A certain kind of application of social science and social science methods continues to be a really basic limit to our shared ability in modern societies to grapple with and potentially resolve serious problems. For more than a century, a certain conception of policy, government and the public sphere has been determined to banish the need for interpretation, for difficult arguments about values, for attention to questions of meaning, in understanding and addressing anything imagined as a “social problem”. This banishment is performed in order to move a social scientistic mode of thinking into place, to use methods and tools that allow singular causes or variables to be given weight in relation to a named social problem and then to be solved in order of their casual magnitude.
Certainly sometimes that analysis is multivariable. It may even occasionally draw upon systems thinking and resist isolating individual variables as something to resolve individually. But what is left outside the circle always are questions of meaning that require interpretation, that require philosophical or value-driven understanding, that can’t be weighted or measured with precision. Which is why in some sense technocratic governance, whether in liberal societies or more authoritarian ones, feels so emotionally hollow, so unpersuasive to many people, so clumsy. It knocks down the variables as they are identified, often causing new problems that were not predicted or anticipated. But it doesn’t understand in any deeper way what it is trying to grapple with.
I’ve suggested in the past that this is an unappreciated aspect of military suicides since 2001, that the actual content of American wars, the specific experiences of American soldiers, might be different than other wars, other experiences, and that difference in meaning, feeling, values might be a sufficient (and certainly necessary) explanation of suicide. But that conversation never floats up to the level of official engagement with the problem, and not merely because to engage it requires an official acknowledgement of moral problems, problems in meaning and values, with the unending wars that began in 2001. It’s because even if military and political leaders might have a willingness to consider it, they don’t have the tools. It’s not in the PowerPoints, in the graphs, in the charts. It’s in the hearts, the feelings, the things spoken and unspoken in the barracks and the bedrooms. It’s in the gap between the sermons and the town meetings on one hand and the memories of things done and said in the battlefield. No one has to say anything for that gap to yawn wide for a veteran or veteran’s family–it is there nevertheless.
Here’s another example: a report on “teen mental health deteriorating”. It’s a classic bit of social scientistic reason. Show the evidence that there is something happening. That’s fine! It’s useful and true. You cannot use interpretation or philosophy to determine that truth. But then, sort the explanations, weigh the variables, identify the most significant culprit. It’s the smartphones! It’s social media!
Even this is plausible enough and not without its uses. But the smartphone here is treated as causal in and of itself, with some hand-waving at social psychology and cognitive science. Something about screen time and sociality, about what we’re evolved to do and about what we do when our evolution drives us towards too much of something. What’s left out is the hermeneutics of social media, the meaning of what we say on it and in it. Because that’s too hard to understand, to package and graph, to proscribe and make policy about.
And yet, I think that’s a big part of what’s going on. It is not that we can say things to each other, so many others, so easily and so constantly. It is the content and meaning of what we say. The structures of feeling that follow from reading a stranger with no standing in your own life pronouncing authoritatively in the genre of a social-justice-oriented “explainer” that you are commanded to do something, feel something, compared to a person with great standing in your own life providing delicately threaded advice about a recent experience that you’ve had? Those are hugely divergent emotional and social experiences, they produce loops and architectures of sentiment. Reading people who hate you, threaten you, express a false intimacy with you, who decide to amplify or redirect something you’ve said? Those experiences have an impact on a reader (and on the capacity to speak) that rests on how their content (and authors) have meaning to the reader, often in minutely divergent and rapidly shifting ways.
We blunder not in our diagnosis of a problem (teen mental health is more fragile) or even in roughly understanding an important cause. We blunder in our proposed solution: take away the smartphones! (Or restrict their use.) Because that shows how little we understand of what exactly is making people feel that their online sociality is a source of vulnerability and fragility and yet precious and important all the same. It’s not the device, it’s the content. Or in a more well-known formulation, not the medium but the message. That requires semantic understanding, it requires literary interpretation, it requires history and ethnography, to understand and engage. And perhaps change–but that takes also a different set of instruments for coordinating shared or collective action than the conventional apparatus of government and policy.