A Few Words about Methodology


 Frederic Charles Schaffer

University of Massachusetts, Amherst

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Frederic Charles Schaffer is Professor of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. He can be reached at schaffer@polsci.umass.edu.

In mulling over how to most productively respond to the reflections offered by Lahra Smith, Gary Goertz, and Patrick Jackson, I tried to place myself in the armchair of a Qualitative & Multi-Method Research reader. What big methodological questions, I asked myself, are raised by their reviews of my book? How might I weigh in, generatively, on those questions?

One distinctive feature of this newsletter is that it provides a forum for political scientists of diverse methodological commitments to speak to one another. It serves as a platform for thinking together (and sometimes arguing against one another) about what those epistemological and ontological commitments are and how they matter. One area on which all three contributors and I agree is that such commitments matter for how we work with concepts. There is less consensus among us on how to characterize those underlying methodological differences, so it is on this question that I will mostly focus in this response.

My own view is that it makes sense to distinguish, broadly, two loose communities of scholars who hold different clusters of methodological commitment. Here is how I describe those commitments in Elucidating Social Science Concepts:

A widely shared methodological commitment of positivism, as I understand it, is a belief that social scientists can directly and neutrally observe a social world that is made up of entities (like families and classes and revolutions) that enjoy, or are treated as if they enjoy, a real existence independent of how people think of them. The aim of much positivist inquiry is, correspondingly, to formulate propositions about those entities based upon the identification and measurement of regularities within and between them. An interpretivist approach to social science, in contrast, usually starts from the dual premises that there are no “real” social entities, only culturally mediated social facts, and that social science is always perspectival and entwined with the pursuit of moral or material goals. The aim of much interpretivist inquiry, consequently, is to shed light on how shared meanings and their relation to power inform or structure the social world and the study of the social world.1

I hedge so many of these claims (“much,” “usually,” etc.) because I think that there is a good deal of diversity in what scholars actually think and do. Again from my book:

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Positivism and interpretivism are not the banners of mono- lithic, rival camps of scholars who all walk in lockstep with their respective methodological comrades. Some scholars move back and forth between these orientations. Others seek ways to cut a middle path between them. Even individual scholars who work largely within one tradition or the other may hold views that correspond only partially with, or perhaps differ from, the ones that I have laid out.2

Another point worth clarifying is that drawing a distinction between positivism and interpretivism should not be taken to mean that these two approaches—even when enacted in their most dissimilar forms—share nothing in common. Among other things, scholars working in both traditions typically believe that good research should be trustworthy and that the achievement of trustworthiness requires attention to method, while disagreements are often about what counts as trustworthiness or which methods should be used to secure it.3

Such complications notwithstanding, I posit that many scholars do hold or enact the methodological views I describe, or something like them, and that whether one brings a more positivist or more interpretivist orientation to the study of the social world matters for how one thinks about and works with concepts. As best as I can tell, within positivist methodology the central conceptual task is, typically, to generate, by means of reconstruction (often called “concept formation”), a precise terminology that faithfully represents a reality taken to be independently pre-existing. The scholar’s own near-to-hand experience is usually viewed as the raw material out of which this scientific language is constructed, while the experience of those being studied is valued for the information about individual opinions or perspectives that it yields. Within interpretive methodology, in contrast, the central conceptual task is, typically, to elucidate the everyday categories of those being studied as well as the scientific categories of those doing the studying. This elucidation involves, more specifically, mediating between the experience-near language of the people who are the subject of research and the experience-distant terminology of the scholarly community.4 Such an approach requires the interpretivist social scientist to see both experience-near and - distant concepts as intersubjectively meaningful, socially constitutive, and part of a broader politics of concept use.5

It is sometimes asserted that the main difference between positivist- and interpretivist-oriented scholars is that the former embrace the task of causal explanation while the latter reject it; Jackson’s review, for instance, characterizes my own position in the latter way.6 Such an assertion, I believe, is erroneous.

Goertz is correct when he notes that many interpretivists do seek to explain and are interested in causes.As I see it, what distinguishes interpretivists is how they think about ex- planation and how they conceive of causes. In contrast to many positivists, who tend to think that explanation should be built up from generalizable causal laws or mechanisms, interpretivists are more likely to work up context-specific explanations. Causal accounts can be so embedded in these context-specific interpretivist explanations that they are not recognizable as causal to someone looking for a discussion of laws or mechanisms. Illuminating on this point are comments made by Clifford Geertz in an interview he gave to John Gerring for this newsletter. His words are worth quoting at length:

If you get interpretation right, I believe the causes will fall out. If you understand the cockfight, you’ll understand why people are engaging in it, why things are happening the way they are happening. It must be clear, of course, whether you’re talking about a cause or a causal law.

There’s a big difference. Everything is caused. On the molar level there is no uncaused behavior. If I look at the cockfight and something happens, I don’t say “There’s no cause for this, it just happened.” I don’t write that way, and no one really writes that way. So that isn’t what we’re doing. But the question about causal laws gets more complicated. There’s one issue concerning the difference be- tween causality and determinism. If you are familiar with Elizabeth Anscombe’s work, you will understand that the search for causes is close to detective work. You come in and you find the pitcher has fallen to the floor and there’s glass. Did the cat push it, or did the wind blow it over? The one thing you know is that there is a cause. It’s on the floor and there’s milk all over. But whether the cat did it or the wind did it, or you put it down in a way that made it tumble later on—there are evidently lots of possibilities. The point is, you need to have the story of what happened. But you don’t have to have a causal law. There’s no causal law that cats tip over milk.8

Even the thickest interpretivist description is not an alternative to explanation. Such a description is a specific kind of explanation, a “story of what happened” as Geertz says. Causes are not absent from it, just more situated and particularized than they are in explanations couched in the language of laws or mechanisms.

One conclusion that I reach about current debates over the status of causes and explanation is that the vocabulary social scientists use to conduct their research, the intellectual scaffolding that they erect, is in need of greater elucidation. Even the most cursory examination of “cause” reveals (at least) two distinct uses. In the first use, which derives from David Hume’s philosophy, causes are seen as forces external to the individual. In the second, much older use, reasons and

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motives themselves can be causes. The latter understanding of causes, by the way, is still present in the legal realm where it is embodied in expressions like “probable cause,” “having good cause,” and “cause of action”—all of which refer in some way to having proper or adequate reasons for acting in a particular way.9 I suspect that some interpretivists who avoid explicit talk about causes do so not, or not only, because they are devoted to the kind of thick storytelling described by Geertz; they may also, or instead, do so because they have come to see causes as purely external forces. John Gunnell, for one, seems to adopt the latter position when he argues that “any thoroughgoing attempt to explain action and the relationship between mental episodes and observed behavior in causal terms, that is, [in] the language of physical events, will necessarily founder.”10 “Cause,” of course, is not the only term that would profit from elucidation. Also in need of analysis are terms like “fact,” “case,” “data,” “mechanism,” “reflexivity,” “explanation,” “qualitative,” “quantitative,” and most salient for the topic of this symposium, “methodology,” “interpretivism,” “positivism,” and “concept.”

One of my aims in writing Elucidating Social Science Concepts was to provide scholars with tools to critically reflect on their use of such terms, tools that I believe can help them use more carefully and self-consciously the language in which and with which they think. Another of my aims in writing the book was to simply open up more spaces for thinking. As Smith generously phrased it, a promise of the book is to “create new windows of inquiry” and “initiate a process of political imagination.”11 The utility of the book for this purpose is borne out in Smith’s own contribution to the symposium. In her hands the book becomes a prompt to raise a whole series of probing questions about her own area of research: the contextually specific aims of protesters in Ethiopia. Most intriguing to me is the possibility of interrogating more deeply even the basic characterization of what was going on there as people “protesting.” Does it make sense, she asks, to think of Ethiopians taking to the streets as “protesters” even though Ethiopians themselves have different languages and vocabularies that possibly reflect different self-understandings? The “protester” marching out on the street, I would point out, is neither a transhistorical nor a transcultural personage. Prior to the 17th century, a protester in England was not someone who objected or complained, but someone who avowed or declared solemnly; someone who for instance made protestations of love. Today, even languages that are fairly similar to English have terms that are only roughly equivalent to “protester.” In Spanish, for instance, people use the word “manifestante.” If the protester is someone who expresses dissent by means of public declaration, the manifestante is someone who displays (makes manifest) their dissent in their actions. Historically, the Protestant reformation seems to have decisively shaped how English-speakers today conceive of protesters, a history not shared by everyone around the world. What might we not be noticing when we unreflectively label people back in time and in other cultures “protesters”? How did or do they themselves conceive of their own actions?

Such questions about self-understandings “matter” or have “instrumental value”—to take up a question posed by Goertz in his review—for at least two kinds of reasons.12 For one, they help us gain insight into what people (in 2015 Ethiopia, in 2011 Spain, in 14th century England) understood them- selves to be doing. They thereby give us a thicker story of what happened, a richer explanation of what was going on.13 This does not mean scholars need to imprison themselves in the language used by the people that they study or that scholars cannot think critically about the local self-understandings that they uncover. On the contrary, much interpretivist work brings to self-understandings what Paul Ricoeur called a hermeneutics of “suspicion”14—a sensitivity to the ways in which people’s self-descriptions may be shallow, deluded, deceitful, shaped by power relations, or the like. What this does mean is that scholars can come up with fuller explanations of what happened and guard against various forms of misrecognition if they take those self-understandings into account. Exemplary in this regard is the work that Lee Ann Fujii15 has done on the interpretation of lying in post-genocide Rwanda.

Attending to the self-understandings of people different from us (whoever “we” may be) also matters because such understandings can enlarge our own political imagination. By moving back and forth between our own commonsense and the commonsense of other communities of people, by investigating historically or cross-culturally basic concepts of political life, the promise is to disturb the taken-for-grantedness of our own views. This disturbance, hopefully, will allow us to see, critique, and change aspects of our political life that we had previously left unexamined. To put it another way, one aim of historically or cross-culturally elucidating a familiar concept like protester is to loosen the hold of common sense over us. Quentin Skinner16 likens this grip of our common sense to bewitchment. The seeming naturalness of our views deludes us into believing that our current way of thinking is the way of thinking. Seeing that things can be otherwise offers, as Skinner puts it, a kind of “exorcism” which can help break that spell.17Elucidation opens to view new or forgotten ways of thinking from which we might learn.

I turn now to the critique of Elucidating Social Science Concepts put forward by Jackson in his review.18 He takes issue with my using the categories of positivism and interpretivism because, as he puts it, they are not “coherent intellectual packages.” They are, in his view, an oversimplified binary that forces upon the social scientist a dichotomous set

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of choices that unduly restrict analytic opportunities. Jackson prefers instead his own typology, which he has laid out in his Conduct of Inquiry in International Relations.19 This typology rests on two dimensions: the relationship between the knower and the known (one can be committed to either mind-world dualism or mind-world monism) and the relationship between knowledge and observation (one can be committed to either phenomenalism or transfactualism). Combining these two dimensions in different ways results for him in four possible methodological commitments: “neopositivism” (mind-world dualism + phenomenalism), “critical realism” (mind-world dualism + transfactualism), “analyticism” (mind-world monism + phenomenalism), and “reflexivity” (mind-world monism + transfactualism).20

I commend Jackson for his efforts to think systematically about methodology and I recommend his book highly. All the same, I think he is mistaken to brush aside the categories of positivism and interpretivism for in doing so he dismisses what scholars in many empirical fields of research actually do and the distinctions that many members of epistemic communities—both in and beyond political science—actually make. His own typology rests on philosophical positions that he himself packages together. But the distinction between positivism and interpretivism is, as he acknowledges, “practically operative” and corresponds to “existing research practice.” I would add that authors from a variety of disciplines have produced over the past forty-plus years a whole body of scholar- ship devoted to working out what they themselves call “interpretive” methodology.21 Even scholars working outside the interpretivist tradition acknowledge the salience of interpretivism as a category for talking about methodology. For instance, Goertz and James Mahoney,22 in their own critically important methodological intervention, recognize the distinctiveness of interpretivism even if they do not include a discussion of it in their book about qualitative and quantitative research cultures: “Interpretive approaches are not featured in our two cultures argument...Such a book would bring to light fundamental clashes over epistemology and ontology that exist within parts of the social sciences.”23

Jackson relies almost exclusively on the experience-distant concepts of the philosopher with little attention to the self-understandings of actual research communities as they exist in practice. The risks of doing so are to misrecognize what scholars in those communities are in fact doing and to overlook some of the methodological richness of their scholarship. These risks, with regard to interpretivist scholars and scholarship, reveal themselves in Jackson’s reading of my book. He claims, to give just one example, that by my account “it is…unclear how a scholar might critique concepts” because “we have no choice but to restrict scholarly explanation to an exercise of explication.” One line of criticism here, as I understand it, is the charge that the kind of elucidative strategies that I propose cannot be used by scholars to transcend or gain critical distance from the self-descriptions of the people being studied. This rendering of my argument regrettably passes over a central distinction that my book makes between “departing from” and “disregarding” such self-understandings.24 A scholar with an interpretivist sensibility, I argue, should be free to depart from a person’s self-understanding but not to disregard it. Departures add analytic insight but nonetheless need to be tethered somehow to how people understand themselves and the categories that they use. As I put it elsewhere in the book, “we often benefit from the broadened perspective that experience-distant language provides—as long as we take care not to lose or expel the experience-near from our field of sight.”25 One example that I give in the book to clarify this argument is the term genocide. The Nazis never used this word; it was coined toward the end of the war by Professor Raphael Lemkin of Duke University. I believe that scholars with an interpretivist sensibility are justified in using this term to describe the murderous project of the Nazis. But a thick account of that genocide also requires investigating the (often deceitful and euphemistic) uses of terms like EndlösungAussiedlung, and Sonderbehandlung by the Nazis themselves, as ways of talking about mass murder. Genocide scholars should not feel compelled to encase their own analyses in the language of the Nazis, but neither should they ignore that language if they wish to take seriously the actor’s point of view.26

I find Jackson’s remarks on this and similar points unfortunate since our two books may be more complementary than his review might lead one to believe. There is much to be gained, I would argue, by reading the books together and seeing how one might customize the various strategies of elucidation that I develop to fit within the four philosophical positions that he identifies. I deliberately presented the strategies of elucidation, after all, in a modular fashion so that they might be adapted to the specific but variegated needs of scholars. It is in this sense that I likened the book to a collection of recipes written for an adventurous cook.27 In his review, Jackson himself does some of that adventurous, adaptive work.28

Let me expand on this last point with a few more comments about the audience I imagined for Elucidating Social Science Concepts. I wrote it for inclusion in a book series on interpretivist methods, so the volume contains strategies for thinking about and working with concepts that I anticipated would be useful to scholars with an interpretivist sensibility.29 Still, I hoped the book would appeal to other scholars as well.

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For one, I hoped it might serve as an invitation to learn about or even experiment with a different set of methodological starting points and strategies for working with concepts. I thought the book might also be helpful to those positivist scholars interested in investigating the particular dangers or limits of reconstructing a concept in this or that way. Goertz is just the kind of scholar I had in mind.30 Indeed, he shows in his symposium contribution how the strategies of elucidation contained in my book can be deployed to that end. There are many creative and insightful scholars working outside of the interpretivist tradition, so I have no doubt that they can work out still other ways to adapt elucidation to their own needs and interests.

In writing a book about concepts from an interpretivist standpoint, I found it necessary to point out the analytic shortcomings and ethical dangers that so often bedevil positivist conceptual reconstruction, the predominant way of working with concepts today in disciplines such as political science. But it bears emphasizing that interpretivist elucidation has its own analytic shortcoming and ethical dangers, some of which I discuss in the concluding chapter of the book. No matter our methodological commitments, we would all do well to take seriously the warning of Anne Norton: “The hope for a tool that will not turn in the hand, for a language that will speak without deception, for a method that cannot be used irresponsibly, is illusory.”31 Humility should be a watchword on all our lips.


Fujii, Lee Ann. 2010. “Shades of Truth and Lies: Interpreting Testimonies of War and Violence.” Journal of Peace Research vol. 47, no. 2: 231–241.

Fujii, Lee Ann. In press. Interviewing in Social Science Research: A Relational Approach. New York: Routledge.

Geertz, Clifford. 1973. The Interpretation of Cultures. New York: Basic.

Geertz, Clifford. 1983. “‘From the Native’s Point of View’: On the Nature of Anthropological Understanding.” In Local Knowledge: Further Essays in Interpretive Anthropology. New York: Basic Books, 55–70.

Gerring, John. 2003. “Interview with Clifford Geertz.” Qualitative Methods vol. 1, no. 2: 24–28.

Goertz, Gary. 2016. “Schaffer’s Elucidating Social Science Concepts: Notes of a Conceptualist in the Field.” Qualitative and Multi- Method Research: Newsletter of the American Political Science Association’s QMMR Section vol. 14, no. 1-2.

Goertz, Gary and James Mahoney. 2012. A Tale of Two Cultures: Qualitative and Quantitative Research in the Social Sciences. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Goertz, Gary and Amy Mazur, eds. 2008. Politics, Gender, and Concepts: Theory and Methodology. New York: Cambridge Uni- versity Press.

Gunnell, John. 1968. “Social Science and Political Reality.” Social Research vol. 35, 159–201.

Hiley, David R., Bohman, James F., and Richard Shusterman, eds. 1991. The Interpretive Turn: Philosophy, Science, Culture. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Jackson, Patrick Thaddeus. 2011. The Conduct of Inquiry in International Relations: Philosophy of Science and Its Implication for the Study of World Politics. New York: Routledge.

Jackson, Patrick Thaddeus. 2016. “Commanding a Clear View: Words, Concepts, and Social Science.” Qualitative and Multi-Method Re- search: Newsletter of the American Political Science Association’s QMMR Section vol. 14, no. 1-2.

King, Gary, Robert O. Keohane, and Sidney Verba. 1994. Designing Social Inquiry: Scientific Inference in Qualitative Research.

Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Lynch, Cecelia. 2014. Interpreting International Politics. New York: Routledge.

Mahoney, James. 2010. “After KKV: The New Methodology of Qualitative Research.” World Politics vol. 62, no. 1: 120–147.

Norton, Anne. 2004. 95 Theses on Politics, Culture, and Method. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Pachirat, Timothy. Forthcoming. Among Wolves: A Guide to the Immersive Study of Power. New York: Routledge.

Rabinow, Paul and William M. Sullivan, eds. 1979. Interpretive Social Science: A Reader. Berkeley: University of California Press. Rabinow, Paul and William M. Sullivan, eds. 1987. Interpretive Social Science: A Second Look. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Ricoeur, Paul. 1970. Freud and Philosophy: An Essay in Interpretation. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Schaffer, Frederic Charles. 1998. Democracy in Translation: Under- standing Politics in an Unfamiliar Culture. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Schaffer, Frederic Charles. 2013. “Questions about Causes.” Qualitative and Multi-Method Research vol. 11, no. 2: 23–27.

Schaffer, Frederic Charles. 2016. Elucidating Social Science Concepts: An Interpretivist Guide. New York: Routledge.

Schwartz-Shea, Peregrine. 2014. “Judging Quality.” In Interpretation and Method: Empirical Research Methods and the Interpretive Turn, 2nd edition, edited by Dvora Yanow and Peregrine Schwartz- Shea. Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 120–146.

Schwartz-Shea, Peregrine and Dvora Yanow. 2012. Interpretive Re- search Design: Concepts and Processes. New York: Routledge.

Shenhav, Shaul R. 2015. Analyzing Social Narratives. New York: Routledge.

Skinner, Quentin. 2002. Visions of Politics, Volume 1: Regarding Method. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Smith, Lahra. 2016. “A Spark for the Political Imagination.” Qualitative and Multi-Method Research: Newsletter of the American Political Science Association’s QMMR Section vol. 14, no. 1-2.

Taylor, Charles. 1971. “Interpretation and the Sciences of Man.”

Review of Metaphysics vol. 25, no. 1: 3–51.


1 Schaffer 2016, 2.

2 Schaffer 2016, 24.

3 In my graduate-level Comparative Politics Proseminar I have students search for commonalities in King, Keohane, and Verba (1994, 3–33), Mahoney (2010), and Schwartz-Shea (2014). They find plenty. The exercise is highly illuminating; try it yourself!

4 I borrow the distinction between “experience-near” and “experience-distant” language from Clifford Geertz (1983, 57). The former consists of commonplace words used in everyday contexts, whereas the latter consists of words employed by specialists in ways that are extra-ordinary and experientially remote.

5 Schaffer 2016, 4–10.

6 See Jackson (2016) in this symposium.

7 See Goertz (2016) in this symposium.

8 Gerring 2003, 27.

9 Schaffer 2013.

10 Gunnell 1968, 193.

11 See Smith (2016) in this symposium.

12 See Goertz (2016) in this symposium.

13 I unpack this argument in Schaffer (1998, 86–115) and Schaffer (2016, 16, 89-90).

14 Ricoeur 1970, 32–36.

15 Fujii 2010.

16 Skinner 2002, 6.

17 Skinner 2002, 6.

18 See Jackson (2016) in this symposium.

19 Jackson 2011.

20 Jackson 2011, 37.

21 See, e.g., Taylor 1971; Geertz 1973; Rabinow and Sullivan 1979 and 1987; Hiley, Bohman, and Shusterman 1991; Schwartz-Shea and Yanow 2012.

22 Goertz and Mahoney 2012.

23 Goertz and Mahoney 2012, 4–5.

24 Schaffer 2016, 3.

25 Schaffer 2016, 71.

26 Schaffer 2016, 71, 73n12, 93.

27 Schaffer 2016, xv.

28 Jackson (2016) in this symposium.

29 Other books in the series—the Routledge Series on Interpretive Methods—include Schwartz-Shea and Yanow (2012), Lynch (2014), and Shenhav (2015). Volumes by Fujii (on interviewing) and Timothy Pachirat (on ethnography) are forthcoming.

30 Goertz is modest in not mentioning the excellent book that he co- edited, with Amy Mazur, on the pitfalls of ignoring gender when reconstructing concepts (Goertz and Mazur 2008).

31 Norton 2004, 135.