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Theory Development

8. Understanding and Interpretation

In many of the cases of interest to social and behavioral science, however, background knowledge does not suffice.

The differences that appear when populations are categorized point to beliefs, interests, values, and so forth that are themselves puzzling and in need of explanation.

A standard approach to these problems of explanation is to use the categories to point to the different communities and social networks that the individuals in the categories are part of, because different beliefs, values, and experiences are sustained and transmitted in groups and networks. The focus of this kind of analysis shifts from the individual to the social world in which the attitudes, interests, experiences, and beliefs are sustained and developed, and often leads to explanations that terminate in conceptual constructions such as “culture” and “world view.” These are themselves abstractions, but they are developed on a different basis, for example by the analysis of open-ended interview material or through ethnographies that supply the material for attributing attitudes, beliefs, and motivations, reasons for acting, different perceptions of the meanings of choices and outcomes, and thus different behavior to composite or idealized members of the group or category in question.

In these cases the attitudes and beliefs themselves may require interpretation, in the sense of making the background knowledge and beliefs of the agents– often contained in uncodified practices– intelligible to the outsider. But even with interpretation and reconstruction into intelligible world views, the behavior may still be puzzling. In the case of the abortion dispute, for example, it is evident that there are social categories, such as working women and mothers, that are more strongly represented on opposite sides of the controversy, and that there are differences in world view and membership in social groups that sustain these views. But these considerations do not seem to explain the passion with which the sides engage in the struggle.