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Romm, N. (1998) 'Caricaturing and Categorising in Processes of Argument'
Sociological Research Online, vol. 3, no. 2, <>

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Received: 13/5/98      Accepted: 19/6/98      Published: 30/6/98


Charges of caricature have been levelled recently by contributors to this journal in the course of their conducting debates about epistemological questions. The argument developed here is that these charges themselves express different epistemological positions. In exploring these differences, I indicate my preference for seeing the term 'caricature' as a symbolic device pleading for experimentation with alternative avenues of argument, rather than as a representational device referring to 'the fact' that someone has misread some text. Concerning my own categorising of these epistemological differences, I suggest that in the course of debate (including processes of categorisation) one cannot avoid expressing certain preferences, but that the fragile grounding of these preferences should be acknowledged.

Argument; Caricaturing; Categorising; Choices; Rationality


Debates that have occurred recently in this journal around differing ways of approaching epistemological questions express contention regarding the question of what it might mean to engage with others' arguments. Hammersley draws on a specific conception of this engagement when he states that some entries into the debate seem to preclude 'rational argument' between alternative positions (Hammersley, 1997: ¶1.14). He complains, for instance, that Humphries (1997) adopts the tactic of 'resorting ... to caricature' (¶1.11) and he refers to the need for rational argument which allows researchers to 'stand aside from the stereotypes' which are constructed (¶1.14). He argues that it is crucial that we attempt to maximise 'the scope for understanding others' views' and that his allegiance to the principle of objectivity has the consequence that he is oriented (unlike Humphries) in this direction (¶1.2).

Others, however, aver that they have experienced Hammersley's engagement with their own (and with others') texts as derisory and as leading to caricature (Humphries, 1997: ¶2.3; Temple, 1997: ¶1.6 - ¶1.7). They are concerned about engagement in styles of human interaction which involve (what is experienced as) derision. They argue that adopting an orientation to others which amounts to insisting that we all attempt to align our interpretations with (some posited) reality (in this case the reality of some text) introduces a style of interaction in which charges of 'inaccuracy' and 'misrepresentation' rule the debate. Such charges are regarded as being unconstructive because none of the parties can properly claim to have found a way of truly appreciating what is supposed to be 'misrepresented'.

The term 'caricature' thus may function in different ways when used in processes of debate. In the way Hammersley uses it (in terms of a realist epistemological position), it refers to the fact that persons have misrepresented texts in the interpretation thereof. They have failed to move towards an accurate reading of the texts. They have misread them. The term 'caricature' when used within an alternative epistemological stance, however, is a symbolic device pleading for a style of interaction wherein participants recognise the complexity arising from different ways of reading texts. Use of the term 'caricature' thus expresses the feeling that there could be an alternative way of conducting the argument about differences in different readings.

I locate these epistemological orientations in order to explore practical implications (for processes of argument) of usage of the term 'caricature'. I also indicate how categorisation as a process (as opposed to caricaturing) may be able to provide space for dialogue between categories compared - provided that people are prepared to explore the choices implied in the way they construct categories and employ them in the course of argument.

Uses of the Term 'Caricature'

Adopting a representational view of human speech, Hammersley when using the concept of caricature regards it as referring to the reality of a problematic engagement with the other, in which the other's position really is misrepresented. In his reply to Humphries he claims that there is a variety of ways in which she misrepresents his position (Hammersley, 1997: ¶1.2) and he suggests that this means that she is 'resorting to caricature' (¶1.11). He argues, for instance, that Humphries has not taken sufficient account of the evidence that he has provided in his texts to indicate that he believes that it is sometimes possible for those seeking certain political goals to 'produce truths' in the process (¶1.12). He indicates that he clearly concedes (contrary to Humphries' interpretations) that sometimes those who reject objectivity may 'reach true conclusions' (¶1.10).

If we take it that texts 'have meaning' which can be misrepresented (by interpretations), then the act of accusing the other of misrepresentation (caricature) calls on the other to admit that s/he was wrong in the interpretation. It thereby forbids further consideration of why the text might be experienced differently. But we can revisit this way of using the term 'caricature'. Taking the example of Humphries' (mis)reading, we can revisit Hammersley's claim that his texts provide evidence that he believes that those not immediately geared to knowledge-seeking may nevertheless produce some truths. This 'evidence' can be reconsidered by focusing on his references to the identification of 'true conclusions', and by questioning how one might ground any claim to have found an authorised way of reaching such 'truths', or of knowing that we might ever reach them. If one takes these considerations as constituting one way of engaging with the texts (that is, with their 'evidence') then Humphries could be argued to be pointing, through her reading, to Hammersley's reluctance to entertain alternative ways of approaching the question of how truth-seeking should be defined. The charge of 'caricature' levelled as a statement to the effect that Humphries has misread the texts, does little to further a discussion around the concerns that she has raised. The suggestion here is that charges of caricature levelled from a realist epistemological perspective can foreclose opportunities for enriching the realm of discussion around the reading of texts.

There are thus differences in the epistemological orientations that are brought to bear when people employ the term 'caricature' to characterise others' ways of proceeding in the debate. Temple - when referring to Hammersley's (and Gomm's) caricaturing - is calling (in terms of my interpretation offered here) for readings of 'reality', including the 'reality' of textual meaning, which allow for a specific kind of dialogical engagement between those offering interpretations. The engagement is one of listening and using this listening to 'learn that "the truth" is not the same for everyone' (Temple, 1997: ¶5.2). She uses the term 'caricature' to evoke (through juxtaposition) the possibility of people attempting to engage with one another in a way which allows each to appreciate multiplicity of voice. To appreciate multiplicity of voice is not the same as suggesting that it is impossible to learn from others' orientations in the world (as Temple indicates). Furthermore, it is not to deny that people themselves have to take responsibility for their ways of seeing-and-acting at points in time (Romm, 1996a,b). It is, however, to relinquish the idea that assessment can be made in terms of some presumed way of (apparently) miminising chances of misrepresentation through the knowing process.

Hammersley and Gomm's response to the critique of the idea that truth-seeking entails attempts to minimise chances of misrepresentation is that the search for truth defined as knowledge of reality is a human necessity. According to them, people simply cannot live by relinquishing the quest for truth thus defined (Hammersley and Gomm, 1997: ¶1.9). Despite the strength of this assertion, we can reconsider it by referring to their own admission that we cannot ever be sure of the cognitive status of any specific claim or set of claims made in the search for knowledge (as representation of reality) - cf. Hammersley, 1995: p. 112. Admitting that we can never be sure of the cognitive status of any claims made, we recognise that people still do manage to 'live'. Taking an alternative starting position, it may be argued that there is no human necessity to insist that there must be some route for striving to access realities posited to exist outside of the inquiry process. In terms of this argument, the varying stances arising in this process have to be borne in mind by people as part of their defining how to know and live. (Cf. Gouldner, 1975; Stanley and Wise, 1983, 1994; Lather, 1991, 1995; McKay and Romm, 1992; Guba and Lincoln, 1994; Lincoln, 1995; Romm, 1995, 1996a, 1997; McIntyre, 1996; Weil, 1996; Hardy and Clegg, 1997; Jacobson and Jacques, 1997; Cealey Harrison and Hood-Williams, 1998.)

Further Considerations

As shown above, the realist conception of the term 'caricature' as referring to the fact that some text is being misread/misrepresented, can be pitted against an alternative epistemological orientation. An issue which now arises when considering the distinction between caricaturing and categorising is whether the process of applying categories to people's arguments itself ipso facto fails to do justice to contending positions. How can categorisation, which implies a process of comparing arguments in terms of certain issues, give full credence to the concerns of all parties in a debate? It seems to me that while this (full credence) is not feasible, it is possible for categorisers to offer an indication of ways in which their own starting commitments or preferences are guiding the process of their comparing positions. The question then becomes whether it is possible to show preference in ways other than by denuding the rationality of that which one is opposing/taking distance from (at some point in time). My suggestion is that this can be done - through committing to a position while at the same time recognising the status of the commitment as a choice which has no final grounding. Its fragility is kept in consciousness - so that at the moment of commitment we retain a sensitivity to the opposition which others might wish to introduce into the discussion.

Put differently, the suggestion is that an endeavour should be made to develop an appreciation of the choicefulness of one's commitments in the light of (genuine) opposition. This endeavour is expressed through making attempts to come to terms with the 'otherness' of others' arguments in the process of categorising them. This means taking seriously people's (argued-for) experiences of our failure to do this, and trying to develop human relationships which take them into account. In this way we can extend our appreciation of the complexities of accounting for others' concerns while taking responsibility for our own choices in the course of human engagement.


In considering the distinction between caricaturing and categorising, I have tried to show that there is no manner in which we can finally adjudicate a complaint that another person has caricatured as opposed to categorising an argument. The charge of caricature implies that there is an experience that the other has not tried to come to grips with the rationale of a position taken. We can never know whether this experience is 'really' justified or not. What we can do is attempt to set up an alternative style of relating, so that the human relationship can become experienced as more constructive for furthering the arguments.

Ways of working with conceptions of rationality can be seen to have practical implications for researchers/inquirers in terms of their relating to others in the process of inquiry. I have suggested that part of the process of using argument requires (inter alia) taking into account varying positions regarding people's experiences of such practical implications.


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