Post-modernism and the Social Sciences: An interrogation of truth and theory

One view of social science theory is that it contributes to societal improvement by discovering general truths that enable the formulation of theories which can in turn be used to create new knowledge to advance the development of society. The post-modernist view, however, interrogates the very concepts of “theory” and “truth”, and questions some core assumptions regarding the nature of the intellectual tradition and the purpose of academic inquiry. In the present essay, I review five sections of one chapter of Pauline Marie Rosenau’s Post-Modernism And The Social Sciences: Insights, Inroads, and Intrusions, summarise some of the main ideas presented in each section, and attempt to synthesise the major theoretical commitments contained therein and in the chapter as a whole. My intent is to show how some foundational components of postmodernist thought may be at odds with the perceived imperative, in the Caribbean, for social development based on social scientific inquiry. I attempt to do this by exploring some of the implications of postmodernist approaches for the academic field of Media Theory, for the research enterprise at the regional University of the West Indies, for the newly established Caribbean Studies Section within that University, and for the wider context of knowledge production and exchange.

There is perhaps no opening more appropriate to the present essay than the closing words of the article in question. Rosenau (1992) concludes, “The post-modern view—there is no truth, and all is construction—is itself the ultimate contradiction. By making this statement, post-modernists assume a position of privilege. They assert as true their own view that “there is no truth.” In so doing they affirm the possibility of truth itself” (p. 89). From this conclusion, it is evident that the main focus of the article is not theoretical but epistemological. And it is on an epistemological basis that Rosenau, in her conclusion, summarily dismisses post-modernism. Rosenau’s dismissal of the postmodernist skeptical claim that no truth exists is logically sound. If the premise of the postmodern affirmative argument is that truth exists only in human apprehension—in other words, that all truths are man-made—then it is rational (though not necessarily sound) to argue that many truths are knowable but no absolute truth exists. However, if one takes as a premise the post-modernist skeptical position that truth does not exist at all, then this same premise opposes its own validity, and any conclusion is therefore, by definition, self-contradictory.

Postmodernist thought can be described as an intentional rejection of previously dominant modernist approaches associated with the scientific mentality of objectivity and progress. In general terms, whereas modernism was primarily concerned with principles of unity, authority, and certainty, postmodernism is often associated with difference, plurality and skepticism. Formal, academic critiques of postmodernism can be found in the works of Sokal and Bricmont, whose work has in turn been criticized by others such as Fink and Plotnitsky.

According to Rosenau, what is interrogated by post-modernism is not the content of social science theories, but the very epistemological foundations of theory and truth from the modernist paradigm. While Rosenau acknowledges that there are some “points of agreement” (p.91) between modern social scientists and post-modernists regarding the complexity of the world, she focuses, in this chapter, on summarising many of the general problems associated with the post-modernist posture to social scientific inquiry, and presenting some of the specific issues attendant to the post-modernist perspective on the modern conceptualizations of truth and theory. According to Rosenau, “Theory implies truth, and truth, at least in the social sciences, is theoretical in character. Post modernists are suspicious regarding modern versions of both” (p. 77).

The first of the article’s five sections discusses the post-modernist approach to the concept of truth, first from the viewpoint of the skeptics, then from the viewpoint of the affirmatives. This section discusses the post-modern skeptics’ contention that truth is language-bound and therefore either meaningless or arbitrary, and also considers the post-modernist problématique of anti-representationalism. It describes the post-modernist skeptical anti-representational view that “[…] truth, to the extent that it strives to re-present reality, is fraudulent” (p. 80). This “extreme linguistic relativism” is summed up in the following way: “Post-modernists question the value of truth because they consider it impossible to evaluate the adequacy of knowledge claims with any certitude” (p. 80). In contrast with the skeptics, the affirmatives ‘take a middle-of-the-road position’ (p. 80), arguing that truth is discourse-dependent and semantically consensual. Blum (2001) seems to affirm this middle-of-the-road view, and comments that “all societies must ground their interactions in some sort of validation and provide limits to play.” The social theory of truth, according to Blum, “relies on the understanding of relations of power and control over knowledge and claims to possess truth. […] In this model, truth has been discredited from many directions. Postmodernists, feminists and Foucaultians criticize claims to objectivity, master narratives, and regimes of truth. If knowledge is power, then claims to have knowledge of the truth—transcendent, objective, universal, panchronic, biological, scientific—obscures others’ rights to their own truths.”

Is it necessary for students of the Communication Studies Section and Media Theory and Society course at UWI St Augustine Campus to agree with the post-modern skeptics’ outright rejection of some foundational components of modernist epistemology? This writer is certainly neither convinced, nor prepared to make that leap. And is there any discernible value that the post-modern affirmative agenda brings to the Media Theorist working in the Caribbean context? In making explicit the hidden assumptions which underlie previous essentialist epistemological models, the affirmative approach seems to present a useful method for deconstructing our conceptualisations of truth and theory, much in the same way that post-colonialism demythologised colonial frameworks and post-post-colonialism is now terrorizing the formerly unquestioned foundations of post-colonialist approaches. In this sense, for the Media Theorist, the post-modern affirmative approach does seem to contain some useful elements of a critical method for reflection on one’s own core epistemological assumptions and methodological practices.

Could there also be some useful components of the postmodernists’ perspective on theory? That element of skepticism that recognises a situation where a multitude of theories exists and none can claim superiority over any other, could be of use to Caribbean researchers attempting to investigate the complexity of the multicultural Caribbean context. Roseanau states: “The skeptical post-modernists reject modern theory and recognize a situation where a multitude of theories exists and none can claim superiority over any other” (p. 81). Postmodernism, the author states, denies the totalizing meta-narratives of Marxist, neo-conservative, positivist and structuralist theory, and it looks to the uniqueness of parts rather than to the unity of the theoretical whole.

Similarly, the post-modernist affirmatives substitute theory with everyday life and local narrative. Rosenau states: “Post-modern theory, for the affirmatives, is unsystematic, heterological, de-centered, ever changing, and local. Nonrepresentational, it is personal in character and community-specific in focus. Their de-centered theory is said to be valuable for its own sake and never to claim special authority for itself” (p. 86). The affirmatives’  narrative-theory substitution approach could find application, for example, in the context of the interrogation of Caribbean identity, a construct which may have been oversimplified by the homogenising tendency of previous paradigms, and which is likely to benefit from the skeptical post-modernists’ rejection the deindividuating agenda of modern theory.

Rosenau describes the skeptics as having “no aspiration or perhaps, even capacity, to construct new theory in the modern sense of the word, as grounded on reasoned argument or observation and experience. They do not attempt to formulate theory of the post-modern. Any such project would be contradictory because it would require modern reason and rational thinking” (p. 82). The relevance of this aspect of post-modernism to the Caribbean context is questionable, particularly given the urgent need to address what one observer describes as a “theoretical vacuum concerning the formulation of production and development strategies suitable for the region” (Meeks & Lindahl, 2001, p. 453). The establishment of The University of the West Indies represents the first attempt to respond to this development imperative by building the Caribbean theoretical canon, from a post-colonial model. That developmental imperative, it can be argued, lingers today in the form of a persistent belief in Caribbean societies that national and regional investment in higher education will produce benefit to the wider society. For the purpose of the present discussion, one need not focus on the machinations responsible for the maintenance of this construct. One need only refer to this deliberately constructed connection between the creation of knowledge, the formulation of theory, and the development of society as a “Caribbean development agenda”. This development agenda has been articulated repeatedly in different in several fora, including The University of the West Indies’ 2007-2012 Strategic Plan, which describes one part of the mission of the university as to “conduct rigorous basic and applied research that serves to: explore solutions to priority national and regional problems and challenges; create significant new knowledge; exploit developmental potential and comparative advantages; elucidate important contemporary social issues; situate self and society in a changing world order; provide a sound basis for public policy formulation and decision making”. Similarly, the “Core Values” section of the university’s Strategic Plan describes a university as having a “value system” characterised by ideals such as “assisting students to develop a capacity for independent thought and critical analysis” and “encouraging community service and involvement and dedication to development of the region”. Also, the vision of the university, according to the Plan, is that by 2012, The UWI will have “affirmed its status as the primary source for research and expert advice in dealing with the complex issues and challenges facing the region”.

If one accepts that the Caribbean development agenda is a social reality, and that it is in fact embraced by The University of the West Indies, then one question that arises is whether post-modern skepticism, as it is presented by Rosenau, lends anything to this University’s agenda for nation-building, economic consolidation and regional development. One may well ask how to reconcile the anti-theoretical agenda of post-modern skepticism with the pressing imperatives of the Caribbean developmental agenda. As the governments of the sixteen Caribbean territories (listed as “Contributing Countries”) continue to allocate their taxpaying citizens’ resources to the subsidisation of higher education costs, this talk of pursuing knowledge “for its own sake” (p. 83)certainly appears incongruent with the prevailing consensus that the pursuit of knowledge is a worthwhile investment of the nation’s tax dollar and that it will contribute in some way to the social development of their respective nations and the wider region. One may go so far as to question the ethical integrity of researchers and academics who consciously choose to pursue the skeptical post-modern agenda while operating within the framework of an organisation such as The University of the West Indies, which has been demonstrated in this essay to have an explicitly stated developmental agenda. Philosophically, the two do not seem to be easily reconcilable.

Other sectors of society are shown to have similar issues with post-modernism in the fourth section of this Chapter by Rosenau. The author draws examples from six applied areas of the social sciences, to illustrate the dilemma posed to any modern social science discipline by the confrontation between modern and post-modern versions of truth and theory. Citing the example of public administration, Rosenau says, “For post-modern public administration, there is no longer any “right” policy or superior guiding wisdom, no remaining shared assumptions because of the impossibility of modern truth or theory. How, then, is the post-modern administrator to deal with the urgent environmental and economic crises that require the immediate attention of government agencies?” (p. 87) Repeatedly, the capacity for national development or public administration to proceed on the basis of the post-modern agenda is called into question.

From this developmental perspective, one may well consider the inaugural graduate class of the Communications Studies section of which the present writer is a member, and ask what are the implications of the post-modernist approach to the social sciences for students in the newly established postgraduate Communications Studies programme. The programme rationale states, “Given the many challenges and possibilities for complexity in human interaction, there is an urgent need to establish and develop an agenda for communication research in a graduate programme. Such a programme can develop a database of resources, knowledge and expertise on the practice and study of human communication in a variety of contexts contributing to indigenous Caribbean research. This knowledge and expertise base is useful in developing a cadre of professionals and policy-makers graduating from the M.A. This base will provide graduates with informed theoretical and methodological perspectives to critically inquire into and explore communication phenomena and challenges in human and social interactions.” There is a clear developmental bias in the wording of this rationale, which seems to point to an underlying philosophy based on the assumption that the accumulation of knowledge must be pursued by the individual with the intention of returning some dividend to the wider society. But how does one develop, contribute and transfer knowledge in the post-modernist paradigm, in which there is no truth upon which to build a common theoretical framework of understanding. The entire enterprise of teaching and learning in its current form would have to be re-invented. In the words of Rosenau, “The entire intellectual climate of the social sciences would be transformed” (p. 89).

This line of thinking is brought to a hilt in the fifth and final section, in which the author describes the wider implications of postmodernist approach to knowledge production and exchange. Rosenau describes as “enormous” the consequences of post-modern view of theory and truth. These consequences include “an absolute equality of all discourse, and end to foundational claims” (p. 89), a questioning of “the very basis for a social science” (p. 86), an erasure of “the difference between truth and error (or between theory and nonsense)” and ultimately, “an adaptation to a situation where the goal of seeking truth is abandoned” (p. 85). In this final section that Rosenau begins to demonstrate that this philosophy paradoxically proclaims that no one philosophy is superior to another, yet in so doing it simultaneously proclaims itself as superior to all. Its core belief is that there must be no beliefs. Its radical doctrine is that there must be no absolute truths. Although initially post-modernism seems to trouble all theory and to terrorise all truth, ultimately what is cannabilised by the post-modernists is post-modernism itself.

In the preceding sections of this essay, I have presented an in-depth review of the chapter by Rosenau, and have attempted to demonstrate some of the logical grounds for Rosenau’s strong criticism of some foundational components of postmodernist thought in general, and of postmodernist skepticism in particular. I have agreed with much of Rosenau’s criticisms, in particular with those statements in her conclusion which appear tantamount to an outright rejection of some of the foundational components of postmodernism. At the same time, I have referred to the value of the postmodernist affirmative positions of multiplicity, difference and ambiguity as a viable foundation for the interrogation of colonial and postcolonial, pseudoscientific, deindividuating, homogenising epistemological traditions dominating the former landscape of widely accepted knowledge about the Caribbean. Throughout the essay, in various ways, I extend Rosenau’s summary of the implication of postmodernist theory for six areas of social science to a seventh area—regional tertiary education—using as an example the research enterprise undertaken by The University of the West Indies.

References

Duranti A. (Ed.). (2001). Key terms in language and culture. Oxford: Blackwell.

Foucault, M. (1980). Power/knowledge. New York: Pantheon Books.

Meeks, B. & Lindahl, F. (2001). New Caribbean thought. Kingston: University of the West Indies Press.

Rosenau, P. (1992) Post-modernism and the social sciences. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

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