universities tend to do better in attracting research funding -- and they also tend to offer more traditional academic subjects, including the sciences. Sometimes, considerable political and ethical issues are raised by sponsorship, such as when the military wish to commission some research on the biological or social effects of weapons of mass destruction .

These outside agencies take particular views about methods, as I have already implied. To generalize a great deal, they might well prefer to get  'hard' data from their investments as well. It is less likely that they would be interested in reports that offered serious questions about objectivity or the nature of reality. They might at best grant that such  'pure' research has a place, but there seems an increasing tendency to demand value for money in the most obvious and literal sense. Government spokespersons themselves seem quite open about this, and have urged academic institutions to follow commercial or even specifically  'employers'' agenda.

Everybody knows this is the case, and yet all this background politicking is rarely discussed in the context of actual research. Instead, a professional myth or ideology persists, which maintains that research is conducted in some sort of spirit of pure inquiry. No one wants to talk about the considerable background activity necessary to get funds and then to manage projects inside universities. No one wants to talk about what you have to give back, including the need to publish results, sometimes before you're ready, sometimes in the form of two short articles rather than one longer consistent one, or the need to dress up the results or the methods and confine the problems and difficulties to footnotes, scholarly asides, or staffroom gossip.

So here we have another idea about totality. That the formal research activity and the formal publishing of results represents but a small part of the total activity involved in getting a research programme off the ground. Much of this activity will involve researchers in fairly grubby processes of organising support, building alliances, fighting off rivals, trying to win the consent of powerful public or commercial sponsors and regulators, and wrestling with all sorts of ethical and political dilemmas at various levels. Only that small part, when they're actually in their laboratories doing the research work might qualify for the term 'objective' activity. Yet it is is that part that somehow stands for the whole. That is the scientific bit, but it is not typical of the whole process. The claim that that small part characterizes the whole activity represents the interests of several powerful groups, sponsors and academics themselves.They benefit from sponsoring this highly questionable representation of research activity as a whole.

There is no need to be too deterministic about this, however, since research is an unpredictable process and academics are sometimes able to pursue more disinterested agenda as well as delivering the goods to the sponsors -- assuming they see the value in doing so, of course. Ironically, being 'scientific' here would involve quite a strong committment to professional or academic values -- those values would be as important as the  actual techniques or formal procedures. Yet it is not enough to assert these general values as a kind of starting point, followed immediately by claims to have been objective, without explaining further how they have actually affected the conduct of the research. Are these active values or just tokenist ones? If active, how are they applied on a day-to-day basis in the conduct of research? The same might be said of the usual opening statement of professional ethics -- to what extent are these in conflict day-to-day with scientific procedures?

A counter-argument
At this point, you might want to consider a counter-argument. Positivist social science is one thing, but does this extend to natural science too? At one level, it is equally obvious that even the hardest of natural scienc research has to be funded and the results published, and that these are not exactly 'hard' procedures. It is also the case that scientific institutions like universities also have a major role in training scientists and equipping them not only with scientific procedures, but with the right scientific values and relevances. Controlling those processes of selecting future researchers and certificating members of the profession is also obvioulsy subjective to an unknown extent. And yet there is another important constraint on the conduct of scientific research, perhaps -- reality itself.

The reality of nature clearly affects research and its results as well. Scientific inquiry can be right or wrong, we might want to argue -- the right research leads to cures for illnesses or new technologies that work. A science based on solid scientific knowledge of genomes works, whereas an alternative approach based on some view of hnomeopathic forces does not; if we understand the molecular structure of solids we can engineer with them, but we cannot if we just guess. This idea of a constraint or test offered by reality is what is decisive in the conduct of science. Thus scientists are quite right to emphasise that process of reality-testing as crucial, without denying that all sorts of subjective and social and political factors affect research too. Those factors also affect astrology -- but astrology is not science.

A special version of that argument is what informs Popper's stance -- critical realism -- which he advances in the Dispute, as you will see. Science subjects itself to tests, it is risky and potentially falsifiable, while non-science never does that but can always find a reason to explain away apparent failure with 'ad hoc' (improvised) arguments. That stage of falsifying hypotheses is what makes science transcend the social and political context which affects all the  business of training and finance we have discussed. Focusing on pushing statements to a point where they can be falsified is indeed one stage in the development of science -- but it is the crucial stage, far more important than looking for social determinants on the one hand ( as sociologists of science do), or speculating about totality on the other ( as critical theorists do).

Of course, you might want to object to this rather idealised and heroic view of science too. Historians might join in here, and point out that not is actually how science does proceed. The obvious source to read here is Thomas Kuhn, who points out that there have been many scientific disputes that have not been solved by a decisive falsification of one of the candidates. Instead, rival approaches have co-existed for years, and eventually one of them has been adopted for a variety of reasons like the supporters of one side have failed to gain university posts or have simply eventually given up and died out. The Popper-Kuhn controversy itself has raged for years, nad has spawned some very interesting commentaries about how actual science proceeds.

There are also the points made by Lyotard (of all rather unlikely people), who points out that modern nuclear physics, operating with particles that cannot actually be observed, has a number of ways of testing hypotheses and theories ( mostly very obscure mathematical modelling, for example) which take us far from simple falsification. Building machines to attempt to detect such particles in some empirical way is increasingly punitively expensive, and so physicists find themselves doing politics after all. Lyotard also wants to generalise his arguments about the collapse of theoretial approaches claiming to be liberating and true to include natural science -- the public is as sceptical about physics as it is about astrology. Scientists themselves seem disinterested in the Big Issues, claims Lyotard, abandoning the big claims and openly recognising that they are, in effect, playing intellectual games for their own sake.

Lyotard also pursues a theme found in critical theory and elsewhere, that the technology used ultimately to justify science is much less well-regarded these days than it once was. To put it in fashionable terms, science is unable either to generate risk-free  technology, nor to explain or manage the risks. Trying to 'black box' the risks by calling them 'side-effects' or 'political issues', for example, is no longer credible. Inventing new drugs, new genetic manipulation technologies or new sources of power is immediately and inextricably 'political' in modern societies, and no-one trusts scientists to solve the problems on their own.

We arrived at some notion of totality from pursuing some well-known and common-sense perceptions. You might be able to see that the concept has quite a critical potential, especially in exposing the claims of those who think they are in possession of some sinple universal scientific approach or truth. Criticism might extend to the technical claims that objects have been thoroughly researched and understood, without any restraint being exercised by commercial or political issues. Criticism could certainly be directed at naive self misunderstanding that suggests that scientific problems just present themselves, as do the correct methods to investigate them.

Critical theorists want go further, and attempt to describe this totality in more formal theoretical terms. This is where it gets rather obscure. I have been sketching in first an empirical totality, and then some kind of marxist totality. Marx does use arguments rather like the ones I have given above, to criticise not natural science, but politics, economics and philosophy. All of those subjects also focus very selectively on the world and take a rather literal view of events going on. There are many examples, and I have files on some of them, including the most famous one which seriously questions the usual view of a 'commodity'.

Marx has also criticized conventional political science for taking one small part of the political process for the whole. It is true that we are all equal on polling day, where one person's vote is as good as another, but for all the rest of the time we are extremely unequal in the ways in which we can influence the government. Calling the whole system  'equal' or  'democratic' is obviously both seriously limiting and politically suspect.

It is not quite so easy to pin down what Marx meant by the total system which has been so obviously misunderstood. There are all sorts of interesting concepts and phrases, such as  'mode of production' which indicates different sectors of the social formation which relate together in a rather interesting way (I have another file on this).

For critical theorists, Marx's system was promising, but still not adequate. They thought it gave far too much emphasis to the economic sector and the way which it apparently determined activities in the other sectors. That was a limit on an adequate grasp of totality too. They particularly did not like a once-popular interpretation of Marx's work which saw the whole of social life as 'saturated' by class struggle rooted in economic life. This was an  'expressive totality', which explained everything far too simply and did not give due credit to the complexity of political and social life itself.

So what sort of totality do critical theorists actually want to sketch out for us? I have a file on Adorno which might amuse you -- here -- but it is a big question.To take one quick point from that file though (on Negative Dialectics), the emergence of new concepts shows clearly that there must be some totality producing material which the older concepts did not grasp - -whicc seems like a classic argument for 'critical realism' and its argument that reality must be complex enough to have produced different and equally plausible sociological approaches. 

While I go off and read much more material, you might want to bear this question in mind as you look at the contributions of critical theorists to the 'positivist dispute' itself.

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