Thursday, March 20, 2014


John Vandermeer

            In Wallerstein’s masterful “The Growth of Knowledge” he contrasts the “intent” of the various social sciences as on a scale ranging from nomothetic to ideographic. Depending on their history, particular social sciences locate their epistemological positions near to or far from Newton. The Newtonian revolution has been characterized, both adoringly and critically, as casting reality as a machine, thus providing a strong metaphor, known today as “mechanism,” that is thought to provide an understanding of that reality. Kant was the first to distinguish ways of knowing as falling into a dichotomous epistemology that later Kantians referred to as nomothetic versus ideographic, the natural sciences generally falling into the first category the social sciences into the second. Wallerstein takes issue with such a simple classification and notes that the continual tension between these two epistemologies has not been completely resolved in many of the social sciences. 
            Economics, for example, at the micro level seeks to establish a general theory on which all economic data can be rationalized, a nomothetic position, while at the macro level seeks to study the detail of particulars, real economic activities operating at some time and in some space, effectively an ideographic position. Sociology seeks general principles, theories that predict social phenomena much as the inverse square law predicts elliptical orbits, while anthropology elaborates the details of particular cultural formations. It is somewhat ironic that at their most basic level, sociology and anthropology seek to understand the same reality (human societies), yet their epistemologies have evolved along dramatically distinct pathways.
            A remarkably unusual field is history, idiosyncratically finding itself lodged neither in natural nor social sciences in most epistemological schema, but rather, somewhat incongruously categorized as a subject of the humanities. Nomothetic themes are certainly observable (e.g., Marx’s class struggle, Foucault’s discourse), but most practitioners are dramatically ideographic, struggling with the complicated socio/economic/politico/cultural structures that they use to construct their narratives.  And it is taken as a kind of badge of honor that those narratives are situated in the particularities of time and space and absolutely not to be squeezed into some nomothetic construct.
            There is little debate on this issue in the natural sciences, the assumption being that all are nomothetic. Research programs are normatively thought to be contained in some theoretical framework, and usually are so situated even when not explicitly stated as such.  Yet all would have to admit when viewing their field historically that it had its ideographic moments (precise positioning of the stars in early astronomy, collection of fossils in early evolutionary biology, random combinations of chemicals in alchemy, the precursor of chemistry).  The process of induction so readily acceptable at certain stages of the methodology of the natural sciences can be ideographic in practice if not ultimate intent. The process of developing theory and deducing predictions therefrom is, contrarily, clearly nomothetic.
            Ecology, as a natural science, is automatically assumed to have a nomothetic epistemology. Yet, most ecologists (at least those with direct connection to field work) acknowledge the complexity and contingency of the subject, frequently lamenting the fact that all ecological theories are spectacularly over simplified. Yet the underlying assumption is that there certainly must exist (in the same way the physicist assumes there certainly must exist) a machine that operates in precisely the same way as observed reality. That is, there is a “mechanism” that provides understanding of the reality, or at least that is the normal assumption. But does this nomothetic assumption accurately characterize what ecologists have been doing since their discipline was named by Haeckel in the late nineteenth century? And, more importantly, is the unquestioned assumption that ecological epistemology should be nomothetic a useful assumption? Can there be, should there be, an ideographic ecology? Would the current community of scholars self-identifying themselves as ecologists accept an ideographic epistemology as legitimate?  Or is their almost religious commitment to the Newtonian “machine” (their famous “mechanism”) a 100% effective firewall?
            I take my own prejudices as an example.  I believe (and the religious connotation is probably quite appropriate) that ecological communities are collections of coupled oscillators forced by periodic environmental conditions (Vandermeer, 2006; also see, especially, King and Shaffer, 1999), a hard-line nomothetic position (with about as much empirical support as string theory).  Yet my field work on the coffee agroecosystem emphasizes the contingent, the nonlinear, the stochastic, the particular, the temporary, the chaotic, in short, the ideographic storytelling which harkens to pre-Darwinian naturalists (e.g., Vandermeer et al., 2010; Perfecto and Vandermeer, 2014). Do I force everything I see into the coupled oscillator framework, thus creating a constraint on possible ways of envisioning what I see, or even preventing me to see what is before my eyes?  Or, do I utilize the coupled oscillator framework as a scaffolding to provide insight into my observations and interpretations of their deeper meanings? 


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