July/August 2013 Issue • Volume 41 • Issue 5

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ASA Forum for Public Discussion and Debate

Making Content as Important as Form

Human beings live to a great extent in what has been called an assumptive world. Many of the things we take for granted may be untrue. There seems to be two assumptive worlds for academics, not only the general one but also the special beliefs and dogmas of the particular disciplines. The philosopher William Quine (1979) called such assumptions “tropes.”

The history of science and scholarship reveals many examples of obstructive tropes. Tycho Brahe, the Danish astronomer, spent his adult life trying to determine the orbit of Venus. He made extraordinarily accurate observations of the position of the planet during his lifetime, but he assumed, like everyone else, that planets revolve around the earth. Johannes Kepler, Brahe’s assistant, inherited the data after Brahe died. For years he made no progress. In his exasperation, Kepler developed a bizarre model of the orbits, a fantasy. In his play, he had unthinkingly placed the sun, rather than the Earth, at the center. Although Kepler’s scientific skills were inferior to Brahe’s, Kepler’s mistake solved the problem (Koestler 1967).

Scientific and other methods, no matter how scrupulously applied, are helpless in the face of misleading tropes. Social/behavioral studies and the humanities are often based on tropes and dogmas, rather than precise definitions. My own field, emotions, is particularly trope ridden. The experts use vernacular words like anger, grief, fear, shame, pride, love, and so on as if they have clear meanings, so we are getting nowhere fast. But most fields have similar, if somewhat less confusion.

In this chaos, our journals have become punctilious about reviewing submissions in terms of form rather than content. Is the submission the right size? In the scientific journals, is it quantitative and systematic? In the qualitative journals and the humanities, is it sufficiently devoid of these same qualities? Journals that would even send a Keplerian submission out to review are few and far between. In my recent experience, only Contemporary Sociology and Sociological Forum took a chance with my fantasies. Psychology is the worst, and medicine almost as bad.

Some 300 years ago, scientist Pascal (1660) proposed that system and what he called “finesse” (intuition) are equally necessary for advancing knowledge. Shall we try making content as important as form?

Thomas Scheff


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