Humanizing Methodologies in Transformation


Howard Richards, University of South Africa, 20 July 2010 (Speech)

I want to say that deep cultural changes are needed, and that humanizing methodologies are needed to achieve them.  For this reason my activist passion for social change becomes a philosophical passion for favouring some epistemologies and some research and teaching methods over others.  In the title of my talk today I recommend “humanizing methodologies in transformation.”

The words “humanizing,” “methodologies,” and “transformation” are used in different ways by different people, as are of course every other word I will be employing, and indeed every word in every language.  Nevertheless, since I am recommending that people do social research described by these words, I need to make a special effort to explain what I intend by the three words of my title.  But I do not think it would be helpful, indeed I think it would be counterproductive, if I were to offer definitions at the outset.

I will leave definitions of my three key terms until later, and begin by attempting a brief outline of where I am coming from and where I want to go.

My strategy for thus locating myself in conceptual space will be first to disclose in what sense I regard myself as not normal; and then to share with you a cryptic general diagnosis concerning human nature and another cryptic diagnosis concerning the modern world-system we live in.  The need for deep cultural changes follows from these general diagnoses.  I will then allege that the need for humanizing methodologies in transformation follows from the need for deep cultural changes.

I am not a normal person.  A normal person I take to be a person who goes about her or his daily life assuming that the future will resemble the past.

I do not think the future will resemble the past, at least not in the medium or long run.  I think that the world as we know it is coming to an end, although perhaps not during the time I have left to live.  I am upset about it.  It appears to me that unless homo sapiens sapiens changes course, we are destined as a species to sink deeper and deeper into social chaos and ecological catastrophe.

Of the two, social chaos and ecological catastrophe, the second may seem to be of greater importance and in need of more priority attention.  After all, if we as a species destroy the biosphere we destroy our habitat and therefore we destroy ourselves as a species.  Our species can at least survive under conditions of social chaos, but it cannot survive at all without the unusual physical conditions that make life possible on this planet.  If most of what I have to say is about how to achieve social cohesion, it is because I think ending social chaos is a prerequisite to adopting the ways of life built around green technologies and frugal livelihoods that can save the biosphere.  We cannot now come together and act rationally to save ourselves because we are driven by what Ellen Wood calls systemic imperatives to obey what Herbert Marcuse calls the irrational rationalities of our social structure.  That is where the humanizing methodologies come in: Using them is what you and I here and now as university teachers and researchers can do to lead our species out of its systemic imperatives and irrational rationalities.

I used to feel rather alone in my pessimism, because even though there are millions who when questioned at an intellectual level will accept the mounting evidence that our species is headed for catastrophe, there are few who are sufficiently upset about it to commit themselves to working for a change of course.  During the past decade or so I have met Catherine Hoppers and a number of others who have shown me that although I am not normal I am not isolated either.  The growing number who are both committed to working for change and capable of analyzing the changes needed with the necessary depth and patience have convinced not only that I am not alone but also that there is a real possibility that homo sapiens sapiens will change course and will avoid catastrophe.

My focus is on the deep fundamental changes that are needed.  Any other focus, it seems to me, is designed perhaps to win some battles, but ultimately to lose the war.  To vary the metaphor, if we are all passengers on a sinking ship, then we have to assign top priority to the question whether there is any way to keep the ship from sinking.

In the academic climate we live in I feel that it is necessary before sharing my general diagnosis to say something to defend having any general diagnosis at all.  Let me start by relating an incident that happened shortly after the military coup that brought General Augusto Pinochet to power in Chile.  All of us who were then doing educational research in Chile were called together in an auditorium to make each of us a brief oral  report on what we were researching to an admiral who sat on the stage in a resplendent white uniform who was the newly designated Minister of Education of the republic.  One of my colleagues made the mistake of expressing some concern about the process for translating our specific findings into general conclusions for educational policy.  The admiral then ordered each of us to stick to our specialties, and to leave the drawing of general conclusions to the armed forces.

But it is not only military dictators who advise us to stick to our knitting and leave the big picture alone.  Positivists, post-modernists, Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze, Karl Popper, Isaiah Berlin, Albert Camus, and other luminaries chide any pretension to maintain what is disparagingly called a “totalizing” theory and urge us to be ever more modest about ever smaller specialties as the world collapses around us.

Amid the deafening roar of voices shouting that any general diagnosis whatever of the present human condition certainly has no scientific or intellectual validity, and will probably be a dangerous weapon of oppression, I quietly assert my methodology.  My methodology is to do my best to speak responsibly.  Following the speech act theories of John Searle and Jurgen Habermas, I regard all talking as a form of action.  I regard all action as called to be responsible, that is to say, to be taken in the light of the consequences of acting, in this case the consequences of speaking, and with the goal of producing consequences that will serve the cause of life.

My general diagnosis of human nature includes the premise that humans are creators of culture.  Being the cultural animal is our ecological niche.  We are biologically programmed to be culturally programmed.  Following the schools of Emile Durkheim and others, I find that a central feature at the core of any culture is that culture’s norms, otherwise known as rules.  I have read the critiques of Pierre Bourdieu, Michael Oakeshott and others who recommend against using “rules” as a key concept for understanding culture, and although I find what they say perfectly true when regarded as warnings to avoid traps into which too much rule-talk might lead us, I still do a lot of rule-talk, trying to be careful to avoid the traps of which Bourdieu, Oakeshott and others have warned us.

One of the advantages of rule-talk is that it tends to bring the study of law into dialogue with the other disciplines that comprise the social sciences.  Following H.L.A. Hart in his book The Concept of Law, I find it useful to define law as a union of primary and secondary rules,  the secondary rules being the rules that identify what is and what is not a primary rule, for example the rule that whatever is duly passed by majority vote of the legislature is a law.  Here the constitutional rule, the one empowering the legislature to legislate, is a secondary rule, while the law the legislature passes is a primary rule.

Remember that humans are animals whose biological niche is culture, and that the heart of a culture is to be found in its norms, in other words in its rules.  Whatever else may constitute a culture, at some point the culture guides and orients what people actually do; that is where the rubber hits the road, and why it is helpful to view norms as central.

Since law is about rules, when we say that the rest of the social sciences are also about culture, and that culture is about rules or what amounts to the same thing about norms, then we change the status of the college of law from that of an outlying territory speaking a foreign language to that of a central province of the federated republic of the social sciences.

I also find helpful Hart’s analysis of the word “rule.”  A rule has three characteristics.  First, it describes regularity, or at least a tendency toward regularity, in human conduct.  Second, violating it exposes the violator to legitimate criticism, and sometimes to legitimate punishment.  Third is what Hart calls the internal aspect of rules:  People consciously look to rules and guide their conduct according to rules.

My general diagnosis of the modern world-system we live in relies on the more specific concept of constitutive rules.  Since most of what I have to say today relies on that concept I will spend a few minutes explaining it.  I will not explain “constitutive rules” in the abstract, but rather will tie my explanation to the constitutive rules of the modern world-system that presently drives us ever deeper into social chaos and ecological disaster by its systemic imperatives and its irrational rationalities.  These particular constitutive rules are, in Charles Taylor’s phrase, the constitutive rules of a “bargaining society.”

“Constitutive” is usually contrasted with “regulative.”  John Searle writes, “I am fairly confident about the distinction [between regulative and constitutive], but I do not find it easy to clarify.  As a start, we might say that regulative rules regulate antecedently or independently existing forms of behaviour; for example, many rules of etiquette regulate inter-personal relationships which exist independently of the rules.  But constitutive rules do not merely regulate, they create or define new forms of behaviour.  The rules of football or chess, for example, do not merely regulate playing football or chess, but they as it were create the very possibility of playing such games.”  (Searle 1969, p. 33)

“Constitutive rules constitute (and also regulate) an activity the existence of which is logically dependent on the rules.”  (Searle 1969, p. 34)

Constitutive rules come in systems.  It is not so much a separate isolated rule that creates and defines a game, as a set of rules that makes it possible to play football, chess, or contract negotiation.  This last, contract negotiation, is what has defined the market, and therefore the world market, and therefore the world system.

In his great founding text articulating the constitutive rules of the modern world-system Adam Smith claimed that among all the animals, the human is the only one that makes contracts.  A natural tendency to truck or barter, he said, develops gradually into what Smith called a civilized, or in other words a commercial, society.  What makes a society commercial or civilized is what Smith called a tolerable administration of justice.  In other words, contracts are complied with and property rights are respected.  These rules constitute modernity, the market, and the modern world-system.

When you know how to apply the constitutive rule, you know not only how to give a piece of behaviour its right name, like, to use Charles Taylor’s example,  “walking out,” but also the further consequences for the game that flow from the piece of behaviour.  A constitutive rule, like “when there is a meeting of the minds reduced to writing and signed, there is a contract,” may not so much prescribe behaviour as enable behaviour by defining what counts as an act-in-the-law or as a certain kind of social performance, e.g. making a date or an appointment.

Taylor emphasizes that the game of bargaining, and any activity defined by constitutive rules, requires intersubjective meanings.  People participate in meanings that are not their own.  The meanings belong to the social order in which the people participate.  They are not just common meanings in the sense that each player privately has the same ones.  Who is the “property owner,” who is the “buyer,” who is the “lender,” and who is the “real estate sales agent,” are defined by rules that existed prior to this particular negotiation, and will return in the future to define and govern other negotiations.

Without the game with its constitutive rules, the act of “walking out” does not exist.  With it, “…leaving the room, saying or writing a certain form of words, counts as breaking off the negotiations;”  (Taylor 1971, p. 22)

“The language of our society recognizes states or actions like the following: entering into negotiation, breaking off negotiations, offering to negotiate, negotiating in good (bad) faith, concluding negotiations, making a new offer, etc.”  (Taylor 1971, p. 22)  If it did not do this, our society would not be the society it is, just as chess would dissolve or become another game if the rules constituting it were changed.

By making constitutive rules visible, we gain a better understanding of what our society is and how it works, and we also become less ethnocentric.  We become capable of what Catherine Hoppers calls second-level indigenization.  Instead of first-level indigenization,  in which faces and skin colours change, but the constitutive rules of the game remain the modern European ones prescribed by Adam Smith,  indigenous knowledge-systems now come into play in deciding what game is being played.  The formerly subjugated and colonized peoples are not only allowed to play the game; they are allowed to participate in making the rules; they join in deciding what the game is that is to be played.

By taking notice of our own rules we acknowledge that culture is not nature.  We acknowledge that our culture could be different.  If my pessimism is correct, our culture must learn to play different games in the future because the present rule of the game have organized society to self-destruct.

“Our whole notion of negotiation is bound up for instance with the distinct identity and autonomy of the parties, with the willed nature of their relations; it is a very contractual notion.  But other societies have no such conception.  It is reported about the traditional Japanese village that the foundation of its social life was a powerful form of consensus, which put a high premium on unanimous decision.  Such a consensus would be considered shattered if two clearly articulated parties were to separate out, pursuing opposed aims and attempting to vote down the opposition or push it into a settlement on the most favourable possible terms for themselves.  Discussion there must be, and some kind of adjustment of differences.  But our idea of bargaining, with the assumption of distinct autonomous parties in willed relationship, has no place there.”  (Taylor 1971 p. 23, referencing Smith 1959 chapter 5)

Taylor took his example from the countryside of traditional Japan, but he could just as well have taken it from traditional Africa.  As a general rule, the constitutive rules of indigenous knowledge systems around the world have two features that make learning from them indispensable for achieving the deep changes modernity now needs.

1. They are ecologically sustainable.

2. They are socially inclusive.

Inclusiveness is illustrated by Walter Rodney’s famous claim that homelessness and unemployment were unknown in Africa before European contact.  African cultures were inclusive until they were compelled by force to live under rules that made it possible for a person to have no right to be anywhere, and which made it possible for a person to have no work to do and no legitimate claim to food.

But I do not want to get into endless discussions of exactly what did and what did not happen in history or what is good and what is bad about modernity and/or about the hundreds of non-modern cultures that have been studied.  I do want to stand by my view that humans are culture-creating animals, that cultures have norms, and that some of those norms are constitutive.  Among constitutive rules I want to point out a logical difference between two types of constitutive rule, which may and may not be more or less exemplified by one or another culture.

1.  Exclusive rules, typified by the modern contract or bargaining society, where livelihoods depend on sales and those who do not have anything to sell for which there is a willing buyer in the marketplace are left out, excluded.

2. Inclusive rules where clans and family-like relations generally provide that everyone has a place in the society, where the constitutive rules are such that for any given person with needs there is a kinship network obligated to meet those needs.

Sir Henry Maine in his work on Ancient Law called the first kind of society a contract society and the second kind a status society.  Mahatma Gandhi in his polemic against modernity in Hind Swaraj called the first kind of society adharma, which means without dharma, sometimes translated as without duty or without religion.  The second kind of society Gandhi identified with the traditional Indian village and sometimes with an idealized version of the caste system.  Emile Durkheim like Adam Smith found that the first kind of society was characterized by a high degree of division of labour organized by the lex fori, the law of the marketplace.  For Durkheim the second kind was a societé segmentée, an archaic society organized in clans.

Human nature, according to me, is such that humans have invented many cultures, and are capable of inventing many more.  Let me go on now to try to say more about the currently dominant cultural form, identified by Charles Taylor as a bargaining society and often called following Immanuel Wallerstein the modern world-system.

To express briefly my general diagnosis of the world system I will start with John Maynard Keynes, and then work backwards from Keynes to return to the concept of constitutive rules.  Paul Krugman, winner of the 2008 Nobel Memorial Prize in economics, writes in his most recent book that the recent and ongoing series of financial crises show the continuing validity of Keynes´ analysis of the instability of the world system.  There really is a chronic deficit of effective demand, just as Keynes said there was; that chronic deficit and sundry efforts to cope with it are at the core of the causes of the crises.  Krugman finds that the data provided by today’s current events refute those who believed they had proven Keynes wrong on theoretical and empirical grounds.

Today I will refer briefly to two of Keynes’ main points that co-authors and I have discussed at greater length elsewhere.  First, unemployment.  Keynes writes:  “…full, or even approximately full, employment is of rare and short-lived occurrence.”  [Keynes p. 250]  Second, what Ellen Wood calls a systemic imperative; what the French regulationists call the necessity of a social regime harnessing all aspects of social life to the single aim of favouring the accumulation of capital; which in the language of Keynes is the dependence of investment and economic growth on maintaining confidence in markets.  One speaks of investor confidence, consumer confidence, lender confidence, market confidence, confidence in general.  Keynes writes, “The state of confidence, as they term it, is a matter to which practical men always pay the closest and most anxious attention.”  [Keynes p. 148]

Paul Krugman, seconding Keynes seven decades later in his 2009 book on the current world crisis writes of “the confidence game.”  The classic account of it is found in Chapter Twelve of Keynes´ General Theory.  We live in world in which decisions to invest, and therefore the lives and livelihood of all of us, depend on precarious guesses concerning not only other people’s confidence, but other people’s confidence in the confidence of still other people;  where the most useless or even harmful speculations often yield fortunes far in excess of those to be made by honest work; where intelligent people vie for high stakes not just  in anticipating which way the market will go but in anticipating which way other people think the market will go; where everything else is sacrificed for the one thing needful:  the subjective confidence of investors that investment will be safe and profitable.   Krugman in 2009 called it crazy.  Keynes in 1936 did not use the word but he expressed the idea.

I will not discuss the confidence game and unemployment separately because they are closely intertwined.  Rising unemployment is a sign of declining confidence.  Both are connected to social chaos and ecological collapse.  Crime has long been known to correlate statistically with unemployment, which is one reason why social chaos tends to come when investor confidence leaves.  Both boosting investor confidence and saving or creating jobs are standard reasons given for taking giant steps down the road that leads to ecological collapse.

For Keynes the chronic weakness of effective demand and a permanent tendency toward less than full employment are two aspects of the same problem.  [pp. 21-22]  Market demand determines employment, so lack of market demand determines lack of employment.  A chronic lack of demand is produced by what Keynes calls liquidity preference.  Keynes lists twelve reasons why people prefer liquidity; that is to say they prefer keeping some of their income as cash or virtual cash, instead of spending it all.  Less spending means less market demand, which means less employment?  Less spending also means less profit, undercutting the accumulation dynamic that drives the system.

My point, or our point, mine with my co-authors, is that Keynes did not need twelve reasons.  The constitutive rules of modernity make full, or even approximately full, employment rare and short-lived.  The constitutive rules of modernity make the livelihoods of billions depend on market confidence.

We say Keynes did not need twelve reasons.  From the moment that the constitutive rules of a bargaining society say that each individual or firm is free to contract or not contract as it chooses, it is to be expected that for any reason or for no reason market demand will lag.

The instability and insecurity Keynes analyzes is made inevitable by a basic contrast between traditional kinship-based societies and market-based societies:  If I live in a loving family or clan, my needs will be met because of culturally determined behaviour.  Other people’s duties are my security.  My duties are other people’s security.  The members of my family or clan have an ethical duty to meet my needs.  I in turn will contribute to meeting their needs because the norms of the culture require me to do so.

But from the moment I depend on sales to meet my needs, my needs may and may not be met because I may and may not find a buyer.  Demand is always weak because whether what I have to sell will find a buyer is always in doubt.  No contract, no duty.  Nobody with a duty to meet my needs, no security for me.

Modern society constitutes exclusions by its basic rules of the game.  The excluded are those who have nothing to sell that anybody else is able and willing to buy.

Specifically, nobody has a duty to employ me, that is to say, to buy my services.

People live in fear because instead of possessing a network of human beings they can in principle rely on because the rules prescribe that kin should be reliable helpers of one another; they have only an employment contract.  Their security has no solid basis.  The employment contract (like any other contract) in principle may and may not be renewed.  It is not a permanent human bond.

Those who have not even an employment contract feel even more fear, rejection, and humiliation.

The dissolution of traditional communities generates what Michel Foucault would call the historical conditions of the possibility of unemployment.  Without kin, without status in Sir Henry Maine’s terms, the world of the market is a world where Bishop Desmond Tutu’s definition of Ubuntu “I am because you are; I am human because I belong, I participate, I share” does not apply.  It is a dehumanized world.

Keynes was not a Keynesian.  According to Keynesians, and let it be said also according to many followers of Karl Popper,  intelligent macroeconomic management can lead simultaneously to full employment, to no inflation, and to a policy environments in which public policy can work to solve all social and ecological problems.  Keynes was never so optimistic.  The frustrations of attempts to build social democracies under the guidance of Keynesian mandarins without modifying the basic constitutive rules of modern society show that Keynes was right to refrain from being a Keynesian.  He did recommend public works and public spending, but when asked whether such measures could possibly solve the problems of unemployment and systemic instability in the long run, he could only answer “in the long run we will all be dead.”  He had no long run solution, and he knew he did not have one.

There is a passage toward the end of Keynes´ General Theory that implicitly acknowledges that only deep cultural change can reverse the deepening of social chaos.  Keynes concludes a chapter restating his pessimistic conclusions by writing:  “But we must not conclude that the mean position thus determined by ‘natural’ tendencies, namely by those tendencies which are likely to persist, failing measures expressly designed to correct them, is, therefore, established by laws of necessity.  The unimpeded rule of the above conditions is a fact of observation concerning the world as it is or has been, and not a necessary principle which cannot be changed.”  [p. 254]    it is only restating Keynes slightly to read him as saying that what appears to be natural necessity is what is foreordained by the constitutive rules of a bargaining society, but that it is not out of the question –indeed it is a necessary task—to transform the constitutive rules.  Let this be a definition of “transformation.”  Change within the constitutive rules is reform.  It changes the way the game is played.  Changing the constitutive rules is transformation.  It changes the game.

Hopefully I have said enough about where I am coming from and where I am going to be able now to return to the topic of humanizing methodologies in social research.  I am generally in favour of what are generically called qualitative methods, including open-ended interviews, focus groups, grounded theory, action research, participatory research, co-operative research, ethnomethodology, symbolic interactionism, ethnographies, archaeologies and genealogies, histories, case studies, phenomenological approaches, and even hermeneutics.  However, unlike many of the advocates of qualitative methods, I see them as causal models and not as eschewing causal models, and I see them as about social structure, not as micro sociology that leaves larger questions of social structure to others.

In other words, I may use the same methods with a different methodology.  Here is a definition of methodology:  Methodology is the broader philosophical framework with which one selects and employs a method.

I have chosen to regard rules or norms as central to culture, and culture as central to understanding both human nature and a global world-system now in need of transformation.  The global world-system is a European cultural form that is now globally dominant.

Rules are causal.  Explanations in terms of rules are often causal explanations.  Indeed I have argued in my book Understanding the Global Economy that causal explanations that appeal to cultural rules as premises are the only causal explanations there are in the science of economics,  whether the economics in question be liberal, Keynesian,  Marxist, or of some other kind.

The constitutive rules of modern society are the same whether one is dealing with interpersonal relationships or with global structures.  For this reason I do not agree with a Harold Garfinkel or with an Erving Goffman when they say that they only do micro sociology, leaving macro sociology to someone else.  Because changing the social world is mainly a matter of changing it norms, and because I think the main norms, such as those of contracts and bargaining, are the same at the micro and macro levels, I agree with Mahatma Gandhi when he says that we begin to change the world by changing ourselves.

It remains to say something about “humanizing.”

At the beginning of his book The Pedagogy of the Oppressed the Brazilian educator Paulo Freire writes that humanization is the greatest challenge and the highest priority of the times we live in.  This initial premise informs the whole of Freire´s work.

A central feature –perhaps the central feature– of the educational methods Freire uses is that people are given the right to speak and to be heard.  To translate literally the original Portuguese, people “take the word,” an expression which is used when someone takes the floor in a meeting because it is her turn to talk.  Writers sympathetic to Freire sometimes advocate methods in which people “come to voice.”

I believe that this emphasis on respect for people speaking their own words in their own way accords with our intuitions concerning the use of words like “humanizing.”  We are more likely to call a research methodology “humanistic” or “humanizing” if it proceeds in natural language.  We are less likely to do so if it measures operationally defined variables.  We are more likely to call it humanistic or humanizing if people are asked to express their opinions.  We are less likely to do so if people are observed through one-way glass, especially if the observations are then recorded in a technical language which is understood by the researchers doing the study but not understood by the people who are being studied.

Voice is tightly connected to agency.  Agency is connected to another reason for calling a methodology humanizing:  We call a methodology humanizing when it treats subjects (or participants if it is cooperative research) as free and responsible agents, as the authors of their actions.  The connection between voice and agency is deliberation.  Aristotle called it prohairesis. From the conversations of the soul with itself, and from the social exchange of words and symbols with others, there emerges a decision to act.  The entity that deliberates and acts is called a person.

Here we must be careful not to do sentimental research.  To be sure, humanizing research is never only research in the sense of being only fact-gathering.  It is always simultaneously cultural action.  It contributes to building a better world in which persons are more respected than they are now.  Consequently, when we use a humanizing methodology we get a warm feeling of emotional security.  The warm feeling goes with the affirmation of values we believe in.

Partly because we have warm feelings and inspire warm feelings in others, we can be and often are accused of doing soft research.  We are accused of neglecting the one thing research must do as a prerequisite to doing anything else it does:  it must ascertain what are and what are not the facts.

While I have been giving you some background concerning where I am coming from and where I am going I have been anticipating this moment by organizing a case for asserting that precisely the opposite is true.  When it is properly done, it is humanizing research that is hard research.  Here is my case:

Being the ecological animal is the ecological niche of the human species.  Although cultures are organized in many ways, where the rubber hits the road as guidance for action we can speak of rules or of norms.  Rules are causes.  They explain social phenomena.  They have what H.L.A. Hart calls an internal aspect, in that people use them to guide their behaviour.  They have a social aspect in that violations of them authorize people to criticize each other’s behaviour.  Therefore, important explanations of conduct are found in the language and images in which deliberation is conducted, and in the rules that guide the deliberation.  Even if you think I have exaggerated the importance of rules in social life, and that I have underestimated the extent to which people organize conduct in ways that are not helpfully described as rule-following, it still remains true that to explain how people organize and generate their conduct –however that might be—it is necessary to try to see the world from their point of view and therefore necessary to use humanizing methodologies.

Therefore humanizing research yields insights into the causal mechanisms that produce the phenomena observed.  It is hard.

On top of these theoretical points I want to pile some testimony from my own experience doing social research.  My experience tells me that if you really want to know what is happening at a given social scene at a given time and place, take a humanistic approach.  Listen to people’s stories.  Check them out by triangulating with a variety of qualitative and quantitative methods.  On the other hand, if you want to do a cover-up, if you really do not want it known who is fighting with whom about what, if you do not want to know who is lying and who is telling the truth, where the money went and where the bodies are buried, then do a study that will follow the precepts of positivist and mechanistic research traditions.  Frame some hypotheses, gather some data, measure some variables, add charts and graphs, put together a narrative by rewriting existing official documents, and deliver it as a report.  Then you can rest assured that the skeletons will remain in their closets.

But I digress.  I need to return to my main point.  My main point is that deep cultural changes are needed, and that humanizing methodologies are needed to achieve them.

Deep cultural changes are needed because we are in the grip of a rationality deficit, or as Herbert Marcuse said in the grip of an irrational rationality.  What rationality ought to do, if it were really to perform its biological function, is to guide us human beings in solving our vital problems.  Rationality should show us how to end unemployment by providing livelihood for all; how to end crime by seducing criminals into attractive legitimate ways of life; how to save the biosphere by converting to green technologies and frugal lifestyles.

Our rationality deficit appears in the enormous outputs of information conceptualized within research paradigms that dovetail with the constitutive rules of modern western society.  Instead of consulting the elders who hold the traditional knowledge of cultures that excluded nobody, maintained social cohesion, and lived in harmony with their natural environments, we ask ourselves how to crank up a chronically unstable economic machine.  Instead of using the broader category of livelihood, we use the narrow category of employment and ask how to induce investors to invest in order to create it.  Instead of asking how to escape the systemic imperative to maintain confidence, we ask how to maintain confidence.  Instead of a rational analysis of how to solve the vital problems of 100% of the population within the constraints imposed by the laws of physics, we do a less than fully rational analysis that excludes all options that require breaking the constraints imposed by standard economics.

There is a gap, a conceptual void.  On one side of the gap is a rationality truncated by the systemic imperative to boost sales because our dominant constitutive rules tell us that everybody must live by selling something.  The gap is a void between it and a desperately needed truly scientific rationality that would solve our vital problems subject to existing physical constraints.  To bridge the gap, to build an epistemology of hope and metaphysics of sustainability, we need humanizing methodologies.

We need humanizing methodologies to bridge the gap because the task requires changing norms.  It requires second-level indigenization, transforming the rules of the game.  Because we need to change norms, we need methodologies that study norms.  We will never change norms by studying independent variables, dependent variables, or any variables.

Because we need to craft the norms of a culture that is physically sustainable, we need to learn from the norms of indigenous cultures that live in harmony with their environments.  We will soon learn that cultural norms do not stand alone; norms are part and parcel of cosmologies, epistemologies, worldviews; they are part and parcel of metaphysics in the sense in which metaphysics is a cultural matrix that generates both description of the world as it is and prescription of the world as it should be.  There were many physically sustainable cultures on the African continent and some still survive.  We will never learn to live sustainably by copying the North Americans, the Europeans, and our own upper classes that are day by day destroying the future with their unsustainable levels of consumption and pollution.

Humanizing methodologies lead to transformation by way of ethics.  Let me explain why at this point I introduce the word “ethics.”

At one level the word “ethics” adds nothing to what I have already said.  A person who complies with the rules prescribed by her or his culture behaves ethically according to that culture’s standards.  By studying culturally determined behaviour, as humanizing methodologies do, one automatically studies ethics.

At a second level, adding the word “ethics” brings in another dimension.  An ethical norm by definition is not just any norm that happens to exist.  It is a norm that should exist, and there lies the crucial difference.  At the first level, the rules of modern culture, moral and legal, permit people who hold wealth to indulge in whatever luxuries they choose to indulge in, even while others suffer from hunger and/or turn to crime and social chaos increases, and even while their luxury consumption contributes to climate change, pollution, and resource exhaustion that will sooner or later make it impossible for anybody to live at all anywhere on the planet.  Ethics adds a second dimension of judgment.  It judges whether the conventional rules of the game are the rules that ought to be followed.

It will be objected that ethics is powerless.  History allegedly teaches us according to certain kinds of objectors, that social transformation is always only produced by a power struggle in which present power-holders lose power and new power-holders gain power.

My reply to the objection is that you can do power-talk all you want, but unless the norms change nothing will change.  Transformation is change of the constitutive rules.  Whoever may hold power, it is the rules that organize and guide conduct.  Since the present rules of the game are driving us all over the edge of the cliff to catastrophe, it would be to the interest of the powerful, whoever they may be, to change the rules.  My opinion, however, is that the powerful do not exist.  It is the system itself with its systemic imperative to maintain market confidence that drives the global economy.  It is the rules of the global economy that now organize and guide the world.

We do not run the global economy.  We do, however, run ourselves.  We can choose, as Gandhi did, to be the change we want to see by running our own lives according to different rules.  We can also try to persuade others to live by different rules, as Gandhi did, writing on the average some four letters a day and two speeches or articles per week throughout his adult life, and also by setting a personal example by his own practices.  But I do not want to insist too much on the example of Gandhi.  There are hundreds of ways to change human norms and practices.  Gandhi showed it was possible.  He did not show the only way to do it.

The system is made of rules.  To change it we need to understand it, and to understand it we need humanizing methodologies.  Let it be a definition of a “humanizing” methodology that it tracks and encourages the kind of behaviour that defines the species, namely culturally determined behaviour that operates through the deliberations and choices of agents.

In closing, to make one last point before the discussion period, I add a second meaning to the definition of “humanizing.”  Remember Bishop Desmond Tutu’s account of what “human” meant in the traditional Ubuntu philosophy.  “I am because you are; I am human because I belong, I participate, I share.”

I suggest that the constitutive rules of Ubuntu are more typical of human cultures as they have existed on this planet over the centuries and millennia than the constitutive rules of the bargaining society.  During most of the at least 400,000 years that homo sapiens sapiens has either been here or in the process of arriving here she has lived in small groups of hunters and gatherers.   That was the context of the shaping of her physical body with all its emotional and mental and behavioural tendencies.  Apart from her very long experience as a hunter gatherer she has spent thousands of years living in cultures that organized the livelihoods of groups of shepherds, of farmers and of fishers,   But on average (varying depending on which part of the planet we are talking about) she has lived less than 400 years under the constitutive rules of the bargaining society.  The older rules, anthropologists tell us, were more frequently than anything else norms of reciprocal obligations among the members of clans, and generally also among ancestors, animals, plants, and spirits who rubbed shoulders in culturally defined spaces with homo sapiens sapiens.

Whatever may be happening in modern people’s heads, their bodies still desire to belong, to participate to share.  Their desire can be seen in their flocking to soccer matches to cheer for their teams, in their flocking to churches to sing and pray to their gods, in their flocking to rock concerts to move to the beat of their idols, and in their massive giving of voluntary aid every time an earthquake or a tsunami creates a tribe of sisters and brothers who need help.  Every time an airplane lands and people start using their cell phones and one overhears a few conversations,  one realizes that there is still a lot of family in the world, albeit perhaps not as much as formerly.

The motivations required for transformation are solidly established in the human body.  They are locked into the DNA.

Let it be a second definition of a “humanizing” methodology that it tracks and taps the generic tendencies toward kinship-style bonding that are hard-wired in the human body and have been typical of most of the cultures the species has created –the generic tendencies that lie behind the words, “I am because you are; I am human because I belong, I participate, I share.”

Thank you for your kind attention.  It has been a pleasure to be with you, a pleasure to share ideas with you, and it will be a pleasure to come back again.


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  • Andria Durney

    I really like all of your work Howard. I especially like how you summarise complex philosophical and so on works in such a concise and readable way, and your humour is also very uplifting!