Economics, Culture and Social Theory
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Economics, Culture and Social Theory

William A. Jackson

Economics, Culture and Social Theory examines how culture has been neglected in economic theorising and considers how economics could benefit by incorporating ideas from social and cultural theory.
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Chapter 10: Interpretative Methods

William A. Jackson


Cultural thought has always advocated interpretative methods. All cultures depend on how people think and behave in particular historical circumstances. Theory and empirical research cannot tap into human motivation, given that thoughts are unique, not directly observable and only patchily and selectively recorded. As an alternative to rationalism and empiricism, the Counter-Enlightenment argued for interpretative methods. Scholars can try to comprehend and reconstruct why people acted in a certain way – interpretation plugs the holes in social studies and provides the means for an understanding of human behaviour. The case for interpretation has never been readily accepted by social scientists. According to strict empiricism, thoughts are outside our sensory range and any attempt to reconstruct them is speculative. In the study of human motives, natural scientists have balked at going further than introspection, the internal observation of one’s own thoughts. Anyone else’s thoughts are out of bounds to introspective empiricism and unsuitable as an object of scientific study. Although introspection was tolerated in early psychology, positivism and behaviourism replaced introspective methods with experimental ones. Under the later, less tolerant regime, natural sciences could study observable human activity and the physiology of the brain but not human thought. Immediate investigation of thinking and ideas, whether interpretative or introspective, was excluded. Interpretative methods have had few proponents, least of all in economics. Most social sciences grew up during the first half of the twentieth century, a time when positivism was rampant and the desire to copy natural sciences overwhelming. Hermeneutics – the formal practice...

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