Finding, and correcting, my mistakes

Finding, and correcting, my mistakes

Volume 39, Number 3 (July 2005)
pages 483–499
DOI: 10.1177/0038038505052488

Michael Banton, Emeritus Professor of Sociology
Univeristy of Bristol

Mistakes are inherent in the process of research but can illuminate it. Some of the author’s mistakes have been false assumptions shared with others of his generation. His early work lacked a sufficiently sharp focus for him to be able to make any interesting mistakes. In 1967 he claimed that race was used as a role sign when he should have claimed that phenotypical differences were so used. He tended to take race as a synonym for colour, and failed to appreciate that a social construct could not be a basis for a general theory. His subsequent attempts to correct these mistakes are outlined.

Sir Karl Popper, one of my teachers, taught that we should learn from our mistakes, indeed ‘that all our knowledge grows only through the correcting of our mistakes’ (1969: ix; see also Agassi, 1968). In line with this doctrine, I have looked for the mistakes that I have made in the study of ethnic and racial relations, and what I have done to correct them. The exercise has strengthened my belief that Popper’s claim was either a pardonable exaggeration or depended on a restrictive conception of what constitutes knowledge. For in social science much can be learned from a data-gathering inquiry, like a social survey or a population census, or from attending a lecture. In the accumulation of new knowledge there are two phases. The first is inductive in character, gathering and sorting observations. The second phase, in which hypotheses about causal relations are put to the test, relies on deductive reasoning. Popper’s doctrine applies best in the second phase.

Much research in contemporary social science is entangled in the transition from the first to the second phase. Not all inquiry makes this move. Information collected for the purposes of public policy, like a population census, may remain descriptive. When, however, the research worker perceives in the information an intellectual problem, something requiring explanation, there is an impulse to deductive reasoning.

Another of my teachers, Sir Raymond Firth, told me that Malinowski, his teacher, used to insist that ‘without problems there are no facts’. Only when a scholar has decided on the problem can he or she decide which facts are or could be relevant. ‘Science begins with problems, practical problems or theoretical problems’, wrote Popper (1994a: 95–101). Yet the perception of a problem is no simple matter. The German expression Problemstellung is useful as denoting the recognition that something constitutes an intellectual problem; this recognition should include a formulation of the problem in such a way that it can be addressed, for, as others have said, a problem well stated is a problem half solved. Some of my mistakes have been false assumptions that I have shared with others of my generation, errors that can be identified only in retrospect. In trying to correct them I have learned things that, for me, constituted personal discoveries. Many of these were steps on the way towards the identification of causal relationships and the prospect that, one day, it may be possible to subject them to empirical testing…

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