Mapping out weak theory, navigating strong transformation (Part 2)

In our last blog post (which was the first in this series to explore the meaning of a ‘post-capitalist politics’ and a ‘weak theory’ approach) we briefly outlined the target of a weak theory approach: positivist economics. This post will explain what we see to be the major flaw in the positivist turn: the ‘naturalization’ of philosophical assumptions. Naturalization here means that the particular beliefs (or philosophical assumptions) that form the basis of a theory are said not to be particular beliefs at all, but to be universal laws. In other words, as positivists naturalize their assumptions, they claim to be able to explain the ‘true nature’ of how humans behave economically. In our understanding, this naturalization turns positivist economics from a social science into a political project. In order to make this more clear, we will use the analogy of a map and map projections to illustrate the problems with this approach of ‘universalizing’ and ‘naturalizing’ a particular set of beliefs. We will conclude by arguing that the theories we use can get closer to reality by drawing on a diverse variety of ‘map projections’.

But first, let’s briefly review what we mean by a theory, and discuss the ‘shadow’ that we see to follow all theories: disagreement.

What is a theory anyways?

Place your finger along the edge of the two boxes to find out that our brain processes colours depending on what it expects to see as a logical casting of shadows.

Place your finger along the edge of the two boxes to find out that our brain processes colours depending on what it expects to see as a logical casting of shadows.

Simply put, theories are tools for making sense of the world.  By observing the ways that different objects relate to one another and interact, we all form judgements which help us to understand, organize and simplify the complexity of the world around us.  These theories, then, help us to shape our decisions of how we should behave and act. We understand theories as tools that are not only developed from our observing the world around us, but also as tools with which we further shape that world in turn.  Language structures, for instance, are not only a means for communicating. They also shape the way we perceive the world around us. Structuralist thinkers would argue that languages provide us with a specific set of lenses.  These lenses are like glasses that shape the way we see the world. For example, the color spectrum is described differently by different languages. The Japanese "ao" represents both the green and the blue colors for an English speaker. This is due to the fact that human psychology works in the direction to simplify things. This is done (almost automatically) by our mind: we create models and patterns of interpretation that do not fully correspond to the complexity of the real world around us. These theories are then further complicated by disagreement.

The shadow of theories: disagreement

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We don’t have to look far in order to observe that people disagree -- sometimes intensely -- about how to make sense of the world.  Politics is the way that we organize and negotiate this disagreement, and make decisions about how we can coordinate our interdependent activities.  Recognizing this disagreement in the ways we theorize, along with the contribution of theories in shaping the world, we can see that there is nothing inevitable about politics.  Just think back to the last election that you participated in. If you disagreed with the result, did your disagreement go away when the results were made official? Likely not. Things could always be different. As a result of this inherent difference, diverse theories are always competing to shape the world in various ways.  

Economic positivists, by presuming that their assumptions are nothing but the natural order of things, reject the possibility that other scientific positions could falsify their theories. It must be noted, however, that falsifiability, is a key characteristic of Science (see, e.g. Karl Popper’s work). Other approaches, like behavioral economics, demonstrate with scientific insights from other disciplines like psychology that one of the core assumptions of mainstream economics, the rationality of individuals, is simply a false myth. Theories on social rationality and social networks (we're not talking about Facebook here...), as described by the new economic sociology, provide a radically different perspective to explain decision-making processes. The fact that the understanding of the same process — how an individual behaves economically — is logically seen in a completely different way by two scientific domains (mainstream and heterodox economics) proves how powerful theories can be in the way we interpret what is happening in the real world.

Let’s look to an example to illustrate how we can, quite literally, ‘see’ the world differently.  Someone with a strong theory that poverty is the result of laziness would likely not favor a program to give welfare support to the poor.  On the other hand, someone with a theory that poverty is the result of bad luck would likely favor such a program. Both theories may, in fact, contain some truth that applies to particular observable cases.  However, we would like to argue that this theoretical difference is necessarily not based on which perspective is objectively correct. Nor is it necessarily the result of ‘the other side’ being either illogical or immoral.  The difference, we argue, is based on where we (choose) to direct our focus, and what kinds of ‘error’ we are willing to accept.

Therefore, we will also argue that in order to make the best decisions about how to coordinate our interdependent activities in politics, it is important to be informed by arguments from several theories, or ways of ‘seeing’ the world.  This inclusion of disagreement and diversity of interpretations and practices is called ‘pluralism’. The analogy of maps can help to illustrate how the ‘universalizing’ or ‘naturalizing’ of one particular theory can give us a distorted view of reality.

Using maps to ‘demystify’ our personal theories


A map, much like a theory, is a tool that we use to navigate through the world.  Maps are also similar to theories in that the mapmaker must choose a ‘projection’ in order to display a particular map to a map user.  Projections are necessary because the world is a round sphere and the media we use to view the map -- whether it is paper or a screen -- is usually flat.  For the sake of our analogy, these projections are much like the ‘philosophical assumptions’ in theory, which we mentioned above.

Now, when a mapmaker chooses which projection to use, they acknowledge that their selection will represent some features better than others.  It is for this reason that programs like Google Maps use a variety of map projections in order to generate a ‘composite’ map that is used to give you directions to your grandma’s house.  For example, a map that represents distance very accurately might compromise the accuracy of the geometric angles between the cities when you view the map on your smartphone. Alternatively a mapmaker who wants to represent the shape of countries accurately, may compromise the accuracy of the distance between those two countries as it appears on the map.  In short, each projection that is chosen represents one aspect quite accurately, while distorting the appearance of other aspects. This effect is increased as the area the map represents becomes larger (just like when a particular theory tries to explain things in a ‘universal’ way). Let’s illustrate with a visual example.

On the top image, we have a screenshot image from Google Maps with the American states Alaska and Texas circled.  Now, if you look closely at the image from Google Maps, Alaska appears to be much, much larger than Texas. Texas could seemingly fit into Alaska several times.  This is, however, an illusion of the particular map’s projection. The image on the bottom shows Texas overlaid onto Alaska, without such an extreme distorted effect. Although it may appear much larger in the image on the top, we can see that the state of Alaska is really only about 2 times the size of Texas.

Recognizing that all maps are ‘wrong’ in different ways, certainly does not mean that we should get rid of them.  Maps have helped us to navigate through uncharted territories throughout history, and today continue to help us find our way around new cities.  However, what this recognition has hopefully made clear in our analogy, is that it is important to acknowledge that maps always use projections that cannot fully represent the earth’s geography in single frame, just like we always use philosophical assumptions or beliefs that cannot be fully explained with just rational arguments.  If any of these projections were used alone, they would produce a distorted view of the world.  When applying this to theories, the meaning of ‘weak theory’ becomes more clear: We need to use theories in order to navigate through the world and to make decisions; but we need to be constantly aware that we are using a ‘projection’.  This awareness includes an appreciation for the fact that the way we understand the social world influences the way the social world is shaped, and underscores that things could always be different.



Main picture map source:

Wytfliet's Map of the World 1598 (487K). From The Scottish Geographical Magazine Vol. XVI, No. 1, 1900. Retrieved from: https://legacy.lib.utexas.edu/maps/historical/history_world.html

Further recommended reading:

Gibson-Graham, J. K., Cameron, J., & Healy, S. (2013). Take Back the Economy: An Ethical Guide for Transforming Our Communities. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Wolff, R. D., & Resnick, S. A. (1987). Economics: Marxian versus Neoclassical. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Harvey, D. (2005). A Brief History of Neoliberalism. Oxford University Press.

Mouffe, C. (2000). The Democratic Paradox. London & New York: Verso.