Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1997


Scheff, T. (1997) 'Part/Whole Morphology: Unifying Single Case and Comparative Methods'
Sociological Research Online, vol. 2, no. 3, <>

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Received: 5/8/97      Accepted: 11/9/97      Published: 30/9/97


In this article, I describe the morphological method as a new stage of inquiry, between the first stage, qualitative methods, and the third, quantitative methods. The proposed second stage involves microscopic examination of single instances, and, if more than one instance is available, comparisons with each other. This method is particularly useful for the objective determination of meaning, a crucial problem for the human sciences. Because the determination of meaning is complex, yet taken for granted, I describe its intricacy. The new method also can be used to generate micro-macro theories, perhaps the next stage in the development of the human sciences. To form a bridge between qualitative and quantitative methods, which are increasingly separated, part/whole morphology can lead to research which is valid, reliable, and cost-efficient. Qualitative methods involve exploration, the first step in inquiry. Quantitative methods involve verification, the last step. Although preliminary exploration is usually necessary and always helpful, exploration requires verification. The weakness of verification alone is that since experiments and other standardized formats (such as the scale and the standardized interview) are narrow and rigid, one needs to have considerable knowledge before an adequate testing procedure can be designed. Qualitative methods are like wide-angled lenses with little depth; quantitative methods are as narrow as using the wrong end of a telescope.

Furthermore, since verification is costly and time-consuming, only hypotheses and theories should be tested which are not only plausible, but are likely to be general and important. The procedure outlined here is more labourious than most qualitative studies, but it is also more cost-efficient than those which automatically seek verification. The approach outlined here can be seen as the next step after what Giddens (1984) has called 'instantiation'. He asked for actual instances of the behaviour described by any theory. His call, in turn, can be seen as a reiteration of Max Weber's (1947) insistence that the task of sociology is to reduce concepts about society to 'understandable action, that is, without exception, to the actions of participating individuals (persons).

Human Behaviour; Part/Whole Morphology; Quantitative Methods; Qualitative Methods


There is a passage in one of Kundera's essays on the history of the novel which exactly evokes the problem I attack here, how to access human reality (Kundera, 1995: pp. 128 - 129):

Try to reconstruct a dialogue from your own life, the dialogue of a quarrel or a dialogue of love. The most precious, the most important situations are utterly gone. Their abstract sense remains (I took this point of view, he took that one. I was aggressive, he was defensive), perhaps a detail or two. But the acousticovisual concreteness of the situation in all its continuity is lost.

And not only is it lost but we do not even wonder at this loss. We are resigned to losing the concreteness of the present. We immediately transform the present moment into its abstraction. We need only recount an episode we experienced a few hours ago: the dialogue contracts to a brief summary, the setting to a few general features. This applies to even the strongest memories which affect the mind deeply like a trauma: we are so dazzled by their potency that we don't realize how schematic and meager their content is.

When we study, discuss, analyze a reality, we analyze it as it appears in our mind, in our memory. We know reality only in the past tense. We do not know it as it is in the present in the moment when it's happening, when it is. The present moment is unlike the memory of it. Remembering is not the negative of forgetting. Remembering is a form of forgetting.

We can assiduously keep a diary and note every event. Rereading the entries one day we will see that they cannot evoke a single concrete image. And still worse: that the imagination is unable to help our memory along and reconstruct what has been forgotten. The present - the concreteness of the present - as a phenomenon to consider, as a structure, is for us an unknown planet: so we can neither hold on to it in our memory nor reconstruct it through imagination. We die without knowing what we have lived. (Kundera, 1995: pp. 128 - 129, emphasis added[2])

How can a scientist or scholar capture the reality of human life, when the people whom we study usually cannot do it themselves? As Kundera suggests, only the greatest of novelists, giants such as Tolstoy and Proust, have even come close, by reporting the evocative details of sight, sound, and context that we usually ignore or immediately forget.

Kundera's comments clarify and extend the Proustian quest, not only for the lost past, but for the lost present. The title of Proust's masterpiece, if translated literally into English, is not The Remembrance of Things Past, but The Search for Past Time. And the title of the triumphant last chapter is The Past Regained. A great artist, he demonstrates, can find the universal moments of childhood living within his or her memory, but hidden behind the conventional facade of everyday life.

Although most of Proust's commentary concerns the recovery of the distant past, a few passages concern a past so immediate that it edges upon the present. For example, in the section called Within a Budding Grove, there is an incident in which the narrator, Marcel, finally gets to meet Albertine, the girl he has been yearning for (and who later becomes the love of his life). At first he is deeply disappointed with the meeting; the whole episode seems banal and empty; he and she both conventional and distant. But that evening, as he reconsiders the meeting, he begins to remember the fine details of her gestures, facial expression, and inflections. She comes to life for him, in his 'darkroom,' as he says, where he is able to develop the 'negatives' of his impressions of her earlier in the day. By focusing on the details, he is able to regain a past so immediate that it points toward the possibility of recovering the present.

Proust is still ridiculed for his seeming preoccupation with minutiae. A favorite jest is that it takes him fifteen pages to describe turning over in bed. But Proust implies that the ability to recover even fleeting moments of the past and present are the sine qua non of the great artist: it is these recovered moments that breath life into art. The main difference between art and kitsch is the abstractness of the latter. It describes not the details that make up human experience, but conventional abstractions of them, as Kundera suggests.

But why do we need the living present in the human sciences? I propose that it is needed to breath life into our enterprise also. I suggest a method, part/whole analysis, for restoring human reality to the social sciences. This approach is a way of filling in the details of Proust's method of 'developing our negatives in our darkroom'. Using transcripts or verbatim texts as data, one interprets the meaning of the smallest parts (words and gestures) of expressions within the context of the ever greater wholes within which they occur: sentences, paragraphs, the whole dialogue, the whole relationship, the whole culture and social structure. A central theme in the work of Spinoza was the thought that human understanding requires relating the least parts to the greatest wholes. This book shows how this idea may be carried out in a disciplined program of inquiry.

It is now taken for granted that the 'two cultures' of science and humane letters are so separated that there is no way of connecting them. This assumption pervades both cultures. Here is an example from psychology:

[One approach to psychology] is to assert that individual behaviour cannot be predicted, but only 'understood' after it occurs. This solution puts [psychology] firmly into the area of hermeneutics, ie. the humane study of texts ... Close examination shows us clearly that this approach is indistinguishable from that of the biographer writing as a contributor to nonfiction literature... (Maher, 1991: p. 72, emphasis added)

The purpose of this study is to show that it is possible to integrate hermaneutics with prediction, that they need not be mutually exclusive. Part/whole morphology, as outlined here, combines the interpretation of texts with the use of explicit theory and method. This method is quite distinguishable from the current beliefs and practices in both the scientific and humanistic camps.

The first chapter of Scheff (1997) describes how the morphological method can be applied in the human sciences. The idea of part/whole analysis is then developed. In order to show how important this approach is for the human sciences, the first chapter takes up the complexity of human intelligence. It slows down part/whole processes that occur in our thinking and feeling that are so fast as to be practically invisible. It shows how these processes lie at the heart of capable, despecialized problem-solving, of what is usually called common sense. It provides examples of two thinkers who made progress toward part/whole thinking, Elias (1978) and Levi-Strauss, and the consequences for those who made little or no progress in this vital direction.

Later, in the second chapter, I examine the strengths and limitations of literary analysis in two studies. In the first, a study of poetic closure (B. H. Smith, 1968), the author takes several steps toward locating her work on a part/whole ladder, how the issue of poetic closure and non-closure occurs in Shakespeare's sonnets, and in other poetry, literature and art. The author takes one more step up the part/whole ladder, suggesting, in passing, that closure in poetry is one aspect of closure in language as a whole. However, she does not elabourate this idea, which could have related her study to those in linguistics which deal with the same issue: openings and closings in conversation. Such an elabouration could have enriched her study and those in linguistics, suggesting continuities and differences between poetry and ordinary language, making the study reflexive.

A more powerful literary study concerns the six heroines of Jane Austen's novels (J. Hardy, 1884). The author shows that the romantic love relationship that can be inferred in all six cases involve what he calls the sharing of experience between the heroine and her prospective husband. This idea is demonstrated by close analysis of dialogue, which utilizes, by implication, what I am calling part/whole methods. His discussion of the romantic love relationship is much more convincing than anything to be found in the psychological and psychoanalytic literatures, because it is data-driven. Potentially this method could lead to consensus as to the validity of Hardy's analysis, since he presents both concepts and data for the reader's inspection. However, since he offers no exact definition of what he means by sharing, and no method for classifying hits and misses in his analysis of the data, independent agreement among readers of would be unlikely.

Hardy's idea of sharing as an indication of true love comes very close to my concept of attunement as the mark of a secure bond, which I develop in the next three chapters (Scheff, 1997). These chapters generate and elabourate a theory of the social bond. This theory is based in part on earlier theory and findings, but it is also generated and vivified because is it is driven, like Elias' (1978) and Hardy's (1984) studies, by close attention to verbatim texts. By combining the skills and sensitivities of social scientists and humanists, perhaps some progress can be made toward understanding the human condition.

I show how social structure lives in the smallest parts of discourse, when interpreted within the local and extended context. The manner of expression, particularly, carries clues to emotions and the social bond. These ideas will be applied to concrete situations in later sections of this book: The social status of Goodwin's boys and girls in chapter 4 is continually signaled and responded to in their discourse. When one black child derides another for having thick lips, he doesn't realize he is re-affirming the social structure of the boy's group and of the larger society at the same time. In chapter 7, by attending to the smallest parts of discourse, I show how age, gender, occupational and social class invade a psychotherapy session, all but overwhelming it. Chapter 5, on the origins of the First World War, shows how smallest parts of telegrams between heads of state signal the kind of alienation that leads to violence. The social structures that rule our lives, all but invisible to the untutored eye, are manifest in the smallest parts of discourse, when interpreted within larger contexts.

At the heart of my approach is the morphological method, a new stage of inquiry, between the first stage, qualitative methods, and the third, quantitative methods. The proposed second stage involves microscopic examination of single instances, and, if more than one instance is available, comparisons with each other. This method is particularly useful for the objective determination of meaning, a crucial problem for the human sciences. Because the determination of meaning is complex, yet taken for granted, I describe its intricacy. The new method also can be used to generate micro-macro theories, perhaps the next stage in the development of the human sciences.

To form a bridge between qualitative and quantitative methods, which are increasingly separated, part/whole morphology can lead to research which is valid, reliable, and cost-efficient. Qualitative methods involve exploration, the first step in inquiry. Quantitative methods involve verification, the last step. Although preliminary exploration is usually necessary and always helpful, exploration requires verification. The weakness of verification alone is that since experiments and other standardized formats (such as the scale and the standardized interview) are narrow and rigid, one needs to have considerable knowledge before an adequate testing procedure can be designed. Qualitative methods are like wide-angled lenses with little depth; quantitative methods are as narrow as using the wrong end of a telescope.

Furthermore, since verification is costly and time-consuming, only hypotheses and theories should be tested which are not only plausible, but are likely to be general and important. The procedure outlined here is more labourious than most qualitative studies, but it is also more cost-efficient than those which automatically seek verification.

The approach outlined here can be seen as the next step after what Giddens (1984) has called 'instantiation.' He asked for actual instances of the behaviour described by any theory. His call, in turn, can be seen as a reiteration of Max Weber's (1947) insistence that the task of sociology is to reduce concepts about society to 'understandable action, that is, without exception, to the actions of participating individual (persons).'

A Summary of Part/Whole Analysis

To summarize my approach: with or without initial exploration (stage 1), the researcher would examine individual instances (such as verbatim texts) microscopically (stage 2). This step can lead directly to the development of a theory grounded in intimate knowledge of the specimen cases, but oriented toward placing them in the largest possible context, generating a micro-macro theory. Should such a theory appear promising, the final stage, verification (stage 3), could follow.

The term morphology is meant in the sense that it was originally used in botany, which includes the intense microscopic investigation of single cases (in botany, a specimen plant). This is not the sense in which Durkheim (1903) used the term. In his usage, because of his bias toward comparative studies, he excluded the examination of the minutia of the single case. The same bias is found also in the otherwise admirable development of 'grounded theory,' by Glaser and Strauss (1967). In my usage, morphology includes intense study of both the single case and comparisons between cases.

The sequence in which these stages occur, except for the last, verification, need not be chronological. Investigation of a problem might as easily start with stage 2 or stage 1. This point should be kept in mind, because, for emphasis, I focus on the bottom-up strategy of starting with stage 1 or stage 2. There is no reason that one could not start with a theory (topdown), or better yet, juggling research and theory at the same time.

The new stage provides the potential for squaring the circle, achieving at least a measure of both validity and reliability. The format for reporting morphological findings requires that the researcher spell out the concepts and methods used explicitly, and make the texts that were analyzed available to the reader. The interested reader will then be able to apply the researcher's methods to the researcher's data. Provided with the researcher's concepts, methods and raw data, this procedure allows judgment of the relevance (validity) of the concepts and methods employed, and the repeatability of the findings (reliability).

This is not to say that this approach could rapidly solve the many problems of research in the human sciences. It could bring together the necessary elements for solutions, but it is still to early to tell whether it would be practical to do so. Much of the specialization that has run riot in the human sciences, specialization by discipline, sub-discipline, levels of analysis, method and theory, has occurred for reasons that are extraneous to science. But some amount of specialization is probably necessary. In the long run it will probably be necessary to work out some compromise between the kind of de-specialization I advocate here and what Oatley (1996) has called the 'social distribution of cognition', the specialized thinking (and behaviour) that requires division of labour.

However, for the determination of the meaning of human expressions, which forms a major part of all social science research, it seems impractical to distribute cognition. Part/whole morphology of social interaction or written texts is particularly suited for determining the meaning of human expressions. Because the new approach uses verbatim transcripts or texts, it allows for the patient interpretation of meaning that include the smallest details and the largest contexts. This method points toward the objective (consensual) determination of meaning.

The Problem of Meaning

Can the meaning of human expressions and behaviour be determined? In the tradition of verstehen established by Weber, Dilthey, and others, meaning was the most important component of social science. To understand human behaviour, we need to understand the subjective orientation of the actors. But the originators of this tradition and its followers did not consider the determination of meaning to be a technical problem, one that requires the close consideration of human actions and expressions in relationship to the context in which they occur. The technical problem of determining meaning is one that extends into the vital core of all activities of the human sciences, theory, method and empirical research.

Meaning as a technical problem is crucial in the current crisis in the human sciences because of the way in which humans in everyday life are able to exact accurate meanings from expressions that are both highly complex and ambiguous. Understanding ordinary language and other kinds of human behaviour requires the consideration of the smallest parts of expressions and their relationship to the largest possible wholes (not only grammar and syntax, but biographical structures, as well as the structure of the entire language and culture.) Part/whole analysis of this kind would seem to be the key component of what is called 'common sense'. We humans have become so adept and quick at understanding expressions by relating their least parts with the largest wholes that we don't realize the extraordinary complexity of what we do.

In my view, the human sciences are becoming ever further removed from reality because they are so specialized that they cannot use part/whole analysis in the way that their subjects do. Understanding ordinary language and other kinds of human behaviour, because of its complexity and ambiguity, requires a global, and therefore a de-specialized point of view. Fragmentation into disciplines, sub-disciplines, levels of analysis, types of method, and schools of thought has deprived the human sciences of the ability to understand human behaviour even as well as their subjects do, which is not very well. The approach outlined here would enable us to at least compete with our subjects in understanding their behaviour. Although ordinary people do poorly with understanding emotions and social bonds, they are probably more cunning than human scientists in using part/whole analysis to determine verbal meaning. The method outlined here is oriented toward uncovering both overt and covert meanings. It is particularly suited toward discovering hidden emotions and bond-oriented behaviour.



The meaning of human expressions and behaviour can be determined, but objective interpretation requires disciplined investigation of the complex three- way relationships between meaning, text and context.


Most current discussions assert that meaning is by and large a subjective matter. This position is by now so established that its adherents assume rather than investigate it. Postmodern thought, a recent development, assumes that meanings are not only subjective, but essentially undecidable. Although there is no actual evidence to support this conclusion, postmodernists postulate that poems, novels, and indeed all texts are inherently ambiguous.

The founder of the postmodern critique, Derrida, made a point which is both true and important. He and his fellow deconstructionists have demonstrated that if taken out of context, any text becomes ambiguous. In this light, James Thurber should be considered the first deconstructionist. In his essay on his late night thoughts about the name Perth Amboy, he tells the results of repeating the name many times. After many repetitions, not only did the name begin to lose its meaning, but the very room began to whirl around his bed. Thurber had stumbled into a way of decontexualing an expression. Words and other expressions in ordinary language are only indexical, they are ambiguous when context is removed. This idea suggests that if we are to understand how meaning can be determined, we must consider the relationship between meaning, text and context.

The only sustained consideration of this three-way relationship has been conducted by Cicourel[3]. Compared to him, I am a late arrival in this field. Although our styles of thought and investigation are different, I recognize that he was the first to realize the crucial importance of this problem, and to devote most of his time and effort in an attempt to solve it. As in my approach, Cicourel has shown repeatedly that a text can only be understood in context, necessitating a detailed ethnography of context. My work extends his analysis, by outlining an explicit theory and method.

Here I outline a theory and method to deal with the relationship between meaning, text, and context. Certainly the deconstructionists have not seriously considered this issue. In particular, they have not understood that their main point, that all texts are undecidable when removed from context, implies an equal and opposite corollary: in context, the meaning of a text is decidable. Postmodernists have jumped to an unwarranted conclusion that context or no, the meaning of all texts is undecidable. I will argue for the importance and truth of the corollary: given sufficient investigation of a text and its context, it is possible to approach an objective determination of meaning.

To begin with humour, an everyday example of the issue of decideability. A joke can be lengthy and complex; 'getting it' may require weaving together various relevant but conflicting threads in the narrative, ignoring extraneous details, and understanding the way the punch line resolves the conflict. Grown-up humour requires a high level of sophistication, one that is absent in young children.

When a joke brings genuine laughter, its meaning was not ambiguous to the audience; they got the point. But a joke may be funny to one audience and not another. 'You have to have been there.' Even if the joke was told exactly as before, some element(s) could have been different in the new context. The decidability of meaning changes with context.

Empirical Research

The problem of meaning is seldom discussed by empirical researchers; they usually assume that the meaning of subjects' responses is unproblematic. Although the occasional qualitative researcher may be sensitive to this problem, few studies have explored the relationship between text and context in the determination of meaning. Both in direct observation and in sophisticated techniques of measurement, researchers take much the same position as their subjects; the construction of meaning is taken for granted: it is 'common sense'.

Rather than explore the matter, empirical researchers have instead divided into two camps, both usually avoiding the problem of meaning. Qualitative studies use interpretation in context, quantitative studies, standardized procedures. The two approaches are exact opposites: qualitative work is unsystematic but contextual, quantitative work is systematic but acontextual.

Qualitative studies, oriented toward face validity, neglect reliability. Face validity is important; it means that an analysis of meaning can be related to ordinary language, a vast repository for understanding the complexity and subtlety of human expressions. But ordinary language is also a repository of bias, a bastion of the cultural status quo. Face validity alone, plausibility, can never be a sufficient basis for determining meaning.

Quantitative studies, oriented toward reliability, neglect validity. Reliability is also of great importance; it insures repeatability. But erroneous procedures can be repeated as easily as correct ones. Reliability alone can never be a sufficient basis for determining meaning.

Both approaches are rational, but only in part. Reliance on face validity exemplifies substantive rationality. This approach is sensitive to the particularities of situations, just as procedural rationality is attuned to their general features. Weber has warned that substantive rationality is marred by capriciousness, and procedural (formal) rationality leads to bureaucratic deadlock. A marriage seems to be needed, one which would unite substantive and procedural rationality (validity and reliability).

Several examples will suffice to illustrate the need. The capriciousness of direct observation has been demonstrated repeatedly in ethnographic studies. Oscar Lewis saw a different Tepoztlan than the one reported by Redfield (1930), and Freeman (1983) has argued that Margaret Mead's description of adolescent sexual behaviour in Samoa is entirely fictitious. Neither Lewis nor Redfield offer hard data. Freeman's (1983) critique of Mead's work is well documented, but by no means foolproof. For example, although his two visits to Samoa covered years compared to Mead's months, they took place long after Mead's visit.

Plausibility is both strength and weakness; it soothes and beguiles our judgment by 'commonsense' reasoning, even with claims that are false or groundless. Direct observation is invaluable at the beginning of an investigation, but not sufficient for the objective determination of meaning.

The widespread use of scales to measure psychological and social attitudes provides an example of the need for both validity and reliability in the determination of meaning. Although my colleagues and I (Scheff, Retzinger, and Ryan, 1989) reviewed the literature only on self-esteem scales, our conclusions may also apply to all scales currently in use.

At the time we conducted the review (1988), we estimated (with the help of Morris Rosenberg) that there had been more than TEN THOUSAND studies using self-esteem scales. Yet despite this massive effort, no consistent findings had been reported. We found that the six comprehensive reviews of the self-esteem literature in print at the time of our article were in agreement on the absence of significant findings. Four of the reviews were basically critical of the whole field. On the other hand, two of the reviews are strongly positive and optimistic in their orientation. However, all six of the reviews are in agreement on the lack of significant findings. Indeed, the two positive reviews are the most devastating on this point. Now, some eight years and perhaps four or five thousand studies later, the situation does not seem to have changed: deadlock.

Text and Context

The state of the art in the detailed analysis of meaning can be found in Pittenger et al (1967) and Labov and Fanshel (1977). Each study carefully analyzed every sound, both verbal and nonverbal, hearable in audiotaped excerpts from single psychotherapy sessions. Unlike most studies, they also reported the reasoning upon which they based their inferences about meaning.

Although the authors of these two studies were not familiar with them, both consistently used two methods which have been described abstractly in the phenomenology of meaning. The first has been called the method of prospective-retrospective understanding (Schutz, 1962). This idea breaks down the extremely broad and abstract concept of context into two components, the past and the future context. One understands the meaning of an expression by placing it in context of what has happened before it occurs, and what happened afterwards. One can further subdivide into the local and extended context. That is, one understands a word or sentence in terms of the some of the text that comes before or after it (local context) or, ranging more broadly, events before and after the entire text, the extended context.

As might be expected, both Pittenger et al (1967) and Labov and Fanshel (1977) based their inferences of the meaning of expressions on references to the local context, passages occurring before and after the expression in question, often immediately before or after. Occasionally, however, they looked further. An example in the former study is the analysis of the meaning of the patient's third utterance. When the therapist asks her why she came, near the very beginning of the session, the patient lists her symptoms in a formal, organized manner. As it turns out in the rest of the session, her report exactly summarizes her main problems. Also she uses several contractions which suggest repeated use of this form. The study's analysis is based in part on knowledge that she is a nurse, which she mentions in her 16th utterance. Using both the prospective and retrospective method of understanding, Pittenger et al reason that she is enacting the role of a nurse reporting to a doctor.

Pittenger et al's interpretation of the patient's misunderstanding of the therapist's manner, one of the central findings of their study, is based in part on their knowledge that she has had only one prior session with a mental health professional, which she mentions only near the end of the session. (A substantial book can hardly be understood in one reading, especially if one begins at the beginning and then proceeds to read the pages in the correct order. Readers who peek ahead in order to understand what they are reading are using the method being discussed here.)

Pittenger et al make no explicit use of historical, biographical or follow-up data: they make no references to factual events in the extended context. But Labov and Fanshel had such data; they made references to the extended context. For example, their understanding of the effects of the therapist's tactics is based in part on their knowledge of events before and after the patient's sessions with the therapist. Before psychotherapy began, the patient, who was anorexic, had starved herself to the point that her life was endangered. At follow-up, five years after the last of many sessions, the patient was reported to be symptom-free. Labov and Fanshel used this information to confirm their analysis of the meaning of the therapist's tactics in the excerpt they studied.

Hypotheticals (Counterfactuals)

Even though Pittenger et al did not use historical or biographical knowledge not contained in the actual dialogue, their analysis of meaning is based not only on the dialogue itself, but also on events that they imagine had happened before it began. In the language of phenomenology, such events are called counterfactuals. Because the usage of this term varies somewhat in philosophy and linguistics, I will use the term hypotheticals instead.

Much of the analysis in Pittenger et al is based on imagined, hypothetical events. Already mentioned is their explanation of the form of the patient's report of her symptoms; the researchers imagined her making such a report in this form many times before the present instance in her capacity as a nurse reporting symptoms of a patient to the doctor.

Pittenger et al also make more extended use of hypotheticals in understanding the patient's response to the therapist. They imagine that the patient's response to a therapist who seems to her cold and detached is much like her response to her husband, who she refers to in a way that suggests that she also sees him as distant and unsympathetic. Although Pittenger et al never use the term, their analysis involves almost constant use of hypotheticals. They even name the method they use to understand one type of hypothetical (those that could have occurred instead of the actual utterance), the Principle of Reasonable Alternatives.

Similarly, Labov and Fanshel do not limit their search of the extended context to factual data. Much of their analysis of meaning is based on hypotheticals, such as patterns of discourse within the patient's family. On the basis of re-enactments by the patient of conversations between herself, her mother, and her aunt, Labov and Fanshel imagine patterns of highly conflictful discourse in the family. They largely understand the meaning of the patient's responses to the therapist in these terms.

It would seem that the determination of meaning is neither mostly subjective, as assumed by theoretical approaches, nor objective, as assumed in most empirical research, but a varying mixture of subjective and objective. To the extent that researchers locate all relevant context, and to the extent that their hypotheticals are confirmed by factual data, their interpretation of meaning is objective.

Of course in actual practice discovery of the relevant context, and the confirmation of hypotheticals with factual data, is likely to be beyond the range of a single researcher. But it is conceivable that one or more later re-analyses could approach the objective determination of meaning, limited only by the amount of interest and resources. What kind of data could warrant such an expenditure of effort?

The parameters that determine the answer to this question would probably concern the importance of the problem, method or theory under investigation, the extent of research investment, and the promise shown by existing studies. Choosing an exemplary study from a series of important studies for a replication using part/whole morphology would be ideal. For example, the study of Expressed Emotion (EE) represents considerable investment by a wide variety of researchers in a very fundamental problem, the possible origins of mental illness in family processes.

Leff and Vaughn (1985) and many others have shown a promising connection between family criticism and emotional over-involvement with ex-mental patients and relapse. However, the studies are virtually atheoretical, the methods difficult and time- consuming, and the size of the relationship is only moderate. A part/whole morphological study of the audio-tapes generated in one of these studies might be of particular help in generating a theoretical framework. For a first step in this direction, see Ryan's (1993) microanalysis of the transcription of one of the cases from an earlier EE study )Hooley, 1986). Ryan shows that the discourse between an ex-patient and his wife exactly fits the shame-rage paradigm (Scheff, 1994).

Another example of texts which might deserve subsequent reanalyses are analyzed in my study of the emotional causes of the First World War (Scheff, 1994). Immediately prior to the beginning of the war, there were six telegrams exchanged between the heads of state of Russia and Germany, and the Foreign Minister of England. In addition, the Kaiser's comments that he wrote on three of the telegrams he received have been preserved. Although these texts have been the subject of many prior analyses, I found them each to be incomplete, since they all focused on content, without analyzing manner.

Because of the formal and somewhat oblique language of the telegrams, a deep search of the extended context was needed to determine their meaning. The texts being brief, I was confident of my analysis of their structure. But the 25 pages that I devoted to the context, political, psychological and social seems a mere beginning. Since the causes of this war are still a mystery and an enigma, the objective determination of the meaning of the these texts might be of great import.

Even though a single researcher is unlikely to have the time, resources or patience for an objective determination of meaning, the more resources put into microanalysis, searching the context and confirming hypotheticals, the more objective the determination of meaning. Once again I turn to Pittenger et al and Labov and Fanshel as examples. In the cases of both studies, their analysis takes up an entire volume, even though the excerpts they studied are brief (5 minutes for Pittenger et al, 15 for Labov and Fanshel). But their analysis is not complete, because of limitations in their methods and data.

In regard to methods, both studies determine only cognitive meanings. Though both frequently mention anger, embarrassment and other emotions, analysis is brief and casual. For that reason, their determination of emotional meanings is incomplete. In subsequent re-analyses, I (Scheff, 1990: chapter 6) inferred emotional meanings omitted from the Pittenger et al study (1967), and Scheff and Retzinger (1991, Chapter 6) inferred emotional meanings omitted from the Labov and Fanshel study.

In regard to data, Pittenger et al were unable, as any subsequent analysts would be, to confirm the accuracy of their hypotheticals in the extended context, since they made no explicit use of historical, biographical or follow-up data. (I personally contacted the therapist in the recorded session used by Pittenger et al; he told me that he had no further information about the session or the patient.) Labov and Fanshel had only a limited amount of factual data outside of the text they analyzed. For example, they had no actual verbatim dialogues from the patient's family that would confirm their hypotheticals regarding patterns of discourse there. (I also contacted both Labov and Fanshel, but neither responded.)

Although Scheff (1990), and Scheff and Retzinger (1991) removed a limitation in the methods of the original studies, they could not remove the limitations of data. Because of the lack of sufficient historical and biographical data in these four studies, their determinations of meaning are a mixture of objective and subjective elements.

An additional expenditure of effort in collecting relevant data in the extended context might have been justified. My re- analysis of the Pittenger et al data is one of the bases of a general theory of interminable conflict. The Scheff and Retzinger (1991: chapter 7) re- analysis of the Labov and Fanshel data proposes a theory of the causation of anorexia. Although anorexia has been studied extensively, there is no successful theory of its causation. Under these conditions, further steps toward testing might have been warranted.

There is one further limitation of these two studies. Exemplary as they are, their purview is only psycholinguistic: they fail to discuss or investigate the institutional context in which their texts are embedded. For example, even a casual hearing of the recorded session will reveal that the patient in the Pittenger et al study had a strong Boston working class accent. (An LP record comes with Gill et al, 1954.) The therapist, on the other hand, has no discernible accent, strongly suggesting a difference in social class between the two subjects. The researchers do not comment on this difference, let alone investigate its implications.

Gender differences are also observable. The therapist's tactic of responding only to the informational aspects of the patient's expressions, brusquely ignoring her emotional responses, is gender related, at least in part. Since the session is an initial one, the therapist no doubt had a rationale for this tactic. But his curtness in ignoring the strong emotions expressed, and abruptness in switching back to information issues seems connected with the state of gender relationships, and perhaps class and age, in the USA in the l960's, the era in which the session occurred.

Surprisingly absent from the excerpt is even the slightest attempt of the therapist to explain his tactics, even though they seem to confuse and irritate the patient. On the patient's part, no attempt at overt protest was made. At several points she withdraws or sulks, but she doesn't put into words her feelings about the therapist's behaviour toward her, which borders on being abusive. The male therapist, who is undoubtedly older and of a higher social class, dominates the younger, lower class female patient. Although she withdrew several times, the patient mostly subordinates herself to the therapist. If sufficiently analyzed, this session might tell much about the role of gender in therapist-patient contacts in that time and place.

Similarly, in the Labov and Fanshel study, although her accent suggests that the patient is Jewish, the researchers did not investigate this issue. They comment on it, but only in passing. Neither study develops the sociological implications of clues to the embededness of their data in age, class, gender, or ethnic structures. This kind of embededness will be a key issue in my discussion of theory, below.

Balance between Text and Context

Several implications relevant to the problem of meaning follow from my discussion. One is that no matter how exhaustive the analysis of a text, the determination of meaning will be incomplete, and therefore partly subjective, without referring to relevant historical and biographical knowledge. For example, the interpretation of the meaning of a poem or novel may require substantial biographical knowledge of the author and/or of the historical period in which she wrote. Although this proposition in contrary to current literary theory, it follows inevitably from my argument. Postmodern ideas distract attention from this issue.

One example of the need for supplemental factual data is provided by the study of several hundred recorded psychotherapy sessions by Helen Lewis (1971). Using a systematic procedure for coding emotions (Gottschalk and Gleser, 1969), she discovered a consistent pattern of hiding virtually all of the emotion of shame and much of the anger among patients, and that the therapists ignored most of these episodes. However, lacking the methods used by Pittenger et al and Labov and Fanshel, her analysis of cognitive meanings is incomplete.

Even Lewis's analysis of emotional meanings is incomplete, because she had no data outside of the transcripts to confirm her inferences. For example, since she couldn't tell from the text alone whether the patients were aware that they were hiding their shame and anger experiences, she used an ambiguous term for classifying these experiences: unacknowledged emotion. She was unable to distinguish, therefore, between conscious and unconscious emotion. Nor could she tell the extent that the therapists were aware of the patients' emotions, the emotions that both patients and therapists seemed to ignore. Lewis's classification of all of the shame episodes as either overt, undifferentiated or bypassed shame suggest that she assumed the patients' experiences of shame were below the level of consciousness. But without debriefing, she had no way of to confirm this supposition.

The amount of supplemental data needed for the determination of meaning, the balance between text and context, will vary. In the case of Lewis's study, she might have been able to clear up some of the ambiguity over the patient's and therapists' awareness by reviewing a sample of the requisite episodes in their transcripts, a relatively small addition to the original analysis. This expenditure of effort would have been justified, since the existence of vast amounts of unconscious shame has been a sticking point in the acceptance of Lewis's findings.

On the other hand, a comprehensive analysis of cognitive meanings, in the manner of Pittenger et al or Labov and Fanshel, would have made for a huge additional amount of analysis, even with only a sample of the cases. Such an expenditure of effort would have been difficult to justify. Unlike Lewis's findings on shame, her analysis of cognitive meanings did not suggest an important new direction for future research.

Parts and Wholes in Verbatim Texts

The issues concerning the balance between text and context can be considered in a more abstract way by invoking relations between parts and wholes. The parts are words and accompanying gestures (if available), wholes the biographical, linguistic, social, cultural and other structures in which the text is embedded. This very general mode of analysis has been adumbrated in earlier discussions in social science and philosophy.

The idea of part/whole analysis is implied in C. Wright Mills' (1959: p.7) definition of 'the sociological imagination':
the capacity to shift from one perspective to another - from the political to the psychological; from examination of a single family to comparative assessment of the national budgets of the world; from the theological school to the military establishment; from considerations of an oil industry to studies of contemporary poetry. It is the capacity to range from the most impersonal and remote transformations to the most intimate features of the human self-and to see the relations between the two. (C. Wright Mills' (1959: p.7)).

Mills begins ('from the political to the psychological') and ends his definition with the psychological ('the most intimate features of the human self'). The latter passage implies minute psychological aspects. In the remainder of the passage, Mills ranges over social institutions of the largest magnitude. Since in several places in this book he explicitly refers to relations between parts and wholes, Mills seems to have been implying that the human sciences should study the relations between the smallest parts and the largest wholes.

The idea of relations between parts and wholes is a familiar topic in philosophy. It is particularly crucial in the work of Spinoza.[4] Although his treatment of this theme is not free of 17th century theology, the implication is clear: human understanding requires relating 'the least parts to the greatest wholes' (Sacksteder, 1991).

The idea that understanding a problem requires knowledge of its least parts, on the one hand, and the greatest wholes, on the other, may be used as a foundation for inquiry. It points to a path which could lead, potentially, to the objective determination of meaning. In following this path, the least parts - greatest wholes idea also suggests a way of connecting meaning and social structure. As discussed below, the objective determination of meaning makes explicit the micro-macro connections which arise in understanding discourse.

Although the least parts - greatest wholes paradigm provides an explicit contrast to specialized approaches, it subsumes rather than rejects them. Highly specialized knowledge is implied by understanding least parts (eg. empirical data) and largest wholes (eg. abstract theory). Part/whole analysis begins where specialized approaches leave off: it relates the findings that specialized work takes as ends in themselves.

Specialized and General Intelligence

The part/whole approach can serve as complement and corrective to specialization, the reigning pattern in our current quest for knowledge. Specialization brings benefits, but also limitations. The most puzzling aspect of this irresistible tide involves narrowing of vision, not only in behaviour, but also in thought. The neurosurgeon needs special skills, but need not think only as a neurosurgeon. Narrowing of outlook because of disciplines, theories, methods and schools of thought is creating a crisis of knowledge in our time. Given their intellectual and emotional commitments, the great majority of researchers seem to be entrapped within their specialty. The part/whole approach described here suggests that we need de-specialization as much as we need specialization.

Pathologies seldom occur at the time of founding a new specialty. At this point a combination of system and intuition, procedural and substantive rationality, may be a necessary condition. A clear illustration of this is the birth of computer science, created largely by the mathematician John von Neumann. The computer is an exact embodiment of what Pascal called 'the spirit of system'. It is based on processes which are linear, reductive, and explicit. The language which drives a computer is so systematic that the slightest ambiguity, even a missing comma, cannot be tolerated. In this respect, program and ordinary language are exact opposites: the symbols in a program must be completely unambiguous, in ordinary language, the symbols are virtually all ambiguous.

Computers are monuments to procedural rationality. Yet von Neumann's own method of mathematical work, which triggered the birth of computers, was completely intuitive. His intimates have described his mode of operation. To begin, von Neumann would list, on separate pages, a large selection of unsolved mathematical problems. He would then turn the pages, giving each problem a glance, one by one. If he did not quickly see a plausible solution, he would go on to the next problem. When he came to the end of the set of problems, he would begin again, continuing until he either found a solution or quit.

Von Neumann seems never to have troubled grinding out analytical solutions. His method of thinking was entirely intuitive, the exact opposite of the machine he helped create. Von Neumann was an embodiment of what Pascal called 'the spirit of finesse' (ie. intuition). The subsequent development of computer science might be viewed as the routinization of Von Neumann's charisma.

It appears that specialties are effective as long as system and finesse are in balance, or near it. But as a specialty becomes institutionalized, the spirit of system (procedural rationality) increasingly prevails. Making this point exactly, the physicist Boltzman noted, with some bitterness (he was a genius unrecognized during his lifetime): when a new method yields 'beautiful results', many become unconsciously wedded to it; they come 'to believe that the development of science to the end of all time would consist in the systematic and unremitting application of it'. Although this statement was written at the turn of the century, it exactly captures the trajectory of current science and scholarship. An imbalance has been created which seems to be leading rapidly to ineffectiveness, if we haven't already arrived. System alone, as Weber pointed out, creates deadlock.

Science and scholarship which overemphasizes system at the expense of finesse corresponds to the stage that Kuhn (1962) called 'normal science.' He pointed out that this stage is effective in the 'mopping up operations' that are needed in the wake of a great discovery. For example, the Human Genome Project represents a vast investment in mopping up the discovery of the structure of DNA. Perhaps Kuhn was too tactful to point out, however, that normal science is completely ineffective in areas where there have been no great discoveries, as in the humanities and social sciences.

The great problem-solvers in science have usually been intuitive types like von Neumann, who corrected the over-emphasis on system with a great jolt of imagination. Kepler broke through the bizarrely complex mathematical systems of centres and epicentres that were impeding the science of astronomy. He was able to discover the orbit of Mars because he placed the sun rather than the earth at the centre of the orbit, an intuitive leap.

Kepler's leap was based on a premise that was entirely irrational, both in its source and content: as a young man, he had literally dreamed a fantastic scheme of crystalline solids which were supposed to determine planetary orbits. (He thought that the orbits of planets were constructed by their enclosure in five perfect solids [a sphere, pentahedron, tetrahedron, etc]). The orbit of the earth and the other planets were determined by polyhedrons of various shapes. The orbit of Mars was determined by a sphere. (The circularity of the orbit of Mars was an assumption began by Aristotle and continued by Kepler until he finally made his discovery.)

The main features of Kepler's scheme were outrageous, but contained, unconsciously, the last step Kepler needed to break the impasse. After struggling for decades to determine the orbit of Mars on the assumption that the earth was at its centre, his realization that the sun was at the centre of his structure of crystalline solids was the final step that allowed a solution. He was right, but for the wrong reason.

Being right for the wrong reason is an enormous advantage that intuition provides in solving problems. Another example of this advantage in Kepler's case involves the astonishing inaccuracy of his numerical calculations. He made a multitude of errors, some quite large. Yet he correctly plotted the elliptical orbit of Mars; his errors canceled each other out. His unconscious, one might say, was working overtime.

Similarly, Einstein intuited the solution to the failure of classical physics with a stroke of imagination, a direct intuition of the nature of the physical universe. Virtually illiterate in mathematics, he first proposed the special theory of relativity as a joke. When David Hilbert, the great French mathematician, was asked why Einstein, rather than others (like himself or Poincare') immeasurably better qualified, made the discovery, he responded: 'Because he had learned nothing about all the philosophy and mathematics of time and space' (cited in Feuer, 1982: p. 62).

Both in the case of Kepler and Einstein, it is clear not only that system may not solve difficult problems, it can actually stand in the way. Yet it was Brahe's systematic data which allowed Kepler to make his discovery. Einstein called upon friendly mathematicians, those hostages to system, to put his theories in their final form. Although no such credit was given, his general theory of relativity required virtual collabouration with a mathematical colleague.

Perhaps the classic case of the marriage between system and finesse in problem-solving is the discovery of the structure of DNA by Crick and Watson. Like von Neumann, Watson represented pure intuition. He was a graduate student when he and Crick made their discovery, utterly ignorant and untrained in requisite sciences. The model of DNA they developed was an assembly of the discoveries of others, but an assembly touched by imaginative genius. The scientists on whom the discovery of the structure of DNA was based each understood their own findings and fields, but misunderstood or ignored the work of the others. They had tunnel vision; they were trapped within their specialized outlook.

Like Einstein in his ignorance, Watson was a complete outsider. Being on the outside, he didn't suffer from the biases and limitations of vision of the insiders, and from specialized procedures that had become more hindrance than help. Watson was something of an outlaw: he abandoned normal procedures and channels in a way that is still shocking to established scientists (Watson, 1980). But Watson also needed a conventional insider, Crick, to help him put the partial discoveries together into a workable whole. Discovery of the structure of DNA, like Kepler's and Einstein's, required a partnership between system and intuition.

Attempts to use computers to linguistic ends suggest that human intelligence is vast because it involves balancing system and intuition. The failure of automated translation of ordinary language posed a puzzling problem: if machines can't understand ordinary language, how is it understood, quickly and without effort, in daily life? The solution to this problem points to the nature of general intelligence, how it requires balance between system and intuition, and the crucial role of ambiguity in human expressions.

Linguists have long known that certain types of expressions have meanings that are entirely contextual. Pronouns are an obvious example. When words like you, he, she or it are used in discourse, their meanings are blank checks, to be filled in by contextual knowledge. But the failure of automated translation has shown that all expressions in ordinary language are ambiguous without context. (Artificial languages, such as math and computer programs are exempt, since their symbols have singular meanings. Unlike a text in ordinary language, a file in Word can be translated quickly and exactly into Word Perfect.) In ordinary language, commonly used words have many meanings; the correct meaning can be determined only in context.

This point suggests that understanding ordinary language requires a mind that is a general problem-solver; it relates the smallest parts (words) and wholes (not only systems of grammar and syntax, but a vast array of cultural practices). Even before the advent of attempts at automated translation, the philosopher Wittgenstein understood this point. He proposed that understanding even a simple rule ('Stop at red lights') involved what he called 'mastery of practice' (understanding an entire cultural system).

The relation of text to context in the determination of meaning can be rephrased in part/whole language. The method of prospective/retrospective understanding implies that understanding ordinary language requires search of the local and extended context. Although the local context is strictly finite, the particular text of which an expression is a part, the extended context is not. The prospective context is all that happened after the expression, the retrospective context all that happened before it.

As if two potential infinities were not enough, the necessity of using hypotheticals to infer meanings requires still another file that may be large, if not infinite: all the statements that could reasonably have been used as alternatives to the actual one. As indicated earlier, Pittenger et al discuss this type of hypothetical under the heading 'The Principal of Reasonable Alternatives.' Their discussion concerns only alternatives to actual statements in the text, the local context. It is not applied to the past and future in which the text is located, as does my discussion of hypotheticals in the extended context.


This chapter has described a part/whole morphology of human behaviour. The core of my proposal is the need for a new step of inquiry that will bridge the chasm between exploration and verification. When combined with qualitative methods, part/whole morphology can be used to approach seemingly intractable problems in the human world, generating comprehensive hypotheses to the point that they might be tested. When combined with quantitative methods, the same two steps can lead to the comprehensive testing of the hypotheses they generate.

The basic strength of this approach is that it places the researcher (and the reader) into direct contact with the raw data of human behaviour, verbatim texts or mechanical records of interaction. This approach has an intensely inductive quality that is missing from conventional research designs.[5] Quantitative studies shield both researcher and reader from contact with actual events and sequences of events by cross-sectional designs and by layer on layer of paper and pencil tests, coding, scales, and numerical analysis. Qualitative studies may come closer to human reality, or plausibly appear to do so, but only as filtered through the observers' fallible memory, sensitivities, and biases. As in quantitative studies, the human reality on which studies are based is usually unrecoverable.

The approach outlined here allows for the recovery of large parts of the original events - instant replay - in a way not permitted by conventional methods. Such recovery not only allows direct falsification, it also means that data are not lost forever. It can become the grounds for subsequent advances, as I have shown with the Pittenger et al and Labov and Fanshel studies. Given this approach, the voices of our subjects are not silenced by our methods, but amplified and preserved for future generations.

Being exposed continually to the raw data of human interaction is particularly stimulating to a researcher. Listening to audiotapes and viewing videotapes or film come very near to being able to reproduce the original scenes at will. Exposure of this kind allows us to learn something new about the subjects and about ourselves, expanding the horizons of the study, whatever its original intent. Human voices and faces, so long absent from so much of human science, spring to life repeatedly, as they are needed as a prod to our sleepwalking through our projects.

Since the approach proposed here is synoptic, rather than specialized, it might be a way to begin integrating the contributions of theory and method, and the various methods, disciplines, levels of analysis, and schools of thought in the human sciences. In this way it is possible to envision, instead of the alienation that now prevails, at least a beginning for community among those of us who try to understand the human condition.


1 This essay is a condensed version of Chapter 1 of my book Emotions, the Social Bond, and Human Reality: Part/Whole Analysis. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

2 Nicholas Tavuchis called this book to my attention.

3 See Cicourel's theoretically oriented books , articles and many empirical studies.

4 Part/whole relations are clearly a central theme for Husserl (Lampert, 1989) also, but his approach is so abstract I found it impossible to follow. For an extremely cautious modern approach to parts and wholes, see Lerner (1963).

5 Discussed at greater length in Scheff and Retzinger (1994).


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