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January 8, 2007

Universality in Particularity

Posted by David Corfield

To keep me from brooding on the pleasure I’m missing out on by not being with my Café co-hosts in Toronto, let me try out a blog post.

In just about every academic endeavour to which I’ve applied myself, I have run up against the problem of striking the right balance between specificity and generality. When you’re looking to capture some complex entity and there are many possible instances to choose from, should you opt for a few highly detailed case studies, or are you better off selecting a few aspects of a multitude of examples, perhaps to submit them to statistical analysis?

Take the entity ‘episode of mathematical reasoning’. Should one take as central what is common to all such reasoning, or should one devote many pages to a detailed account of a handful of case studies? Differences of opinion on this score as regards science have occurred frequently in the philosophy of science, and in philosophically-minded history of science. In Image and Logic, Peter Galison criticises Kuhn for imagining that there might be a structure to scientific revolutions. He likens this to seeking to understand the structure of European civilisations by a case study of France. On the other hand, many analytic philosophers would find Kuhn far too interested in the specificity of historical cases, and seek some universal insight into inductive reasoning.

In the field of the mind’s influence on human health, while writing Why Do People Get Ill?, what was so very striking to us is the decline almost to extinction of the case study. While when psychoanalysis held sway one would hear the life stories of patients, today everything is about the search for correlation between personality factors and measures of disease.

Anyone who knows my work will recognise my penchant for the case study end of the spectrum. So I’ve been greatly enjoying recently a book by Jared Diamond, entitled Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. This book attempts to understand what lies behind the successes and failures of societies in terms of their impact on the environment. Why did the Viking settlement in Greenland fail, while, after a sticky start, the one in Iceland succeeded? While Diamond might have been tempted to adopt an exclusively statistical approach, and he does at one point talk about comparing 61 Pacific Island societies in this way, the bulk of the book is given over to detailed case studies. It’s the inclusion of such details as that the Greenland Vikings devoted resources to walrus tusk gathering to pay its tithe to Rome, at a time when elephant ivory was in short supply owing to obstacles put up by the Islamic world, rather then spending every hour making as much hay as possible to sustain the livestock through the very harsh winters, that makes this book. There is a kind of universality in particularity.

Posted at January 8, 2007 11:16 PM UTC

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Re: Universality in Particularity

It’s interesting that case studies are alive and well in neuropsychology, e.g. for a recent example see The Understanding of Quantifiers in Semantic Dementia: A Single-Case Study by Cappelletti et al (2006) – a detailed study of a patient “A.M.” I wonder what makes this field so different to other studies of brain and mind? Perhaps it’s just that patients with interesting – however that’s decided – combinations of function and dysfunction are difficult to find?

Papers in conversation analysis also comment in detail on the utterances produced people, see e.g. stuff produced by the Loughborough group.

I would love to see a few case studies of people with (DSM-IV) depression. I suspect detailed interviews would help to make better sense of the effect of pharmaceutical and psychological interventions.

Looking forward to your new book.

Posted by: Andy on January 9, 2007 12:24 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Universality in Particularity

It’s interesting that case studies are alive and well in neuropsychology

Yes, neuropsychology does stand out. Interesting to think why this should be so. Is the key factor, as you suggest, the availability of subjects, or is it that leaders in the field have promoted that approach? What effect do popularisations of a case study nature, such as Oliver Sacks’ books, have on the field?

At one point in my career I was going to reconcile the discursive psychology of the Loughborough group with psychoanalysis. In the meantime, Michael Billig has published Freudian Repression. Grant Gillett, who wrote The Discursive Mind with Rom Harré, an introductory book to discursive psychology, also wrote The Mind and its Discontents: An Essay in Discursive Psychiatry. My co-author, Darian Leader, has a second book coming out with Penguin, about depression.

Posted by: David Corfield on January 9, 2007 12:59 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Universality in Particularity

Thanks for those references!

Posted by: Andy on January 11, 2007 8:05 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Universality in Particularity

I once read a very amusing quote which is relevant here; I think it is due to Fischer Black:

“History only happened once. With a sample size this small, how are we supposed to predict anything?!”

Anyone else heard this one? I’m at a google-loss for the proper attribution!

Posted by: Allan E on January 9, 2007 11:45 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Universality in Particularity

You may have lucked onto one of those elusive puzzles which cannot be answered with Google.

Posted by: Blake Stacey on January 10, 2007 6:01 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Universality in Particularity

David wrote:

Should you opt for a few highly detailed case studies, or are you better off selecting a few aspects of a multitude of examples, perhaps to submit them to statistical analysis?

You should do whichever type there aren’t enough of!

It’s not as though one way is always best. Sometimes breadth is better than depth. Sometimes depth is better than breadth. Sometimes you want something in between. It depends what question you’re asking.

Posted by: Tim Silverman on January 10, 2007 7:27 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Universality in Particularity

I wasn’t suggesting there’d be a single answer to the balancing act. Even in a given problem situation perhaps what we want is a distribution over the spectrum, as Akira Bergman’s comment suggests. But people disagree about such distributions. Presumably most people working in medical psychology are happy that the overwhelming majority of research is not of the case study form. I would like to see a shift in the distribution.

Posted by: David Corfield on January 11, 2007 1:23 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Universality in Particularity

Learning a musical piece presents similar problems. Do you read the whole thing, or concentrate on parts? I found that doing both in parallel gives the best results, both musically and technically. Complete reading improves the overall balance in time and intensity which improves large scale phrasing. Specific reading improves the technical aspects and also small scale phrasing. I also found that both slow and concentrated and fast and furious reading or practising are needed to keep the piece in good shape when played in normal speed. Fast playing also helps with large scale phrasing by compacting large phrases and making them easier for the mind.

Learning Bach is one of the hardest since his music contains information at all levels from small to large scale. He forces you to look at all levels of complexity in parallel.

One can extend this analogy to many other things. It all depends on how the complexity is distrubuted in the entity under analysis.

Posted by: Akira Bergman on January 11, 2007 4:04 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Universality in Particularity

Interesting. So my feelings about medical psychology would find their parallel if the study of Bach were carried out largely in the form of looking for a handful of features which would predict the date of composition. E.g., I’m sure if you looked for it, you could find a drift in the frequency of his use of some technique or other. Finding that in a sample of 12000 Hungarians, possessing a ‘rival attitude’ correlates with various measures of ill health may be interesting,

Social distrust, the statement that “people are generally dishonest and selfish and they want to take advantage of others” was a more important predictor of early death among men than smoking.

but it leaves me wanting to know more.

I can’t think of another class of entities which compares with the class of human beings for combined number and complexity of its entities.

Posted by: David Corfield on January 11, 2007 1:38 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Universality in Particularity

Rivalry and good health. Hmm tough one. Rivalry can also be good for health at any scale, judging by the success of humans and the amount of internal predation in the society. Internal predation is quite common in nature, but humans seem to have taken it to new hights. Many social interactions have predation aspect to them, from finding friends and sexual partners to working.

Rivalry can also be bad. But what is the dynamics of rivalry and health coupling in the society? I think here we can call for the music metaphor. Good music has a self similarity to it, like life and the universe. Large orchestral pieces and small solo pieces share common fundamental symmetries, like {bass, mid-range, treble} mediated duality.

Posted by: Akira Bergman on January 12, 2007 3:42 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Plato and Aristotle on abtraction; Re: Universality in Particularity

”,,, But if there is no doctrine of abstraction in Plato’s works, there are passages which might have suggested the doctrine to his successor, Aristotle. It is sufficient to mention here only the passage in the Phaedrus (249B-C) where it is written that ‘man must needs understand the language of Forms, passing from a plurality of perceptions to a unity gathered together by reasoning’ (Hackforth, 1952). Since, in the very next sentence, we are informed that ‘this understanding is the recollection of those things which our souls beheld aforetime…,’ the intention of the passage is clear enough. But the notion that this unity (ἕν) is somehow connected with a multitude of perceptions might have been one of the suggestions which led Aristotle to his doctrine of abstraction.’…”

[Dictionary of the Hostory of Ideas, “ABSTRACTION IN THE FORMATION OF CONCEPT”]

Posted by: Jonathan Vos Post on January 13, 2007 7:11 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

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