Traditional Science in a World of Change

  • Kenneth J. Gergen
Part of the Springer Series in Social Psychology book series (SSSOC)


The contrasting experiences of permanence and change, of stability and flux, have furnished continuing challenges to human understanding since the origins of intellectual life. For over two thousand years, philosophers, theologians, poets, and scientists have struggled with the implications of this dichotomy. For the most part, treatises devoted to this topic have been characterized by a strong and consistent evaluative stance. The fluctuating and the ephemeral have typically emerged as problematic aspects of human experience, to be overcome by intellectual ingenuity or spiritual transcendence. In contrast, the search for permanence has often been invested with sanctity, whether it be in philosophy, science, religion, or the arts. In John Dewey’s words, “The conceptions that had reigned in the philosophy of nature and knowledge for two thousand years ... rested on the assumption of the superiority of the fixed and the final; they rested upon treating change and origin as signs of defect and unreality. (They laid) hands upon the sacred arc of absolute permanency” (1910, p. 46).


Natural Science Stimulus Condition Receive View Logical Empiricist Scientific Conduct 
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  1. 1.
    In Manis’ (1976a) words, it is the “researcher’s vision... that through inspiration, hard work, and continued financial support, [he or she] may discern some relatively stable regularities that appear and reappear” (p. 371).Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    As Ernest Nagel (1961) has commented in this regard, within the natural sciences “almost complete unanimity (is) commonly found among competent workers... as to what are matters of established fact, what are the reasonably satisfactory explanations (if any) for the assumed facts, and what are some of the valid procedures in sound inquiry” (p. 448). In contrast, Nagel points out, the social sciences are a “battleground for interminably warring schools of thought... even subject matter which has been under intensive and prolonged study remains at the unsettled periphery of research” (p. 448).Google Scholar
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    As Kemeny (1959) has formulated the discrepancy: “A typical law in the physical sciences is stated precisely, usually in mathematical terms, and is quite free of ambiguity. It has been tested repeatedly and has withstood the tests. The usual law in the social sciences, on the other hand, is ordinarily couched in Big Words and a great deal of ambiguity. The law is usually presented with many qualifications and excuses.... The law in the physical sciences has enabled us to deduce precisely certain predictions which have been verified. While predictions have been attributed to the social law, the chances are that they simply reflect prejudices or common-sense knowledge of the authors of the law, and that these predictions have not been deduced from the law itself” (pp. 244–245). Farrell (1975) has also commented on the “notorious fact that psychologists have not unearthed many satisfactory or invulnerable law like generalizations” (p. 253).Google Scholar
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    Dismay over the accumulation of knowledge in psychology is hardly difficult to locate. For example, as the editor of a seven-volume study of the state of psychological knowledge, Sigmund Koch has summarized, “Consider the hundreds of theoretical formulations, rational equations and mathematical models of the learning process that have accrued; the thousands of research studies. And now consider that there is still no wide agreement, even at the crassest descriptive level, on the empirical conditions under which learning takes place” (Koch, 1959, p. 731). In the field of personality psychology, Lee Sechrest (1976) has compared the major issues of study over a ten-year period and asked: “Now why have the themes changed? If it were because issues have been resolved, because important phenomena are now so well understood that they no longer merit attention, it would be cause for encouragement-rejoicing perhaps. Alas, one cannot escape the conclusion that investigators ran out of steam, that issues were abandoned, and that problems were never resolved” (p. 26). Similarly, in reviewing the nearly three hundred studies on individual versus group risk taking, Dorwin Cartwright (1973) concludes: “After 10 years of research (the) original problem remains unsolved. We still do not know how the risk-taking behavior of ‘real-life’ groups compares with that of individuals” (p. 3). In cognitive psychology, Allen Newell (1973) has commented on the “ever increasing pile of issues in cognitive psychology which we weary of or become diverted from but never really settle” (p. 289). As Brewster Smith (1972) has commented, “After three decades of industrious and intelligent effort, the case for cumulative advance in experimental social psychology remains open to reasonable doubt” (p. 88). And Clara Mayo (1977) has said of contemporary social psychology, “Few theoretical formulations of any power have emerged and few of the empirical findings have proved replicable or generalizable beyond the college sophomore for whom they were developed.”Google Scholar
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    As process-oriented thinkers since the time of Heraclitus often maintain, all nature is in flux (cf. Browning, 1965). That which we take to be stability or endurance is solely conceptual; that is, it depends on abstracting from ongoing experience certain particulars. Critics of this position argue that it is equally defensible to maintain that ongoing experience is made up of a succession of stable states—much as a motion picture is composed of a series of still pictures. There would appear to be no simple way of resolving this antinomy. The present position rests on the assumption that, for all practical purposes, people can come to virtually univocal agreement through a process of observation and referential pointing that certain features, objects, or properties are more enduring or stable than others.Google Scholar
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    Anyone believing that the only safe road to a predictive science is that of population (as opposed to individual) study will be sobered by surveying the widespread attempts at economic forecasting. To cite but one instance, Bernholz (1981) has reviewed the relative merits of a variety of econometric models of exchange rate fluctuations. As he shows, such “models tried to explain exchange rate fluctuations as a consequence of such factors as lagged values of relative money supplies, price levels, industrial products or their changes and interest rate differentials. The expost results estimates seemed to be quite convincing from an econometric point of view, but led to very disappointing ex ante predictions when used about two years later for the developments after the time for which they had been estimated” (Bernholz, 1981, p. 2). As Bernholz goes on to describe, the new predictive models, which are widely corroborated, are based on the assumption that because “new information can only arrive randomly and unpredictably, exchange rates will only fluctuate randomly and independently; they will follow a random walk” (p. 2).Google Scholar
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    For a sensitive examination of the grounds for human reflexivity see Rychlak (1980). The present analysis could also be reformulated in a number of ways (including the language of operant theory). In the present case, the thrust of the argument does not fully depend on adopting the voluntarist assumption of self-reflexiveness and creativity. One could also employ, here, a mechanistic model of human conceptual activity with the same outcome. For example, if one argues that the conceptual system is in a continuous state of consistency striving, and to achieve such consistency combines concepts in novel patterns (through principles of randomization, frequency of association, antonym selection, and so on), it can also be concluded that the individual is a semiautonomous originator of novel conceptual schemas.Google Scholar
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    This is to agree with Stryker (1977) that because humans live in interdependent networks there are limits governing the range of activity in which they engage, and thus a certain degree of reliability in behavior is guaranteed at any given point in history. However, there is little to warrant Stryker’s contention that by moving from the laboratory to the broader social context the resulting generalizations will gain transhistorical predictive capacities. Laboratory behavior may be more stable for certain periods than common behavior in the social network.Google Scholar
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    Quantum physics may appear to be an exception. However, as London and Poltoratsky (1958) point out, in quantum physics, “The experiment is recognized as an essential interference in the order or disorder of things, so that resulting theory is a theory of interferences, as it were, rather than one of a so-called objective world whose composition, after interference effects have been ‘cancelled out’ or ‘adjusted for’ can be pieced together mosiac-like from the data of experiments” (P. 272).Google Scholar
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    Although Popper’s work is frequently used as support by those who defend the positivist-empiricist position in the sociobehavioral sciences, certain of his arguments are uncongenial to this viewpoint. Similar to the position put forth here, for example, Popper (1957) has argued that human history is influenced by the growth of new knowledge. However, the growth of new knowledge itself cannot be predicted. As a result, one cannot predict the future course of society. No comparable restriction need be placed over physical science predictions. Growth of knowledge concerning the solar system will not affect its structure.Google Scholar
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    In much the same vein Giddens (1976) has proposed, “The concepts and theories produced in the natural sciences quite regularly filter into lay discourse and become appropriated as elements of everyday frames of reference. But this is of no relevance, of course, to the world of nature itself; whereas the appropriation of technical concepts and theories invented by social scientists can turn them into constituting elements of that very subject matter they were coined to characterize, and by that token alter the context of their application. This relation of reciprocity between commonsense and technical theory is a peculiar, but eminently interesting feature of sociology” (p. 79). As the present analysis will attempt to demonstrate (Chpts. 2 & 3), reciprocity is far more than “interesting.” It may play an integral role in the construction of a new scientific paradigm.Google Scholar
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    In a series of challenging studies Newtson and his colleagues (Newtson, 1973; Newtson, Enquist, & Boris, 1977) have advanced the position that behavioral units are naturally segmented. Specifically, they argue that separate units of action are perceived when there is a distinctive change in the movement of the body. These “natural units” of perception, it is ventured, might form the basis for an objectively based system of classifying behavior. Such speculation would appear misleading. Although distinctive changes in movement may serve as cues for distinguishing certain actions from others, it would be a mistake to argue that such bodily alterations constitute the basis of the behavioral vocabulary of the culture. First, such an account is at a loss to explain such descriptive terms as honesty, hope, help, hindrance, happiness, and so on. There are simply no bodily movements clearly designated by such terms. We shall explore this point in greater detail in the next chapter. Second, there are many person descriptors that seem to be used upon the occasion of multiple changes in bodily movements (viz. serving a tennis ball, peddling a bicycle, doing the tango, laughing). Such terms do not seem to represent composites constructed from simpler, more discrete units, as there are no generally available names for all the separable movements constituting the molar activity.Google Scholar
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    As Scriven (1974), Snow (1962) and others have pointed out, all science is inherently valuational. And, such values may have a substantial effect on the outcomes of research (Mitroff, 1974; Phillips, 1973). The major problem faced by the socio-behavioral sciences, however, is that such values can affect the patterns they seek to understand.Google Scholar
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    As E. A. Burtt (1957) has written in another context, “what sort of order is discovered depends primarily on the sort that scientists aggressively look for, and what they look for depends in turn on the further ends which, consciously or unconsciously, they want their explanations to serve” (p. 103).Google Scholar
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    On similar grounds, Ingleby (1974) has criticized much theory and research on child development. In such inquiry, the child is abstracted from particular social and economic processes and thus such processes are ignored—which is to render unspoken support to the current conditions. In an analysis of psychology in the People’s Republic of China, Ching (1980) has also demonstrated how such arguments have played an active role in determining the character of the profession over the past twenty years. For example, traditional psychological study largely collapsed under the political accusation that to abstract psychological processes from economic class considerations was politically harmful pseudoscience.Google Scholar
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    See also Wexler’s (1982) critique of the individualistic-economic bias of social pyschological theories of social attraction, and their insensitivity to the broader social and historical circumstances.Google Scholar
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    Of interest to social psychologists in this context is Argyris’ (1980) critique of attribution theory. Such theory typically portrays the individual as a “silent-perceiver,” proposes Argyris, who goes about the cognitive task of synthesizing information and emerges with a deductive understanding of another’s motives, dispositions, etc. As Argyris points out, such a model operates as a desideratum for the public and with poor consequence. Says Argyris of this account of interpersonal understanding, “There is little openness, little sharing of motives, little expression of feeling, little consideration of others as resources for gaining knowledge about interpersonal relationships, etc.” (p. 64).Google Scholar
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    Many have argued that one of the most critical aspects of the behavioral sciences is their masking of the ideological interests of the research by laying claim to objectivity. Claims of objective truth are thus used to rationalize an enhanced position of authority or power (cf. Weimer’s 1979 discussion of “justificationism”). To claim objectivity in the behavioral sciences is thus a tactic for social or public control.Google Scholar
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    As Scheibe (1979) has argued, “The concept of a universalized human science cannot allow a true peerage or equality between the subject and object of study” (p. 151). To adopt the metaphor of the natural scientist in dealing with human beings is thus inherently to place a distance between subject and object. It is largely on those grounds that investigators (cf. Sommer, 1980) have attempted to develop dialogic methods-methods of study that reintroduce peerage in the research domain. The attempt is to ensure that all participants in the research process stand to gain equally in the dialogue. Similarly, Knight (1978) has called for the development of “good faith” research programs. Good faith inquiry would attempt to make the observer-participant relationship explicit, thereby making the context of conclusions and interpretations apparent to research participants.Google Scholar
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    It is in this context that Parisi, Castilfranchi, and Benigni (1976) have called for a full, explicit analysis of the ideological and political implications of social psychological inquiry.Google Scholar
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    In this context, Cronbach’s (1975) lament over the transhistorical reliability of research findings in psychology is worth quoting at length: “Ghiselli (1974) suggested that even such a reliable finding as the superiority of distributed practice over massed practice may not remain valid from one generation to another. Similarly, J. W. Atkinson (1974) pointed out that when a substantial relation is found between personality variables, it describes only the model personality of a particular society at a particular time in history (p. 408). He went on to say: ‘I believe that the early success of Lewin et al. (1944) in the study of level of aspiration can be attributed largely to the fact that their subject samples, drawn from in the decades prior to World War II, were homogeneously high in achievement and low in anxiety.’ (p. 409). Of a piece with this observation is the recognition that the California F Scale is obsolescent (Ghiselli, 1974; Lake, Miles, & Earle, 1973). The 25-year old research supporting its construct validity gives us little warrant for interpreting scores today because with new times the items carry new implications. Perhaps the best example of all is Bronfenbrenner’s (1958) backward look at research comparing middle-class and lower-class parenting. Class differences observed in the 1950s were sometimes just the reverse of what had been observed in 1930. Generalizations decay. At one time a conclusion describes the existing situation well, at a later time it accounts for rather little variance, and ultimately it is only valid as history.” (pp. 122–123)Google Scholar
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    In Cronbach’s (1975) words, “The trouble, as I see it, is that we cannot store up generalizations and constructs for ultimate assembly into a network. It is as if we needed a gross of dry cells to power an engine and could only make one a month. The energy would leak out of the first cells before we had half the battery completed” (p. 123).Google Scholar
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    The extent to which the present analysis may be termed “historicist” depends on one’s definition of the term. The present analysis is not historicist in Popper’s sense of the term, emphasizing as it does historical predictability. Nor is it historicist within Fichte’s view (with its emphasis on singular ideas in multiple manifestations across time), the view of late 19th century economics (with its emphasis on purely descriptive analysis of economic systems in varying historical periods), nor within the framework of those desiring to understand all phenomena historically. However, the present analysis does share in the historicist arguments of Feurbach against sciences that accept uncritically the universality of existing patterns; and it is in accord with Troeltsch’s historicist contention that human ideas and ideals are subject to continuous alteration; with Herder’s emphasis on the historical embeddedness of religion, science and philosophy; and with Weber’s arguments against the value neutrality of historical analysis. The roots of the present thesis in what is often termed “process philosophy” (cf. Browning, 1965) should also be noted.Google Scholar
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    Byrne and his colleagues (Byrne, 1971) have been bold enough to term the similarity-attraction hypothesis an “empirical law.” Specifically it is proposed that “the attraction response (Y) of any subject toward a stranger can be predicted by multiplying 5.44 times the proportion of attitudes (X) expressed by the stranger that are similar to those of the subject, and then adding a constant of 6.62” (Byrne &Kelley, 1981, p. 314).Google Scholar
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    Particulars in this case must be understood as conceptual, that is, as depending on the ontological constructions of human conduct discussed above. To the extent that such constructions also differ from one period to another, the accumulation of knowledge across time is rendered the more problematic. The patterns of human conduct in one period of history would simply be incommensurate with those in other periods as the constituent features would be different. Essentially the comparison would be equivalent to testing laws about motor cars with laws about grapefruit growth. In Nagel’s (1961) terms, “If social laws or theories are to formulate relations of dependence that are invariant throughout the wide range of cultural differences manifested in human action, the concepts entering into those laws cannot denote characteristics occurring in just one special group of societies” (p. 465). We shall return to this problem in the following chapter.Google Scholar
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    As noted earlier, the assumption of the experimentum crucis has long been abandoned in the philosophy of science in favor of a holistic orientation in which entire programs of research are evaluated empirically as opposed to individual cases (see also Forsyth, 1976). The present arguments (and those of Chapter 2) indicate that even this option is closed in the case of behavioral study.Google Scholar
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    An illustration of this problem in contemporary research is manifest in debate over Seligman’s (1975) theory of learned helplessness. In Seligman’s initial formulation real world variations in the controllability of events were said to affect subsequent problem solving ability and activity level in both animal and human populations. However, Abramson, Seligman and Teasdale (1978) revised the initial formulation by adding a variety of cognitive mechanisms intervening between the real-world contingency and the resulting responses. Specifically, it was argued, persons must perceive noncontingency, make certain attributions regarding it, and anticipate its continuation. Yet, this shift from real-world variations to perceived variations raises severe problems for the testability of the theory. People are fundamentally free to perceive contingencies or noncontingencies in any environment. Thus, variations in real-world contingencies (1) may have little to do with the behavior of the organisms and (2) may be viewed as idiosyncratic constructions of the investigator (i.e., reflective only of his view of contingency) and thus only “real-world” by the investigator’s convention. As Wortman and Dintzer (1978) properly point out, the revised theory is not clearly subject to test. Schwartz (1981) has demonstrated similar difficulties with the attempt to extend Seligman’s revised theory to the domain of depression.Google Scholar
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    As Kenneth Boulding (1965) has commented in this respect, “the social sciences are creating a world in which national loyalty and the national state can no longer be taken for granted as sacred institutions, in which religion has to change profoundly its views on the nature of man and sin, in which family and affection become a much more self-conscious and less simple-minded affair, and in which indeed, all ethical systems are profoundly desacralized” (p. 886). Also see Cronbach and Suppes(1969).Google Scholar
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    Grünberg and Modigliani and others (cf. Buck, 1963) are quite aware of this problem, and argue that predictions and reactions may frequently converge—thus converting the problem of reflexivity to a technical matter. In a similar vein, Harris (1976) has argued that one should not be so concerned by the problem of infinite regress. One may develop more general theories delineating the circumstances under which the changes in behavior of the system dictated by the nth cycle of the regress become vanishingly small. As he points out, game theorists have been concerned with such problems for some time. An equilibrium point could be reached, for example, between a pitcher and a batter, each of whom attempts to use their knowledge of the other’s previous tactics to gain advantage over the other? In an attempt to solve this type of problem, game theorists von Neumann and Morgenstern have attempted to demonstrate that in the zero sum game, opposing players will reach equilibrium if they begin to think in terms of probabilistic strategies rather than restricting themselves to deterministic responses to the preceding move of the opponent. However, as we find, such arguments are only as strong as the conditions of choice are constrained. In the more common case, one possesses far wider latitude of choice than furnished in the typical experimental gaming situation or the limited economic model-including the choice of not choosing, or of creating entirely novel options not given within the initial norms of exchange. Even in baseball a pitcher may abandon concern with striking out the batter in favor of other ends (e.g., granting a base on balls to pitch to the opposing pitcher) or develop new goals (such as pitching balls that would cause the batter to loft easy catches into the outfield). In effect, people are seldom playing only one game with a fixed endpoint.Google Scholar
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    Cherulnik (1981) has joined in the above defense of traditional experimentation by arguing that discrepancies among experimental findings, along with variations in mediating mechanisms, do not discredit the process of experimentation. Rather, each new finding represents a contribution to a more complex and more generally valid theory. As we shall see in the following chapter, what stand as experimental outcomes are not, in fact, objective data but samples of interpretive language. Thus, experiments do not essentially yield objective support for general theories. However, within the confines of the present analysis, the point is that virtually any social stimulus may be associated with virtually any form of subsequent activity, and with a potentially infinite range of mediators. Thus, which particular patterns and which particular mediators are operating in any given experiment at any given time is historically contingent. Thus, even if one grants the possibility of objective evidence, the very most an experiment could yield is a localized indication of the array of historically located dispositions.Google Scholar
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    For refutations of the contention that all particulars can be viewed as “bundles of universals” or “collections of universal properties,” see Armstrong (1978). However, Armstrong’s counterthesis, that there are “objective” universals and that these are discoverable by science, seems, without advancing a means for such discovery, a vain hope in search of substance.Google Scholar
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    Toulmin(1972) attacks the assumption of universals of thought or mental process on the grounds that such an assumption is anti-evolutionary. As he demonstrates, many abstract concepts (including mathematical) once appearing to be universal were developed and abandoned according to historical exigencies.Google Scholar
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    Relevant is Godow’s (1976) observation: “It is hard to see what sort of evidence would clearly establish the existence of transhistorical laws” (p. 442).Google Scholar
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    It is this problem that also confounds the numerous attempts to catalogue cultural universals. For example, in his attempt to enumerate cultural universals, Fox (1971) argues that all cultures, even if wholly isolated from one another, would be found to have language, laws about property, incest rules, myths, neuroses, and dancing. Such activities would be found, “because we are the kind of animal that does these things” (p. 284). Murdock (1945) lists seventy-three universal items, including bodily adornment, joking, family, trade, dream interpretation, and so on. Westcott (1970) offers a list of forty-eight human traits that are also shared by animals; Malinowski (1944) calls for “seven cultural imperatives” and Goldschmidt (1966) asserts that there are three essential universals of human cultures. It would appear that such lists may either be expanded indefinitely (in all cultures people use their index fingers, look into the air, do not remain forever in the same spot, etc.) or contracted, depending on one’s skills in search and conceptualization. In the case of search, a single instance of an event could presumably qualify the culture as “in possession” (if the performance were solely that of a one-legged tap dance, the culture might be said to possess dance), and presumably, one could discount the vast percentage of the culture and the vast share of time in which the event was not in evidence.Google Scholar
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    In the search for universals, much has been made of the distinction between emic constructs (those of a culture under study) and etic ones (those used by the scientist to make generalizations across cultures). The emic constructs are thus viewed as culture bound, while the etic are employed to build universal theories (cf. Brislin, 1980). Yet, from the present perspective, the distinction may be viewed as spurious. Etic is essentially another name for the emic distinctions of the scientist. To argue that they are more functionally valuable in the building of science runs the danger of ethnocentrism.Google Scholar
  46. 54.
    Some might wish to point to universals of language as grounding evidence for transhistorical lawfulness in human activity. To cite a major example, Greenberg (1966) lists 45 language universals. Among them, we find that, “In declarative sentences with nominal subject and object, the dominant order is almost always one in which the subject precedes the object” (p. 77), and, “If there are any gender distinctions in the plural of the pronoun, there are some gender distinctions in the singular also” (p. 96). Yet as these examples suggest, such uniformities are but poor support for a belief in the necessary patterning of human activity. In the first instance above we find not a true universal but a statistical tendency. Further, one rapidly recognizes the historical contingency of such universals by considering languages (either artificial or contrived) in which the rule is violated but communicative competency is retained. (In German one might make exclusive use of the S-O-V form as opposed to the more universally favored S-V-O sentence form and retain full linguistic efficacy.) As suggested by the second instance above, many of the so-called universals also seem to represent common modes of problem solving and not genetic necessities. People in virtually all climes may simply find certain solutions to practical problems more effective than others, and their languages thus acquire a family resemblance. To suggest that such resemblances were indicative of genetic programming would be similar to arguing that it is human nature for persons living near the water to employ means of flotation, or for all persons living in frigid zones to build shelters or dress warmly. People must surely share certain innate capacities in discerning classes of problems and reaching common solutions. In this case it seems clear that the innate mechanisms facilitate a broad array of possibilities, but fail to demand the endpoint. For a useful critique of Chomsky’s (1968) concept of innate knowledge of language, see Cooper (1975).Google Scholar
  47. 55.
    Murdock (1945) properly contends, “Universals are not to be found in a search for exactly the same habits around the world” (p. 142).Google Scholar
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    The position adopted within this section is far more congenial to philosophic nominalism than to realism, insofar as the former is committed to the existence of particulars while holding universals to be second order constructions. In effect, the present arguments place the burden of proof on those wishing to establish universals as matters of fact (cf. Armstrong, 1978). However, the present position is not to be equated with any form of nominalism that views person descriptors as standing in a one to one relationship with particulars, a point that will be clarified in the following chapter.Google Scholar
  49. 57.
    Schlenker’s (1974) argument for solution through abstraction holds that theories should be stated in sufficiently abstract terms that they can incorporate the particulars of any given historical period. However, theories of this sort are without empirical content. They fail to have predictive power, and remain essentially empty of implication until tied operationally to the specifics of a given era. One might, for example, imagine sets of alegebraic equations as forming the content-free abstractions. Such equations in themselves are unpredictive and uninformative. They gain power in each count only when tied to particulars, and it is on this level that the argument for historical dependency rests. For further criticism and commentary of Schlenker’s position on abstraction see Godow (1976) and Hendrick (1976). For a general analysis of the incompatibility of seeking both generality and predictability in the same theory, see Thorngate (1976).Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer-Verlarg New York Inc. 1982

Authors and Affiliations

  • Kenneth J. Gergen
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of PsychologySwarthmore CollegeSwarthmoreUSA

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