Relinquishing the quest for certainty in the social sciences (or learning from the coronavirus crisis)

Posted by Alice Hoad - Tuesday, 5 May 2020


In a crisis, human beings have an understandable desire for certainty. The horror of the coronavirus pandemic has created a phalanx of experts who come on to our screens and airwaves to provide answers about how to respond. There is so much at stake and the quest for certainty is palpable.

And yet, living through the arrival and spread of Covid-19 also tells us that there is nothing certain. Everything is contested, from understanding its origins (in a wet market or a lab in China), to its transmission (at less than 2 meters or not), to its management (lockdown or herd immunity) and its impact (why some people die and others remain asymptomatic). As such, the coronavirus pandemic tells us a lot about the human condition.

We live in an unpredictable world; it is full of surprises (good and bad). We also suffer from what John Dewey called the ‘quest for certainty’; even when there are no firm answers, we inevitably search for the truth. In reality, we have to make our decisions through trial and error, argument and counter-argument, seeing what works. As a result, ‘truth’ is discovered through practice and the consequences of ideas. Even though we may want to blame ‘the government’ or ‘the President’ for what happens, deep-down we know it is more complicated than that. Nobody knows and we would do a better job at decision-making by involving more people, in a wider range of situations, in the deliberation. Part of the puzzle of why a country like Germany has survived the pandemic better than other places may well turn upon the federal and decentralised nature of their political and healthcare systems. This allows more people to get involved with more space for experiment, across the range of geographical contexts in the society.

In this regard, the coronavirus pandemic exposes the need for pragmatism in our understanding of the production and impact of knowledge in society. Newly published by Manchester University Press this week, an edited collection called The power of pragmatism outlines the origins and implications of this way of thinking for a range of professions from social science to cartography, urban management and planning, environmental stewardship and development. The book challenges the ‘quest for certainty’ that has plagued the search for a life well-lived. Rather than learning to adapt to, and even embrace, the unpredictability of human life, social scientists – amongst others (although they are the prime target of this book) – retain an unhealthy search for the ‘truth’. All too often, academic practice starts from the ‘answer’ – drawn from the latest theoretical sourcebook – and finds the data or case study to back up that ‘truth’. A priori ideas and categories shape what is valorised and discussed. While this academic labour process has already been the target of some forms of post-structuralism that highlight the power-laden discourses that drive representation, many in the academy have adopted the new post-structural lexicon to provide a new round of ‘truth’. ‘Governmentality’, ‘post-politics’ and ‘assemblage’ are the latest concepts to afflict the pages of academic journals and while all have their origins in new thinking and a practical application, they have quickly become disembodied artefacts of an academic system that reinforces itself.

Delivered in simpler language, The power of pragmatism goes one-step further than the post-structuralists did in alerting us to the dangers of identifying the ‘truth’. The chapters make a convincing case for adopting a new practice for the process of knowledge production, rather than adopting a new armoury of concepts. Rooted in the pragmatic philosophy that emerged in America after the horrors of the civil war, just over 100 years ago, this practice is an adaptation of Dewey’s notion of social inquiry.

When people come to what Peirce called a ‘fork in the road’, when we don’t know which way to go, we need to rethink our direction, query our habits, and work with others to find the best thing to do. Reflecting our sociality and the democratic character of the societies in which we live, this inquiry needs to engage all those affected in order to find new ways to proceed. If this approach were embedded in the social sciences, it would demand a new way of doing business and the book’s introduction makes the case for a ‘pragmatic orientation’ to social science. This pragmatic approach would require activity that is: (1) embedded in a particular community (of whatever scale); (2) alert to the diversity of opinion and the reasons for such beliefs; (3) generating ideas for experimentation to solve pressing concerns; and (4) focused on ongoing debate. As the book states: “Pragmatism is a clarion call to connect research to community” (31).

Although the coronavirus pandemic may push us away from the insights of pragmatism towards a quest for certainty, centralisation and top-down command, this timely book makes the case for the alternative. The book champions uncertainty, decentralisation and the democratisation of decision-making. It makes the case for pragmatism as an idea whose time has come (again).

By Jane Wills

Jane Wills is Professor of Geography at the Centre for Geography and Environmental Science and the Environment and Sustainability Institute at the University of Exeter.



The power of pragmatism: Knowledge production and social inquiry, edited by Jane Wills and Robert Lake, is available to buy now.



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