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 (there was no shared concept/understanding of those experiences yet. Language hadn’t gotten there yet). 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. 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.

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