Meta-theory: Hermeneutic, Post-Positivism, and Critical Theory

Theory, in a very general sense, is the system of ideas used to explain something. This post will be to explore some of theory behind theories: meta-theory.

The goal of theory is to direct your research. Theory generates questions. This is different than the Theory of relativity for example, which is an explanation for a certain phenomena. Theories derive from the theorists who believe differently about the social world and the nature of knowledge.

Here are three theories we can focus on for this post:

  • Hermeneutic theory
  • Post-positivist theory
  • Critical theory

Each one of these theories is made up of these components, some of which are clearer than others:

  • Ontology- What is possible to know; the nature of reality
  • Epistemology- How we know what we know about the nature of reality
  • Axiology- What the researcher holds to be valuable
  • Goals/Questions Answered

To help make talking about meta-theory a little bit easier, let’s focus on a particular topic, the social sciences for instance.

Generally, our society has decided that scientific method is the most valuable tool for reality and explanation- for obtaining objective truth. This becomes tricky when science hits the social world, because science doesn’t necessarily work well with human behavior (in a macro sense), which is hard to quantity and unpredictable.

This system (or theory rather) of explaining the world through the scientific method is called post-positivism. The ontology of post-positivism is observable, causal relationships, and systematic patterns, with the endgame being to explain, predict, and control. An example which plays out particularly well in a marketing sense. If you can explain the effect of violent content on people, then you can predict their behavior, and consequently control it. The latter becomes especially relevant during war time, which perhaps ironically was responsible for some of the most influential communications research in the mid 20th century.

Critical theory asks a totally different question, and speculates on societal values and beliefs. It challenges the status quo and brings about social change. It believes that over time society has brewed a certain set of ideas, and it’s not interested in the origin story- it’s interested in the now. It’s interested in why women in the workplace in the 1950s weren’t able to express what we would now call sexual harassment. The ontology of critical theory is socially constructed, historically specific knowledge. And we know this when media reveals marginalized voices. For example, a movie like Obvious Child (Gillian Robespierre, 2014) looks at the behavior of women and urban attitudes surrounding abortion, specifically in New York, in the 2010s.

Hermeneutics requires the researcher to observe and experience in order to understand what role media plays in people’s lives. It seeks to understand, not generate generalized claims. For example, looking at fans of the Grateful Dead; how they live, how they act, why they like the band, how they identify, how they relate with other fans. Using hermeneutic theory, you couldn’t make claims about all music fans based off of our observations, but you could describe them in an attempt to understand and communicate that understanding. Or in other words, it’s not explaining the worldview of a Deadhead, it’s helping someone understand the world from the perspective of a Deadhead. For the ontology of hermeneutic theory is people’s perceptions- their subjective experiences.

The word theory doesn’t even look like a word anymore.

Lots of different ways to process information and conduct research. I feel that the way we process information has an impact on some of the most important aspects of our lives. Religion, politics- how we interpret reality, what we feel is knowable- it’s pretty significant. I feel as if it is also a source of tension. It’s hard to communicate when one person operates under the reality of subjective experience is truth, compared to someone who believes that systematic patterns are ultimate reality.


The Notebooks

Three years ago, I tried something new and began to carry around a notebook in my back pocket.

This turned out to be more significant than one would think (I have received more comments about carrying my passport around than an international student at the liquor store). Since that first day, I haven’t gone without one. It actually stresses me out not having a pen with me. In the beginning, the notebooks (how I eventually found myself referring to them) were more about dreams than anything. But they evolved into a means by which to organize my life. I began to realize how many thoughts and ideas I would have that were simply lost to time. I just couldn’t remember a line of poetry, or the name of a character for more than a few minutes. In hindsight, I’m not even sure I had any ideas before the notebooks. I can’t remember most of them.

Aside // So I’ve derailed my train of thought (the idea that I would write some sort of introduction to this blog [the thought of saying “I’m starting a blog” makes me cringe] in some interesting way. Get a good hook. Ooh, I’ll tell a story about the notebooks.) and I’m just going to be completely honest about what I’m thinking currently, because I feel like it serves as a decent picture of what the content of these notes will be, and therefore allow readers to decide whether or not they are a new audience member. But basically, by saying I’m not sure I had any ideas, due to the fact that I can’t remember them (the subtext being, without any data proving the existence of pre-notebook thought, there can be no pre-notebook thought) is a very silly thing to say. Now, when you’re talking about the theory of theories, you’re referring to meta-theory (I love meta humor, so you’d think I’d be more interested in meta-theory than I am. But here we are). One particularly dominant meta-theory is something called post-positivism (forget about positivism, we’re going straight to post). Post-positivist theory (research theories in general, really) is composed of several components: ontology (what is knowable), axiology (researcher’s bias/what is valuable to the researcher), epistemology (how we know stuff). Basically, you could fudge it a little, and instead of using it in a research context, you could use it in a real people context (because that’s way more interesting and important), and instead of calling it a research theory, you could call it a worldview of sorts. Now this worldview believes that objective truth can only be found through use of the scientific method- an idea which I have recently fallen out of love with (I’ll have to write more about this). So when I was trying to write a silly intro, and I write about not believing something exists because I don’t have any empirical data for it; I feel like I’m flip flopping. Which I am, and I will, and I always will most likely. This is sort of precisely why I think the idea of a “blog” is useless- I change my mind too much. I’m still a student, I’m still learning everything (Oh, but Wes! You’ll always be a student!), and the idea of spitting subjective opinions into a public time capsule doesn’t seem appealing. But I understand why it would be neat. So, I’m swallowing my pride, and I’m going to see how far I can go with this. Honestly, my goal is consistency. For my sake. Presently. I like the idea of forcing myself to develop new habits, so maybe this can be one of them. \\ End Aside

These notebooks mean a lot to me because thoughts mean a lot to me. And the reason I like notes is because they aren’t really complete, just how I am not really complete either. It’s hard to develop a systematic worldview while also being self critical. So these are the little pieces and notes of that journey (a systematic worldview is not necessarily my goal, so “journey” should be taken more as a figure of speech), and I hope that they maybe cause you to ask one more question than you would have otherwise.