Finnegans Wake and Political Science Methods

| October 2012
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How do the methods of political science relate to the substantive problems that we want to study? Much energy has been spent arguing over the issues raise by this question — on the nature of science, the making of concepts, the meaning of explanation, and more. These are issues that arise across many domains of inquiry, and although their particular manifestation depends on the subject matter of the field and the intellectual orthodoxies that dominate it, there is a common presumption that ‘method’ and ‘problem’ should align in a particular way. Michael Chabon’s recent essay on James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake raises a version of this problem and provides an unusual perspective on an old question.

Chabon asks “what to make of Finnegans Wake?” The book earns the question by virtue of the fact that it is composed largely of made-up words which evoke many meanings in many languages or perhaps none at all. The narrative (if there is one) emerges as the reader picks up fragments of meaning and carries them into the next sentence, hoping that they hold long enough to make sense of the whole paragraph. Chabon is interested in the relationship between this fantastical, impenetrable style of writing and the content of the story — that is, between the method and the problem. Is Joyce as irredeemably hostile to his readers as it appears?

Chabon defends the novel against its critics with a version of the problem-method dynamic familiar to social scientists. The story is about the dreams of a sleeping man over the course of a night at home in Dublin, and the writing style is Joyce’s attempt to recreate in language the experience of sleep and dream, and the perilous instabilities of consciousness itself. Its syntax and structure are demanded by Joyce’s ideas about the nature of that which it seeks to explore. Its form is inseparable from its substance. It is made necessary by it, even demands it. The difficulty of reading the novel is justified by the material it addresses, which is inseparable from the material out of which it is made — the bond between method and substance is unbreakable and mutual, like “a commodius vicus of recirculation.”

It is in this light that Chabon can say that the book “is nowhere a work of fantasy or caprice, least of all at its most fantastic and capricious.” Instead, it is a meticulous attempt at a realist rendering of an aspect of human experience (dreaming) that seemed to Joyce to be inaccessible using traditional narrative tools. The strange form, in other words, was made necessary by the strangeness of human consciousness itself. This reading presents Finnegans Wake as a high-water mark of realism in the literary sense: it is directly confronting the challenge of figuring out what ‘realism’ might mean in relation to dreams and consciousness.

The complexity and difficulty of the book are therefore artifacts of a problem that Joyce presented himself. This contains lessons for anyone who wishes to reflect on how the methods they use relate to the problems they seek to explore.

For instance, Ian Shapiro admonishes political scientists to be problem-driven rather than method-driven. “Method,” he says, “should be subordinate to problem, not the other way around.” To Shapiro, this means: “Scholars who seek to illuminate the political world should direct themselves to questions thrown up in that world, come to grips with previous attempts to answer the question, and then, if previous answers are inadequate, offer new ones using whatever methodological tools are most appropriate.”

The alternative, he says, is to pursue only questions which are amenable to the methodological commitments that one has made in advance.  This may on occasion produce something interesting, but more commonly it elaborates on the internal workings of the theory that one began with and as a result is unlikely to be of much interest to a broader audience. Committing to a method in advance of identifying a problem, for Shapiro, means prejudging the problem — it assumes the problem is suited to the method. Similarly, for Joyce, to commit to standard English words and structure would limit him to, at best, a meager account of the experience of dreams and of consciousness. The content demands a new method, and a theory-driven Finnegans Wake cannot exist.

Shapiro’s advice is good. But how do we know what method suits what problem? After all, the fiercest academic controversies often come from disagreements about what methods are appropriate to the problem at hand, and even more from arguing over what problems are actually at hand. No social-science research manual counsels choosing methods that are ill-suited to the problem, or letting the method determine the result, and so the advice to avoid this path is reasonable but relatively powerless. (That said, Paul Feyerabend’s Against Method can be seen as championing quirky, idiosyncratic, and perhaps indefensible methodological choices, on the grounds that these oddities have the potential to produce innovation that prevailing models miss, and this might apply in both social and natural sciences.)

The “methodological bet” is simply an intuition that one has found a decent accord between problem and method. It could turn out to be wrong. Chabon, for one, is open to the possibility that Joyce fails in the task he sets himself: maybe the writing doesn’t really capture what it is to be dreaming, or to be alive. (Maybe all writing misses the mark — Chabon seems to think so: “to write a book,” he says “is to betray it”.) So, how do we know whether a given problem is best tackled by a given method?

There are three main paths to follow. First, we might decide that there is an external standard of judgment by which we assess the results of research, and it is success against this standard that tells us if our research (method and all) was good enough. This standard might be prediction, or usefulness, or parsimony, or even popularity as measured by citations. Any method is worth trying, on this view, and the results help us sort out which is best. The “scientific” part of social science is often said to rest on such a standard, even if in practice few actually deploy this model. Most accept that methods shape results, what is seen and what cannot be seen.

Second, we might believe that the problem contains its own guide to the appropriate method. This is Chabon’s starting point for understanding Wake: the book’s style should be seen as a necessary concession to the problem at hand, and the method is immanent in the substance of dreams. Joyce suggests as much when he says “the personality of the artist… refines itself out of existence, impersonalises itself, so to speak.” In social science, this is akin to Shapiro’s call to let the problem determine the method — the problem “speaks” the method to the scholar.

Third, William Connolly has suggested that perhaps both method and problem, as well as whatever accord may exist between them, might be derived together from something else, something prior, embodied in the researcher. Connolly says that “a particular orientation on method is apt to express in some way or other a set of metaphysical commitments to which the methodologist is deeply attached; and a close definition of a political problem is apt to be infiltrated by similar attachments.” These two are not so different from each other. The “existential faith” that attracts people to certain problems and certain ways of approaching them exists separate from evidence, perhaps even separate from thought. These are not choices made by the scholar after consideration of the evidence. Method and puzzle arrive together in front of the researcher, seize her, and force themselves onto the agenda as work that needs to be done, as worthwhile. This appears to be how Joyce ended up with Finnegans Wake: the project that he called his “monster” and that consumed most of the last 20 years of his life.

Only the first of these paths lives up to the idea that the scholar should choose a method. In both the second and the third, the method is intrinsic to, and immanent in, either the material or to the scholar in social context. For them, research design involves following or disentangling connections that exist already, either between the method and the problem, or between the method, the problem, and the researcher. The idea that methods are a choice of the scholar often seems ill suited to the experience of actually conducting research.

Chabon’s ultimate point about Finnegans Wake is that we cannot assess or understand the style of the book without paying attention to the subject it tries to communicate (and vice versa). Similarly for political science, we cannot criticize research method without attention to the question being asked. The style of the novel is apiece with the substance of the novel, and much social inquiry is the same: to ask how often democracies go to war with each other (for instance) requires confidence that we can define and operationalize the key terms and that they will remain helpfully stable throughout the study. To dispute the method in such an instance is to take issue with the question itself.

Methods debates are dull and unproductive when they are fought over in the abstract, dislocated from practical research questions. For most people, it is not the methods that matter — substantive questions and the inquiry they generate are more important. A scholar may pick a basically uninteresting question and pursue it to an uninteresting conclusion, or they may do a poor job of explaining why it is interesting. They may cast a problem in a methodological form that impedes, rather than assists, in understanding it. But in all such instances, it is not the method that should be the focus of debate. The choice of method, whether orthodox or unorthodox, is validated not in itself but by what insight it makes possible into issues that people do care about.

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