The meaning of abduction


Ingo Rohlfing wrote of my post responding to Howick et al:

“The discretion and judgement emphasised here lead away from both deductive and inductive approaches. Mechanistic reasoning is the alternative, despite its accepted weaknesses.” I agree mechanistic reasoning does not (have to) rely on induction or deduction. But creativity hardly strikes me as a good standard for making causal claims about mechanisms. I would think it is abduction or inference to the best explanation (which also requires some creativity, but all social science does).

Thanks Ingo

I wonder what you mean by abduction? Do you, like Blaikie (2010), treat abduction as a self-sufficient research strategy (see Hammersley, 2014), or do you follow Pierce (1903:235), who emphasised the guessing and creativity of an abductive approach?

For Pierce, abduction:

‘… allows any flight of imagination, provided this imagination ultimately alights upon a possible practical effect; and thus many hypotheses may seem at first glance to be excluded by the pragmatical maxim that are not really so excluded.’

I agree with this version of abduction and also with your observation that ‘creativity [is not] a good standard for making causal claims about mechanisms’. In my response to Howick et al, I was concerned with two issues. First, like Cartwright and Hardie (2012) I think the imposition of the experimental model on complex phenomena is designed to remove the ‘guessing’ or ‘creativity’ from the very process of doing research. I return to Cartwright and Hardie’s point, deliberation is not second best, it is an essential part of the process. We might get it wrong quite a lot of the time, of course, but then we must invoke a second point made by CS Pierce. As he asks:

…. What is good abduction? What should an explanatory hypothesis be to be worthy to rank as a hypothesis? Of course, it must explain the facts. But what other conditions ought it to fulfil to be good? …. Any hypothesis, therefore, may be admissible, in the absence of any special reasons to the contrary, provided it be capable of experimental verification, and only insofar as it is capable of such verification. This is approximately the doctrine of pragmatism.

I’m not entirely sure I like the term ‘verification’, I prefer testing, refining, judging, and so on (but then much debate has happened in the social sciences since 1903). What I do like, this definition of abduction is not self-sufficient. It is explicitly part of a process of researching that progresses through explanatory hypotheses. I think about these as theories of the middle range (after Merton, 1968). Raymond Boudon describes these as a set of statements that ‘organise a set of hypotheses and relate them to segregated observations’ (1991: 520). My point, unlike Howick and colleagues (2013), is that guesses, creativity, deliberation, and informed judgement are very much part of any research endeavour. We must valorise these theories, hypotheses, and conjectures. They are the ZIG that precedes the ZAG in any research endeavour. In short, ideas precede method. So often research is presented as otherwise.

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