Critical Rationalism (Gomory's Blurry Theory) or Positivism (Thyer's Theoretical Myopia): Which Is the Prescription for Social Work Research?

By Gomory, Tomi | Journal of Social Work Education, Winter 2001 | Go to article overview

Critical Rationalism (Gomory's Blurry Theory) or Positivism (Thyer's Theoretical Myopia): Which Is the Prescription for Social Work Research?


Gomory, Tomi, Journal of Social Work Education


   Man has created new worlds--of language, of music, of poetry, of science;
   and the most important of these is the world of the moral demands, for
   equality, for freedom, and for helping the weak.

   Karl Popper

IN THE BEGINNING OF HIS REJOINDER to my critique of his article, Bruce Thyer may be unwittingly offering a glimpse into that aspect of the sociology of knowledge which "deals with the actual content of knowledge and seeks to explain it as a function of social experience or social self-interest" (Munz, 1985, p. 69). Thyer first shares his view of how our respective articles "have come to your attention" (Thyer, 2001, p. 51). He treats us to the odyssey of his paper from keynote address to journal article (interestingly enough, through a fallibilistic trial-and-error process, review his description on pp. 52), notifies us of his gracious consent to be critiqued by a junior colleague, and informs us of a brief and pleasant encounter during a conference where we both presented papers.

This interlude has little to do with our differing interpretations of theory and its utility in social work practice, but it does help to make the sociological point that the import of knowledge claims rests heavily on how they are selected and where and by whom they are discussed along the intellectual food chain. This is akin to what Agassi (1981, pp. 70-71) called the practice of science as a guild system. Consensus leaders and authorities are the master practitioners of various knowledge guilds (e.g., logical positivist empirical clinical social work educators possessed of PhDs). These authorities determine the current paradigms of practice (the accepted model scientific theories in the field). To maintain their good standing in the guild and progress untroubled from apprentice to master, scientific practitioners (BSW and MSW clinical social workers) must accept its norms, teach its doctrines, and solve routine or normal scientific problems within the guild's approved body of knowledge. The problem with this approach is that it minimizes critical appraisal of factual claims and instead reviews the status of the claim makers. It is therefore revealing that Thyer's first line of defense of his definition of theory against mine is to "cite widely used authorities in our field, the definition found in the NASW's Social Work Dictionary, and the definition found in several social work research texts, including the prestigious Rubin and Babbie (1997) among others" (Thyer, 2001, p. 53). Of course, this is not his only line of defense, but by shifting attention from the issues to the individuals involved, by invoking authoritative textbooks and definitions, is Thyer trying to camouflage weak counterarguments?

But let's get back to the clash of ideas! My Popperian critical rationalist methodology, eschewing any possibility of science being an inductive validation process based on consensus authority, presents a direct challenge to the inductive paradigm presented by Bruce Thyer and some other social work scholars, who represent "Empirical Clinical Social Work Practice." Professor Thyer fails to present a single counterargument to any criticism I leveled at his position. Instead, he offers up quotes from "supportive authorities" without arguments. Here is one typical quote from Thyer claiming to point out the error in my definition of theory:

   We frequently apply the word `theory' to describe such things as: basic
   tenets of practice; systematic formulation of ideas; approaches to theory;
   schools of thought or systems of thought; accumulated practice wisdom; post
   factum explanations of basic values; rather than the rigorous definition of
   theory usually used. (Turner, 1979, p. 4, as quoted in Thyer, 2001, p. 54)

I find no argument in the quote against my view that scientific theories, no matter how formal or preliminary, are guesses or conjectures subject to critical falsifying tests and can include any propositional or explanatory statements about what is or what could be, regardless of what they are called. …

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