Understanding understanding

If we are going to get anywhere with understanding the world, we should start with what I mean by "understanding." I am frequently chastised by my empiricist colleagues for not proving things. They want to know about causes and effects. They want big data!

I trade in small data. My questions about the world are not "What causes this?" but "How was this possible?" If you want to know about causes, you need to show that in all cases, A is a result of B. Research can't often do this. People think that this is what research does all the time, but it ain't so. In most cases, researchers can only make statistical inferences. If they are lucky, they can at best say that they are 95% of the time, when A happens, B also happens. Even then, they are not necessarily sure that B causes A. Correlation and causality are two different things.

If you are not concerned about causes, then what are you concerned with? What you are concerned with is assumptions. Especially the assumption that the way things are today is natural, normal, or inevitable. To poke a hole in this assumption, you only need counterexamples. And for this, you need small data.

By small, I mean only that you need to look closely at a small number of cases. Sometimes even a single case will do. But you need to look closely. You need to look at the details, the messiness and particularity of a case. For instance, one of my papers, written with my PhD supervisor, Dean Neu, examined the accounting practices in the Department of Indian Affairs in Canada in the late 1800s. We picked this time period because it was the beginning of some horrific government policies aimed at assimilating Canada's aboriginal peoples into the general population. "Assimilation" is one word. "Genocide" is another. Take your pick.

Our goal was to demonstrate that Canada's relationship with our First Nations over the course of the past 150 years was not the fairy tale we often tell ourselves. Canadians used to watch John Wayne movies, filled with images of Indians being massacred left, right and centre, and smugly say to ourselves that at least we didn't treat our Indians like that. We had a Disney image in our head about the cooperation between white fur traders and the noble savages who guided them through the wilderness.

Whatever good the ideas of ‘objectivity’ and ‘transcendence’ have done for our culture can be attained equally well by the idea of a community which strives after both intersubjective agreement and novelty.
— Richard Rorty

To debunk this Disney version of events, Dean and I wanted to look at the historical record a little more closely. We looked at the National Archives in Ottawa and at the Glenbow Museum archives in Calgary. We found the accounting records of the Department of Indian Affairs. The story these records told, particularly about what the Department very routinely did in a few First Nations bands around Calgary, was very different from the "official" story we are told in school.

I'll tell you more about what we found in another posting, over in the Practices section of the website, but for now, suffice to say that we found evidence of deliberate, prolonged, bureaucratic efforts to eradicate the culture of the First Nations. These efforts to eliminate the Indians and make them all like "us" settlers were official government policy. The archives showed this without question. Now, were we able to prove that in 95% of cases, the federal government acted like this? No. But that wasn't the point. All we needed to do, to cast doubt on the "official" Disney-like story of our past was to find a counterexample. And we did. By examining the Department's activities in even one of these bands, say the Sarcee First Nation near Calgary, and showing evidence of a policy of cultural extermination, we could poke a hole in the official story.

So this is what we understand by the word "understanding." We simply mean that we question what we are told. We ask if things are necessarily so. We ask how it became possible that we ended up where we are. For this, detailed qualitative research of particular cases is quite useful. It's not that you couldn't do a large scale statistical study of accounting in the Department of Indian Affairs. The archival records are pretty comprehensive, after all. It's just that a large scale study wouldn't be particularly useful for answering the questions we wanted to ask.

For more on matching how truth is related to the kinds of questions we ask, read Richard Rorty.* He is awesome at explaining how the questions we ask demand different approaches to seeking the truth.

* Some key books by Richard Rorty:

  • Consequences of pragmatism: Essays, 1972-1980. U of Minnesota Press, 1982.
  • Contingency, irony, and solidarity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989.
  • Objectivity, relativism, and truth: philosophical papers. Vol. 1. Cambridge University Press, 1991.
  • Philosophy and social hope. Penguin UK, 1999. [written for a wider audience]

Photograph: A lingerie store in Amsterdam, taken in 2012.