Kittysjones on the Philosophical and Methodological Errors in the Tories’ Austerity Myth

Kittysjones over on her blog has an interesting piece dissecting the very basic errors of philosophy and methodology underpinning the Tories’ promotion of austerity. It’s entitled Austerity is a Con, the Tories are Authoritarians and They Conflate the Fact/Value Distinction. I disagree with none of this. She argues from her own experience of studying sociology at university. She notes that sociology is not a hard science, and so does not have the same claim to be presenting objective fact. The researcher’s own personal views can colour their interpretation of a given situation, and their choice of methodology can determine the results of their research to give a partial and biased picture of the situation. She also notes that the Conservatives also violate one of the major rules in philosophy: that one cannot derive values from facts. For example, violence is a part of human nature. Observation of chimpanzees hunting suggest that aggression and violence have been part of humanity’s biological heritage since our hominid ancestors. One could not, however, go from that fact to promote violence and aggression as a necessary value. The Tories have violated this basic distinction, and their demands for cutbacks to welfare spending are motivated not by empirical research, but through simple class interest and Neo-Liberal ideology. Kitty’s piece begins:

One of the first things I realised as an undergraduate is that social “sciences” aren’t. My very first essay was on the topic of the “scientific” basis of sociology and its methodology, and my reading took me deep into the labyrinth of history and philosophy of science. I concluded that science itself isn’t as “scientific” as we are led to believe, let alone a discipline that aims at the study of inter-subjectively constructed human behaviours in a social context. I’ve been attempting to rescue anyone that has succumbed to the mythical, positivist, fraudulent chimera called “objectivity” ever since.

As a critical interpretivist, I believe that social reality is not “out there” waiting to be discovered: we are constructing and reconstructing it meaningfully. However, politically there’s been a marked shift away from understanding the lived experiences of real people in context: a systematic dehumanisation. The Tories have depopulated social policy. This is a characteristic of authoritarianism, and other hallmarks include stigmatisation of social groups, moral disengagement, moral exclusion, impunity, and a societal “bystander apathy”. See also Allport’s ladder, which is a measure of the manifestation of prejudice and discrimination in a Society. It’s also an explanation of the stages of genocide, and how the Holocaust happened.

There’s a lot of philosophy of science in Kitty’s article, as she mentions the Verification Principle, Logical Positivism, framing, Wittgenstein and so on. Don’t let that put you off. It demonstrates the basic violations of philosophical and scientific methodology and reasoning that permeates the whole of Tory reasoning in this debate. There are points I could add to it. I’m not quite so negative as Kitty appears to be in her analysis of sociology and its shortcomings. What she says is true – it is not comparable to the hard sciences, and there is always the danger of the researcher’s personal beliefs determining both the research itself and its conclusions. Sociologists themselves, however, strive for objectivity. In feminist circles this is replaced by ‘trustworthiness’, as the latter term is believed to validate social and political activism in a way, which objectivity does not. The point is the same. One is expected to conduct the research to present an accurate description of the situation, which other researchers would also find. Sociologists and ethnographers have set up a series of methodologies, as well as ethical regulations in how to deal with ethnographic informants, in order to present a fair and ethical description of their subjects. See James P. Spradley’s The Ethnographic Interview (Orland: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich 1979), for example.

Which just makes the Tories’ flagrant violations of these codes and rules even more disgusting.

This adds a bit more intellectual ammunition to attacking the Tories on these issues. No doubt it will be disregarded by the type of Tory that shrugs arguments like these off on the ground that it comes from academics and intellectuals, ‘who don’t live in the real world’ and therefore don’t know anything. It is still very definitely a great attack on the Tories from the viewpoint of the philosophy of science, and is at

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12 Responses to “Kittysjones on the Philosophical and Methodological Errors in the Tories’ Austerity Myth”

  1. kittysjones Says:

    The Tories are pseudo-positivists. Not that I rate positivism as you recognise, so for me the Tories are beneath the contempt of contempt.

    This is a neat summary and well said. I love the mention of ‘trustworthiness’, and ethnography, and of course feminism made a massive contribution to sociology on a methodological level, as well as in terms of enriching the content and scope, opening up what was previously a platform for white middle class males. I remember reading about the reception that Anne Oakley got from her male colleagues when she researched ‘The Sociology of Housework.’ back in the early 70s as an A level student, and it was horrific.

    Her father, Richard Titmuss was also an excellent researcher, he revolutionised the teaching of social work and social workers and established Social Policy as an academic discipline.

    I’m not really negative about sociology at all. In fact it’s a discipline I LOVE, but I am critical of any attempt to dress it up as a science for the reasons you acknowledge.

    However, I recognise the merits of methodological triangulation – both qualitative and qualitative accounts have their place. My point about values in sociology is that they are inevitable, even if it’s only evident in choice of research area, but we can recognise our own values and responsibly and honestly declare them. There is nothing wrong with that, and it’s not a criticism as such of sociologists. I am very proud of my own values 🙂

    The lack of verstehen – basic common empathy – is very evident in all Tory policies, with horrific consequences. Depopulated policy and dehumanised society, particularly the most vulnerable social groups. The Tories treat the population as objects and not as human subjects of their legislations. Pseudo-positivists and authoritarians.

    One last thing I should add, I’m not an ‘intellectual’ and any Tory shrugging me off as such, and accusing me of not living in the real world will get a hefty slapping down (Figuratively speaking). I am disabled, a lone parent, and very much more grounded in the ‘real world’ than I care to be. Mostly thanks to Tory policy.

    Thank you for reading my piece and for your excellent analysis.

    • beastrabban Says:

      Thanks for the appreciation and the comment, Kitty – I’m very glad you liked my article on yours. You’ve got a far deeper understanding of sociology than I have. Years ago I briefly tried to do a research degree studying some of the religious groups in my hometown, but had to abandon it for lack of informants. Nevertheless, it did give me an introduction to the research methods used by sociologists, and the differences between them and the hard sciences. Your point about researchers shaping their studies due to their own beliefs and values, and that this needs to be recognised and honestly declared, is a good one. The course I was on mentioned the importance of such reflexivity in acknowledging and allowing for personal bias.

      I think there has been an attempt by the Tories to appropriate social research for themselves. I can distinctly remember an article published in the Telegraph when I was at College during Thatcher’s reign, in which a very Tory lady – I can’t remember which – stated that although sociology was considered Left-wing, in fact there was nothing more Conservative. I think this might be news to Durkheim, who I thought was a Socialist. As for the lack of Verstehen in Tory policy, a friend of mine, who used to be a Conservative politician told me that aristocrats like Cameron and Osborne have no human understanding of the social inferiors. They see them simply in terms of whether or not they efficiently perform their social roles. They may be aware of the poverty and suffering that their policies cause, but that’s irrelevant compared to the purpose those policies are intended to carry out.

      As for intellectualism, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with it, so long as it is backed by common sense. Unfortunately, this is often in short supply, especially amongst the Right-wing press, who constantly scream about it. I’m reminded by the story Bill Hicks used to tell, about how he was once was caught reading in a waffle house. The waitress came up to him and said, ‘What you reading for?’ Hick’s response: it seems there’s some anti-intellectualism in our country. It started about two years ago when Reagan was elected. There then follows a long rant about how he read so that he didn’t become a waffle waitress. Unfortunately, this hasn’t stopped thousands of graduates leaving uni every year to find that the only jobs they can get is flipping burgers, but that’s a different issue.

      Thanks for your detailed reply, Kitty!

  2. Austerity is a con, the Tories are authoritarians and they conflated the fact-value distinction. | kittysjones Says:

    […] An analysis of this article: Kittysjones on the Philosophical and Methodological Errors in the Tories’ Austerity Myth […]

  3. sparaszczukster Says:

    In light of this its a bit worrying, don’t you think, that so many in the government including the PM himself, studied PPE at Oxford or some other prestigious university? Were they paying attention? Is their apparent violation of logic and philosophical method evidence that we’ve been misled about the quality of teaching at Oxford? Or are they callously exploiting the force fed ignorance of a class of people they only tolerate to abuse for the maintenance of their own privilege? Have I put the question marks down deep enough, or are there more murkier depths to plumb?

  4. RedNotEd Says:

    Another Labour Party political Broadcast from walter mitty kitty

  5. beastrabban Says:

    Thanks for the reply, Sue. I don’t think the violations of logic and philosophical method by Cameron and his cronies imply any kind of poor teaching on the PPE course he and the others attended at Oxford, the LSE or wherever. I think the second option you mentioned is much more likely, and it’s simply that they are ‘callously exploiting the force fed ignorance of a class of people they only tolerate to abuse for the maintenance of their privilege’. I think it’s simply a case of the cynical pursuit of power to serve their own ideological and socio-economic interests, purely and simply.

    A friend of mine, who used to be a Conservative politician, told me a story about Maggie Thatcher when she was out campaigning in the 1979 election. Just before she knocked on someone’s door, she said to her agent, ‘And now to put the working man in his place’.

    It’s Tory policy in a single sentence.

  6. sparaszczukster Says:

    Yes! And given the crude Tory inspired and encouraged anti- working class rhetoric in the Mail and Telegraph et al and the dog whistle tactics of the Lizard, I wouldn’t be surprised if that sentence or something very like it weren’t used as a slogan at the next election.One thing’s for sure, Cameron, IDS and the rest are certainly thinking what she was thinking.

  7. beastrabban Says:

    I quite agree with you, Sue, though Tory propaganda is all about how the poor have got richer through the implementation of Tory policies. They’d probably frame it in terms of the unions, or Socialist class warriors determined to keep the working class enslaved in welfare dependency. (Now that’s an idea for a subject worth tackling). I can remember reading years ago a piece in the Sunday Express in which they demanded anti-union legislation to free the workers from their oppression. It reminds me of Hitler’s statement that he was going to free the workers from the unions and Marxist exploitation. But you’re absolutely right , Cameron, IDS and the rest of them are thinking what she thought.

  8. A6er Says:

    Reblogged this on Britain Isn't Eating!.

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