Facts, interpretations and Chávez

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Modern social science's essence lies in its purpose, articulated in the 19th century, to expound a meticulous, secular knowledge of reality that is somehow corroborated by empirical research. The challenge for researchers of course rests in how they define "empirical research." The driving methodological debate in the social sciences -- however abstruse or historically distant -- orients itself according to the divide between the advocates of the interpretive method and the proponents of positivism. In terms of social theory, the former was most persuasively argued by Max Weber in his essay "Objectivity in the Social Sciences" while the latter was most systematically articulated by Emile Durkheim in Rules of the Sociological Method. Weber noted that the skill of the human sciences lay in its unique capacity to articulate the specific meaning of a phenomenon while Durkheim pointed to the social sciences' powerful ability to derive general laws from the study of an object, event or process.

A simplified example of the above difference would be to compare the ethnographic method of an anthropologist with the quantitative one of an economist. The former might have lived for a year in a location -- say a barrio in Caracas back in 1997 -- to examine the massive growth of the informal economy in order to explain how the population's interpretation of democracy was redefined by the collapse of the country's gross domestic product throughout the 1980s and '90s.

Meanwhile, our stereotypical economist might never have left the office and instead would have engaged in a mathematical analysis of available data sets that would allow for the modelling of various supply-demand relations that were taking place due to the breakdown of economic productivity and the consequent rise in official unemployment.

Of course, this dichotomous scenario rarely occurs: most contemporary anthropologists recognize the value of quantitative analysis and many economists understand the importance of qualitative data. However, there was one political moment where monolithic research methods met -- with unforeseen results -- a momentous historical situation.

David Smilde and Daniel Hellinger's fine new book Venezuela's Bolivarian Democracy: Participation, Politics and Culture under Chávez takes notice of this scenario in the case of Venezuela. From 1958 to 1980 the country's annual GDP growth averaged 5 per cent. In the 1980s, annual growth shrunk to negative 3.2 per cent and in the 1990s, it averaged negative 0.3 per cent. Smilde, in his Introduction, notes that quantitative social scientists who studied Venezuela's economic decline did not have the conceptual capacity to understand what was occurring among the unemployed. Once citizens fell out of the formal economy, the statistics on them dried up. Policy-makers, for the most part, did not know what the unemployed were doing nor did they have the methodological capacity to investigate how the new informal labour force was interpreting its volatile circumstances.

The economic collapse of the period transformed class, status and political relations in Venezuela: the key cleavages now lay not only between the elite and the poor but also between formal and informal labourers. The formally employed had jobs with legal protections and had property with access to civic services such as water, telephone and police. Meanwhile, the informal workers lived in slums and rural areas not fully recognized by the government and did not receive the normal benefits of citizenship: job security, health care, municipal services, police protection or oversight from the state. To be informal meant to be invisible, unacknowledged and irrelevant to the state elite.

Meanwhile the "irrelevant" were engaging in processes that would become spectacularly relevant over time. Not only were they building up a large informal economy, they were also evaluating their government's policies. Their growing resentment of the political elite and -- we can add -- their concomitant hunger for a saviour went unnoticed. Smilde insightfully makes the case that it was precisely the overemphasis on statistical knowledge and the corresponding lack of attention placed on qualitative, ethnographic research that led national and international policy-makers to be incapable of predicting the 1998, and continuing, popularity and electoral victories of their nemesis, Hugo Chávez.

Progressive researchers, writers and journalists should learn from the mistakes of the mainstream. Adherence to any one theory of knowledge -- whether intentional or unintentional, postmodern or positivist -- inevitably leads to a fragmented picture that makes one inept at adequate explanation or accurate prediction.

Thomas Ponniah is an affiliate of Harvard's David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies and the co-editor of The Revolution in Venezuela: Social and political change under Chavez (Harvard University Press 2011).

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