chapter  8
The Inadequacy of Interpretivism: Explaining Britain’s Failure to ‘Number the People’
Pages 21

The Inadequacy of Interpretivist Explanation: A Realist Critique Pointing to politicians’ beliefs and desires – for example, their adherence to specific economic doctrines or their interpretation of polling evidence about which policies would find most electoral support – can certainly contribute to explaining their attitudes, say, to the use of quantitative easing in response to economic recession. So, too, can their affiliations to broad ‘traditions’ of ideas, such as neo-liberalism. But such explanations are hardly ever complete. Many types of factor encourage or constrain particular beliefs and desires, and help to explain people’s actions or decisions. Most obvious are external events, such as halfexpected currency crises in the eurozone or worse-than-expected unemployment statistics. Then there are contextual constraints, such as those imposed by limited fiscal resources. Realists may agree with interpretivists that beliefs and desires specify the significance of particular events and constraints, and that statistics are calculated using concepts which result from processes of social construction. But, more fundamentally, they want to know, too, why, from the vast mess of potential beliefs and desires, people settle for, or disagree about, the ones that they do. To answer this important question, we reject methodological individualism to assert the importance of social relations, especially those of an informal kind, and of the ways in which they are institutionalised, in explaining people’s beliefs and desires. Elsewhere, we have shown that the causal effects of social institutions lie not so much in directly determining the content of beliefs and desires as in encouraging particular ‘styles of thought’, by which we mean a tendency to adopt particular ways, rather than others, of looking at the world (6, 2011, 2014a; see also Douglas, 1986). In the case presented here, divergent, but institutionally framed, styles of judgement led policymakers to adopt very different ways of classifying problems and of assessing opportunities, imperatives, and constraints. Bevir’s and Rhodes’s accounts of life in the British civil service are less free from structuralist explanation than they claim. Their version of interpretivism acknowledges the influence of other people on a person’s beliefs and desires, both informally and by overt persuasion, by recognising ‘intersubjective’ sources of beliefs and desires (for example, 2003, 2006). But it is unclear whether their framing of ‘intersubjectivity’ is sufficiently capacious to recognise how the cultivation of social relationships, whether among acquaintances or among members of well-established informal ‘clubs’, professions, or occupational groups, encourage particular kinds of belief or desire. They speak of the ‘common beliefs’ of civil servants, and their explanation of how people acquire occupational norms – the ‘framework of the acceptable’ (2006: chapter 7) –

appears to acknowledge socialisation processes. They also write about the ‘features’ and ‘failings’ of the ‘patterns of rule’ within which civil servants work, and even bring themselves to write about ‘the state’, although their caveat that it is a ‘family resemblance category’ (2010: 93) implies that it somehow does not count as a social institution. Bevir and Rhodes (2010: 81-100) accept that ‘structure’ is a useful metaphor for the patterning of social life, but claim that ‘emergent structures are better understood as practices’. They also acknowledge that ‘practices – or at least the actions of others – can constrain the effects, and so the effectiveness of an action’ (Bevir and Rhodes, 2010: 76), but nevertheless insist that ‘practices do not constrain the beliefs people might come to hold and so the actions they might attempt to perform’ (Bevir and Rhodes, 2010: 76). And they explain that ‘traditions’ change and may even be reinvented when they are confronted by ‘major challenges’ and ‘cease to work’ (2010: 160), and that the resulting dilemmas often reflect changes in ‘material circumstances’ (2003: 41). It would be tempting, in the spirit of Bevir’s and Rhodes’s strictures on other political scientists, to accuse them of an unthinking realism, if they were not so anxious to hedge it with so many ‘get-out’ qualifications. Instead, as Smith points out (2008), their denial of the causal effects of social structure and other constraints, and their insistence that such factors must always be reduced to beliefs and desires (see Bevir and Rhodes, 2006a), leads their attempts at explanation – even of the ‘humanistic’ kind they seek – to collapse into a tautological mire, in which beliefs and desires form both the beginning and the end, the purpose and the means of social scientific explanation. Bevir’s and Rhodes’s insistent, yet hedged-about denial of institutional explanations stems from their methodologically individualistic claim that taking social structures seriously amounts to their ‘reification’, and that using social institutions to explain beliefs, desires, and traditions involves a ‘deterministic’ logic:

Mechanisms and processes . . . are treated as having objective content divorced from specific times and places . . . [I]institutionalists’ . . . explanations . . . rely on the abstract logic of the mechanism or process . . . [which is] not historical because their operation is reduced to an abstract logic. It is not contingent on the particular beliefs and actions of people at a particular time.