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The problem of description

The distinction between what is real and what we see as real (see What is reality?) highlights the tension in scientific and other discourses between what we see and what we get i.e. between the data and its interpretation in a greater context of things. It can be said therefore that data is not neutral nor are its interpretations. Data is already an act of active imposition of meaning on structures that are otherwise meaningless prior to this act of imposition. By implication, the truth, or more exactly, the significance of our findings is least in the data or information itself but in the criteria that are applied in the act of their identification and interpretation. 

Foucault described this tension between the data and its interpretation in terms of the temporal paradox in which the observer is caught. Thus, according to him, on the one hand, at any particular moment, i.e. synchronically, there is always too much data, "an excess of data in relation to possible systems in a given period, which causes them to be experienced within their boundaries" (Foucault in Foucault and Chomsky, 1996: 122). In other words, the difficulty is that there is too much to understand it all. On the other hand, diachronically, there is too little data and too many possibilities in which things could be explained. That is, "there is a proliferation of systems for a small amount of data from which originates the widespread idea that it is the discovery of new facts which determines movement in the history of science" (Foucault in Foucault and Chomsky, 1996: 122). Indeed, it is often assumed that progress is more a function of discovery of new facts rather than of a change in the approach toward the data i.e. the old.

Thus, in spite of its apparent abundance, information which comes to us across time is stripped from much of the data and is therefore significantly impoverished. New facts therefore are not a matter of more data coming in. Rather, their novelty or difference comes from the potentially infinite possibility to organise data. This potentiality is limited solely by the possibilities that the observer brings with him/her in the process of inquiry. The more possibilities are allowed, the more windows are opened up for “new data” to be discovered and old truths to be dispensed with. To follow with Foucault, to the observer, reality comes in a dynamic state because we experience reality in its non-linear temporality i.e. it is our perceptions that create the experiences of time rather than our perceptions being located in time (cf. Figure 1). The present therefore no longer appears primal but reconstituted in the form of logics, or structures, which are "always already transcriptions" (Derrida in Hobson, 1998: 22).

In order to fulfill the conditions of validity, it is crucial for scientific statements to recognise the discursive character of the reality that they investigate and measure. Like the historian, the scientist has to his/her disposal data that comes to him/her only in a form of "textualised materials" since Nature, like history, does not have an existence independent from our knowledge about it. Historical and scientific facts do not just appear. As Calhoun repeats after Bourdieu: "they must be won" (Calhoun, 1995: 65). Thus scientists, like historians, do not describe facts, or events, as there is nothing "out there" that they did not create by virtue of their own means of classification and systematisation. It may therefore be more appropriate to think that the task of the scientist is like that of the historian. Both seek and explore points and positions from which the object of their inquiry becomes more perceptible (cf. Hobson, 1998: 240). These points and positions function more as a means rather than the ends. In other words, the issue is not as much the answers that they produce but the diversity of the connections that they make available for their further elaboration or refutation. 

Ania Lian, 2003

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