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Social Science Has Always Had

Social science has always had difficulties “proving itself” as a science due to problems for those seeking to develop social explanations without the use of experiments.

The contrast explanation approach as proposed by Tony Lawson (2008) addresses the threefold problem a social scientist has to face in an open world. How social research gets initiated in the first place in the absence of experiments to help generate data for analysis is the first of the questions. Secondly and thirdly, questions arise about how to direct causal reasoning and how to adjudicate between competing theories.

This essay will, respectively, clarify, discuss and apply each of those challenges to argue that contrast explanation is indeed an effective way of finding underlying causes of social phenomena. To illustrate how the method works, the discovery of the reasons for differing reported symptoms of depression in Asia and America (Kleinman and Good, 1985; Weissman, 1996) will be used, as it is a contrast phenomenon where a social scientific explanation can be made.

Cambridge economist Tony Lawson dedicates most of his work to the study of ontology and offers contrast explanation as an excellent approach to research in social science. The first “ingredient” (Lawson, 2003, p.92) necessary to initiate such an explanation is that one should be able to form informed judgement on the issue and thus be able to expect the outcome of something (or multiple things) to be a certain way. Lawson introduces the term ‘contrast space’ referring to “any region […] in which we expect outcomes to be roughly the same” (Lawson, 2008, p.4). An example he often uses is the analogy of a field where a part of it yields more than expected, even though, to our knowledge, this should not be so.

The example chosen to illustrate the functioning of contrast explanation for this essay pertains to findings of studies suggesting that Asians and Americans have very different tendencies when describing their depression and their symptoms. Multiple studies have been conducted in the past three decades, but only a few (Jeon et al., 2014; Kleinman and Good, 1985; Weissman, 1996) have provided statistical significance alongside with theories as to why this might be the case.

Around 350 million people suffer from Major Depressive Disorder (MDD) nowadays (WHO, 2016) and every part of the world is affected by it. Its symptoms can be categorized into the following groups: affective, cognitive, behavioural and somatic (DSM, 2013).

Affective symptoms refer to the way people react emotionally and their ability to feel emotions. Examples include feelings of sadness and the failure to display interest and find pleasure in everyday activities. Cognitive symptoms relate to the ability to rationalise at their usual level and the thoughts individuals have about themselves, other people and their intentions. Behavioural symptoms refer to the way an individual behaves and the activities they participate in. In MDD most frequently those contain withdrawal from friends and family members, stopping to take care of oneself and suicide attempts. Lastly, somatic symptoms refer to physical changes that the individual may experience. Examples for this category include, but are not restricted to, headaches and sleep disturbance.

Kleinman and Good (1985) as well as Weissman (1997) found that Asian patients tend to report almost exclusively somatic symptoms, whereas European and North American ones most often described affective and cognitive symptoms. Reasons by the aforementioned researchers that give them the right to expect reported MDD symptoms to be the same on those two continents despite cultural differences revolve around the fact that nobody is born with instructions on how to behave at a psychologist’s office. Everybody has the freedom to display every emotion they might have been hiding from their family and friends and they can voice any concern they have due to the confidentiality that a psychologist’s office bears. An even distribution of reported symptoms is hence expected. Therefore, the first criterion of Lawson’s contrast explanation is fulfilled, as the researcher’s find a contrast somewhere, where it was not expected to be found.

The second condition for the use of contrast explanation named by Lawson is the element of surprise, which he considers the quintessence of successful social scientific research as it is responsible to get said research ‘up and running’.

When a human being is surprised by something – a contrast – they usually will make attempts to find the reasons behind it being that way. Humans are surprised if the outcome of something deviates from what they have been expecting. If, for example, two things appear to be identical, yet one is found to actually behave differently while the circumstances seem to have remained the same as before, one is inevitably surprised.

Generally, for a phenomenon to be eligible for examination using contrast explanation is for the contrast to be one where the outcome is “noteworthy, inconsistent, disturbing, doubt-inducing or otherwise interesting” (Lawson, 2008, p.4). What is considered to be of great value in regards to this criterion is that regardless of level of expertise, every individual finds something else interesting, which is why more contrasts are being investigated and hence more hypotheses are being put forward.

As a large share of the world’s population are depressed, with yearly 800,000 people even taking their life because of it (WHO, 2016), research about this disorder and potential cures is in constant development. However, Kleinman and Good (1985) and Weissman (1996) must have found a truly noteworthy aspect of this disorder to initiate research using contrast explanation.

Different perception of the same problem is nothing new to the world, however, those researchers were intrigued by the fact that aspects of exactly the same mental health issue could be viewed in a completely different dimension. Although considerable attention has been given to cross-national comparisons of prevalence of depression at the time of their research, less attention has been paid to the ways in which the reporting of symptoms of the same disease vary in different countries.

What follows next in this explanatory approach is the identification of the causal mechanisms underlying the phenomenon (Lawson, 2008). Here, Lawson says that social sciences are comparable to natural sciences, as “there can be no formulaic way of moving from phenomena at one level to their underlying causes” (Lawson, 2008, p.5). Because non-experimental research does not attempt to simulate contrasts, but rather to seek out existing ones where outcomes were not awaited to be different, the question of how to direct causal reasoning arises.

In Reorienting Economics (2003), Lawson uses the ‘mad cow disease analogy’ which corresponds to “a progressive neurologic disease of cows” (FDA, 2016) to illustrate how to find potential causes of an extraordinary contrast. He claims that through the understanding of aspects typical to every animal of this species and then eliminating those from the list of propositions for potential causes it is possible to identify the (set of) reason(s) for the occurrence of the disease. What the economist and philosopher also argues is that we can expand the understanding of our surprising phenomenon happening in an open system by looking and evaluating more contrasts or what he calls ‘foils’ (Lawson, 2003, p. 95).

In the case of differing depression symptoms, several researchers have suggested very diverse reasons. What each one of those researches must have begun with though is the ‘factoring out’ of the traits that all individuals taken into consideration must have shared. Among those would be, for example, age, education, similar medical record history and exposure to the media.

One of the researchers intrigued by this contrast phenomenon is Weismann (1996) who suggests social stigma to be one of the reasons that Asian countries mostly express somatic and behavioural symptoms, as cognitive and affective ones are frequently looked down upon or even feared. In contrast, in the US mental health is considered to be equally as important as physical health, which is why awareness is raised by the US government’s establishment of the “Mental Illness Awareness Week” in 1990 (NAMI, 1990).

Weissman’s suggestions are confirmed by works such as Chee Hong Ng’s (1997) review of attitudes towards mental illness and psychiatric stigma in Asian cultures. “Lack of mind-body dualism, somatization, medicalisation of psychiatric illnesses, spiritual and religious beliefs and family orientation” (Ng, 1997, p. 388) are among the common Asian features that she identifies as missing in comparison to Western countries. The latter features – religious beliefs and family orientation – provide the link to stigma that Weissman suggested.

By standardizing the common factors of the two groups in this contrast space as proposed by Lawson, the researchers were able to obtain a list of probable causes through perusing cultural aspects that might be different and affecting mental health reporting behaviour.

Kleinman and Good (1985) found a different anthropological aspect that might account for the remarkable disparity. They discuss the lack of “vocabulary of emotion” (p.72) and underline that several countries – most of them Asian – do not even have words for depression (!) in their own language, whereas the majority of American and European countries have a long history of emotive language in regards to psychological suffering. Interestingly, this suggests a connection of this theory with one proposed by Kleinman in 1982 in which he considers the somatization and culture in China and concludes that almost 90 percent of patients with a popular disorder labelled ‘neurasthenia’ would actually be diagnosed with depression in Western countries, as the symptoms are almost identical, although less focused on the emotional and cognitive aspects of the human psyche. In other words, he has additionally discovered that it might be possible to help more people who previously did not seek help due to the lack of linguistic means, as this could be managed by circulating informative leaflets across the country that might encourage the individuals to reach out.

The next thing to consider using the contrast explanation approach is the adjudication between competing theories. Lawson (2008) states that our proceedings always depend on context and that the more theories we put forward, the better. He also elaborates on the seemingly ‘obvious’ method which includes the assessment of a theory’s explanatory powers by taking into consideration the contrasts in which two different theories operate. Practitioners of the contrast explanation approach are asked to “notice that the more contrasts of relevance that can be explained according to a causal hypothesis being defended, the more confidence we are entitled to hold in that hypothesis” (Lawson, 2008, p.6). According to this, Weissman’s theory (1996) is inevitably the inferior one. It only explains one contrast – that of presence or lack of social stigma determining the manner of reporting of affective disorders, which include MDD. At the same time, Kleinman and Good (1985) uncover an aspect that most likely does not only relate to MDD but even the everyday lives of all representatives of the two contrasting groups, revealing more contrasts to be investigated. Those would include differences in literature due to distinct sets of vocabulary and also interpersonal communication.

The limitations of this real-life example chosen for this essay are quite numerous.

Firstly, this example could be rejected due to the fact that knowledge about differences in individualist and collectivist cultures is considered common nowadays. Still, it is arguable that mental health has no borders, which is why it could reasonably be expected that the reporting of symptoms would not vary, even if populations are divided from each other by oceans or languages. As mentioned before, even if one is brought up in a culture with introvert tendencies and one that values the maintenance of social harmony (Hofstede, 1991) that might be disturbed by a potentially mentally ill family member, one still has confidentiality in a medical professional’s office. If this is not seen as true by representatives of this group, then the contrast space has wrongly been assessed, which Lawson describes as a normal mistake when using contrast explanation, which should just encourage researchers to reassess and create an appropriate contrast space.

Secondly, most of the studies on this topic, unfortunately, do not fully apply the contrast explanation approach to uncover underlying reasons or mechanisms – frequently, there is no attempt to adjudicate between competing theories that might even be proposed by the same researchers. Yet all of those suggestions proposed by the social scientists are supplemented with empirical data, which is also endorsed by Lawson (2003, 2008).

Another possible limitation is reporting bias. The number of patients in both locations may be inaccurate due to differences in diagnosis and certain individuals who do not consult a doctor or psychologist even though they actually would require medical support.

To conclude, this essay has identified the key features of the method of contrast explanation as well as shown its functioning through the portrayal of a social scientific explanation (differences in language or stigma) of a particular contrast phenomenon (the differing reporting of major depressive disorder across the contrast space of Asia and America). It has also demonstrated that it may not only provide an explanation of a certain phenomenon but promote development, for instance of improved patient-psychologist communication. Finally, perhaps, the most incredible feature of Lawson’s contrast explanation is that it promotes the generation of theories and that even though “all method is limited and must knowingly distort” as he describes in a 2009 interview (EJPE, 2009, p.105), it will always continue to facilitate the work of researchers in social science.

Freelance Writer

I’m a freelance writer with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism from Boston University. My work has been featured in publications like the L.A. Times, U.S. News and World Report, Farther Finance, Teen Vogue, Grammarly, The Startup, Mashable, Insider, Forbes, Writer (formerly Qordoba), MarketWatch, CNBC, and USA Today, among others.