Maths/Causes/Theories/Public (long and dumb)

Alexandre Enkerli (alexandre.enkerli@IMM.UNIL.CH)
Thu, 27 Apr 1995 21:43:03 +0200

Wow, it's been a while since I've said anything to the list <plug> and most
of my contacts with anthro lately have been through Topothesia </plug>
So, there seems to be interesting discussions going on about
"epistemological" aspects of our discipline. Great! And, BTW, I realize
that this one of the things we do a lot in anthro: discuss on
epistemological issues. This is very interesting for me because I'm working
with people involved with engineering, computer science, physics,
linguistics, phonology, acoustics and speech but not much about
"anthropological subjects". And I'm beginning to believe that our
discipline is very much theory and critique oriented. Good, I like that
My 0.0126497$ (this has been calculated by a Pentium) about the latest
discussion shouldn't matter much since I didn't really follow the debates,
but anyway...
Maths: IMVHAWISHIMVVVHO, there is a distinction to be made between two
aspects of math in relation to research in Social Sciences. One is the
actual application of mathematical methods and the other can be thought of
more as a general viewpoint on reality, a special logical configuration
that can be influent on research. This distinction is pretty generic, I
know, but I think it's important too.
So, on one side, there's a set of methods. What are those methods aiming
at? Discovering new aspects of reality? Proving the validity of theories
and concepts? Get a better precision on a given subject? Help scholars to
look more serious and thus get funds easier? Help communication between
hard and soft sciences?
I guess there's a part of all of those purposes in the way an actual social
scholar uses maths. But "is that what we really want?" (oh no, I sound like
a politician now...)
Put simply, math cannot do all of this. Most of these goals cannot be
achieved in Social Sciences through mathematical methods alone,
IMVHAWISHIMVVVHO. In other words, I don't think that numbers can prove
anything about society or discover anything totally new. But it can help,
sometimes, to get a new picture, to change the angle by which you view your
data. One of the beauty of it is that it's more or less straightforward.
It's a filter, like any other set of methods, but it's a clear one. You can
(sometimes) see the limits of this filter. To be of any use at all, maths
have to be used wisely. This isn't a direct critique of the scholars who
didn't/don't use maths wisely since it's not so easy a task. But good
advices can be found in communication with hard scientists and some people
have failed to do this.
The fact that, for example (yes, I know, it's a very silly one but I didn't
want to make a serious one), 22.33% of the population of South
Bourouchistan thinks that pre-marital sexual relationships among Brazilian
red ants are immoral doesn't mean anything as such. But it could lead a
scholar (interested in this phenomenon) to give importance to aspects of
the problem that are not quite obvious at first sight.
Or the fact that (another fictive case but I think the idea is still there
somewhere) Irish men were getting married at an average of 38.629 years-old
and that the average age difference among new couples was of 14.27368 years
through the time-span analyzed don't mean much. In fact, the importance of
some details can get blurred in the quantitative precision of data. But
someone seeking reasons for the changes in transmission of goods in Ireland
by the 18th century can get interested in those figures.
So, what should we do? Try and use only mathematical data when they're
needed? And how do we know that? Use as much quantitative data so as to get
a very well-established system that nobody can criticize since the
correlation is of 0.99293603? Ask mathematicians to do the dirty
quantitative work and hope they'll give us the meaning of life, the
universe and everything, given that it shouldn't be 42 since 42 has already
been used?
But, no, we don't have to do any of this because we have...the other aspect
of the relation between mathematical methods and research in Social
Sciences. And I announce: "general viewpoint on reality". What did I mean
by that, previously in the current message? Very good question but it had
to do with general mathematical concepts (such as fractional dimensions or
chaotic structure) and a broad set of "angles" by which we observe reality.
Apart from making one really cool, believing that the ultimate answer to
everything can be sought in a 4.204983 dimension is helpful in casting a
new light to observed reality. This is not to say there's only one way to
achieve the development of a truly original way of thinking about reality
or even that there is one. But mathematical concepts can be a part of the
process aiming at this achievement.
As for anything, extreme actions are to be analyzed very carefully.
Therefore it is very important to be cautious in using complex mathematical
abstractions so as to keep a foot on the ground. And this is not that
superfluous a comment since excessive mathematization of reality can be
hazardous to the mental health of some scholars.
And maths are so great! You can see anything in them! You can see a dragon
in a geometrical pattern as well as you can discover god in pi. Or maybe
it's our way of imagining reality that products all of this? Who knows? But
still, but aspects are interesting. Maths as a way of representing life and
maths as way as representing perception...
Anyway, I'm in a hurry so I can't continue on this subject (yes, I do use
this as an excuse for my bad orthograph and grammar and for the fact I
won't re-read this message...).

So, what about causes? Err, I don't remember...Oh, err, yes! Well,
There's a lot of discussion in Social Sciences about the importance of
causality in theoretical models. It seems to be very important for us and,
basically, it can be important as a personal issue. Like this or that
scholar doesn't think science is worth anything if it's not about causal
relationships and another one thinks causal relationships are illusory and
yet another one thinks science is just a concept caused by theoretical
The same thing might have happened in our discipline about what was
formerly called "social evolution". Some thought the only interesting to do
in life was to analyze "social evolution" and others thought "social
evolution" couldn't be applied to anything. After a while, some people have
changed the debate by inserting the concept of "multi-linear evolution".
This weakened the critiques about the fact that evolutionarism cannot
explain diversity but it still caused some problem. So it can be thought as
a step in the decline of the concept of "social evolution".
Now, if we are to say we're seeking for multiple causes, maybe we can also
see that this is a part of a discussion about causality itself, but then
again, maybe not.
Err, so, that's it about causality since I still don't remember what I
wanted to say about it.

Theories? Well, I guessed I've answered that question, didn't I...Oh, well,
ok, but I will another day, I really should go...
Public? Oh, yes, I only wanted to say that it is our responsibility to show
our discipline to the wide public since they won't usually come to us all
of a sudden. <Plug><H1>One good way to do this is to send a paper to
Topothesia (E-mail me or any other Topothesian for further
It can get very funny to go around saying you're into Anthropology. At
first, the usual reaction is either "what's that?" or "How interesting!"
but after a while, people begin to think they misunderstood you and you
said you were into a tupperware club. Or you can get the "you're an
anthropologist so you should know how cool primitive people are...I know
because I met some during my one-year world trip...". Or you get the "don't
tell me you believe we humans come from monkeys!" (this one is actually an
exact (but translated) quote from someone I was talking to about culture).
All of this is so nice that it would be a big mistake for us to avoid
public attention by not saying to everyone we're in anthropology.
"And through what?"
"Oui, entrepot-logis".

Sorry for all of this, I shouldn't do it again. It was either that or an
even more dangerous attempt to say something...
CU *!

Alexandre Enkerli (Unil-LAIP Lausanne)
"Quand t'es ne sur du beton, tu sais pas les noms d'oiseaux. J'les connais
pas par leurs noms, j'vais m'asseoir sans dire un mot".