Nomothetic Explanations and Fear of Unfamiliar Things

Bringing two concepts together, in Research Methods today we discussed the MTV show 16 and Pregnant as part of our effort to look at cause-and-effect relationships in the social sciences. The authors of a new study on the aforementioned television program demonstrate a strong link between viewership and pregnancy awareness (including declining pregnancy rates) amongst teenagers.

We used this information, along with a hypothesized link between playing video games and violent behaviour. I then asked students to think about another putatively causal relationship that was similar to these two, from which we could derive a more general, law-like hypothesis or theory.

The computer lab presented us with another opportunity to think about moving from more specific and contextual causal claims to more general ones. Upon completion of the lab, one of the students remarked that learning how to use the R statistical program wasn’t too painful and that he had feared having to learn it. “I guess I’m afraid of technology,” he remarked. Then he corrected himself to say that this wasn’t true, since he didn’t fear the iphone, or his Mac laptop, etc. So, we agreed that he only feared technology with which he was unfamiliar. I then prodded him and others to use this observation to make a broader claim about social life. And the claim was “we fear that with which we are unfamiliar.” That is generalizing beyond the data that we’ve just used to extrapolate to other areas of social life.

Our finishing hypothesis, then, was extended to include not only technology, but people, countries, foods, etc.

P.S. Apropos of the attached TED talk, do we fear cannibals because we are unfamiliar with them?


6 thoughts on “Nomothetic Explanations and Fear of Unfamiliar Things

  1. Thank you for your comment. You stated “I’m not sure I understand the point of your research.”

    Maybe this will help. I teach a class on research methods in international studies. This class is the first exposure most of my students have had to issues related to the philosophy of (social) science such as causality, explanation, etc.

    The simple point I was trying to make (and my students should have picked up on this) is that there are two general approaches to explanation in the social sciences–nomothetic and ideographic. Researchers who support the nomothetic view argue that one can should be able to extrapolate beyond any specific data/study to make causal, law-like statements about social life in general.

    You have helpfully provided an explanation of why the general hypothesis (or theory) of why human beings fear unfamiliarity–an evolutionarily biological one. Evolution, to put it simply, selects for certain genes. The species’ gene pool will over time be comprised of the genes of those members who were able to live to reproductive age. Thus, any quality or characteristic of humans that made it more likely for our ancestors to live to reproduce is more prevalent in our current gene pool than characteristics that mitigated against reaching reproductive maturity. Thus, those of our species who didn’t fear unfamiliarity were much more likely to be eaten by a lion, or die from falling out of a tall tree, etc.

    • “Researchers who support the nomothetic view argue that one can should be able to extrapolate beyond any specific data/study to make causal, law-like statements about social life in general.”

      I see. I must admit that I didn’t look up the translation of nomothetic when I wrote my comment, but without your explanation, I might have been as puzzled anyways.

      The deduction of laws and rules from observation I had mostly expected in natural sciences, where there are pretty hard and precise laws, which can be expressed as mathematical formulas or equations usually.

      Social science seemed to be a much “softer” science to me, so I had not expected this approach. But on a second thought is makes sense, the laws are most likely more probability based, or averaging, because the individual is too unpredictable, but they still are laws.

      Thanks for the explanation! I learned something new today 🙂

      • Quoting you: “Social science seemed to be a much “softer” science to me…”

        Very perceptive comment. Indeed, in class we learned that there are two opposing views with respect to whether social sciences can be as “sciency” as natural sciences. Those who argue for nomothetic explanation believe that we can use general explanations (and mathematics) to explain the social world.

        On the other hand, there are researchers who believe that social phenomena are too complex, contextual, and contingent to be understood via law-like explanations. These researchers argue that social life can be more accurately and appropriately explained and understood vie ideographic methods, which focus on individual cases. Deep description of particular cases (temporally- and spatially-contextual) is the way to understand social life and there can be no generalization beyond the specific case.

        • Now it’s getting really difficult. There is the concept of “free will”. Well it’s a quite disputed concept, and most likely linked tightly into the two views – if there is free will in an individual, there can’t be laws to predict the behavior. If there are laws, there can’t be free will.

          I’m not sure if we ever will find a definite answer to this. I’ve grown up with education in “hard” sciences, math, chemistry and physics mostly. This continued till the end of my computer science studies. So I’m in the second group who thinks that creatures and their behavior, particularly if we talk about self-aware beings who exhibit (free?) will, is not graspable by strict laws. And I hope I can keep my illusion of free will 😀

          Thanks again! This field is quite new to me, and I see there is much for me to learn.

          • Yes, the concept of free will adds additional complexity to the whole debate. Gravity, for example, isn’t aware that it is being studied.

            Great comments and I think that my students will have learned something from this discussion.

  2. ‘”we fear that with which we are unfamiliar.” That is generalizing beyond the data that we’ve just used to extrapolate to other areas of social life.’

    This is how nature made us – unfamiliar things, well, we have little knowledge about them, their dangers, properties, reactions (if living or autmated) and habits (if living). People who do not exhibit at least a latent fear of the unfamiliar are prone to tap into each trap, and hurt themselves again and agin, by being not careful enough about the unknown.

    For our ancestors this fear was a lifeguard. Many plants and fruits are (more or less) poisonous, many animals can hurt humans (more or less) badly, and while you are not familiar with them, it is required to be very careful if you wanted to survive. If you believe in evolution, it is just natural that we still have this life-preserving fear, and if you believe in creationism, it also is reasonable to design creatures that way that they can survive in a dangerous environment.

    The need to “get familiar with”, I think this is a common saying if people meet something new.

    I’m not sure if I understood the point of your research?

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