Unraveling triptych ‘truth’ in social science research

By MENG QINGYAN / 06-20-2024 / Chinese Social Sciences Today

FILE PHOTO: Factual truth, social truth, and interpretative truth constitute the triptych meanings of “truth” in humanities and social sciences research. 

In modern social science research, whether quantitative or qualitative, studies investigating individual subjectivity inevitably confront the issue of defining and measuring “truth.” How should we understand the complex concept of “truth” in social science research? This article attempts to decipher the tripartite meanings of “truth” in humanities and social science research.

Factual truth: Sociological significance of verification 

Regardless of a researcher’s core interests, collecting facts is essential to academic research. Researchers in the field of humanities and social sciences emphasize the veracity of materials, as this is the foundation of objective and scientific research. This leads to the question, how should “objective-facts-based” research be structured? Let’s first review relevant methods for oral history research in sociology and history. 

During the 1990s, oral history was introduced to sociological research as a method, paradigm, and problem consciousness. It has thereafter been extensively applied in the study of China’s land revolution, the collectivization movement, and industrialized construction of the New China. Sociology’s intervention into historical research via the practice of oral history has triggered a series of debates. Researchers question the subjectivity and unreliability inherent in oral data and are also deeply concerned with the possibility of lies, concealment, and fabrication which may occur in interviews due to the narrators’ value-orientations or emotional and positional factors. 

The criticism above underlines a question: What is true and what is false? The central concern for researchers is what constitutes “objective” data and how scientists should understand the “truthfulness” of “objective” data itself. This is the first dimension of “truth” discussed below— “factual truth.”

As researchers begin their investigations, whether through oral interviews or archive retrieval, they often need to capture a series of basic facts, including dates, times, location, actors, and a series of elements surrounding actors, institutions, policies, and organizations involved in events, as well as the actions of individuals during these events. Time is a crucial element in social science research. Time markers provide an important criterion for understanding social life and institutional logic. Aside from time, space (geography, region, location) and specific actors (characters) are also aspects of the “factual truth” that research requires. 

Whether recording history or data for sociology in the humanities and social sciences, whether studying historical phenomena or current issues, researchers need to first address the issue of factual truth in their research. Social sciences research is not merely a recording of what others say, lightly touching upon the issue being studied, nor is it a panoramic record of all information about the research object—it does not require us to verify all objective facts. However, we do need to fully demonstrate the factual objectivity of three key elements: the institutional nodes, organizational changes, and progression of events. The relative accuracy of these three elements often shapes our understanding and interpretation of social phenomena, organizational forms, and institutional logic.

Social Truth: Tacit consensus and layered society

The “social truth” contains at least two subtle connotations. First, the social truth is a collective subconscious or the social default values within a society. The term “subconscious” and “default values” are used because they often represent customs, conventions, or some kind of tacit consensus formed by most members of a society during the process of long-term cohabitation. They influence and shape human social behavior, collective actions, and organizational rules at a deep level, yet these are something that most people take for granted in their daily lives. Social truths are often accepted without scrutiny or reflection. Another feature of “social truth” is the position of a regional society within a larger system, as well as various aspects of a region itself, including natural conditions, geographical factors, shared folk beliefs, and so on.

French sociologist Emile Durkheim’s study of “social facts” discusses visible “social realities,” while Max Weber’s methodological tradition focuses on “individualistic” behavior. However, this reductive oversimplification of the two sociologists can lead scholars to overlook the inherent commonality in classical sociological thought, the tacit consensus universally pervasive in human societies is what we need to understand as “social truth.”

The exploration of “social truth” is not limited to historical dimensions of the interpretation of classical texts, it can also be concretely applied in empirical research. In sociological oral history studies of China’s land reform, researchers have found similar issues in oral history practices through different periods of time. Regardless of whether discussing the oral history of land reform conducted in the 1990s, or the oral history of the cooperative movement conducted around 2008, a unified image emerges from a number of scattered narratives. While lacking detailed stories or event processes, one trend emerges—the nostalgic comparison of the bitterness of old communities versus the sweetness of new societies.

If we trace this back to the roots, such narratives and expressions are fundamentally related to the historic event of land reform. The villagers of Xicun, who had vivid experiences from the 1940s to the 1950s, formed a tacit consensus, perhaps even a collective subconscious, which expressed “bitterness.” This kind of social truth, generated within a specific and prolonged history, against the backdrop of China’s grand political process, consistently emerges in researchers’ daily investigations. Thus, social truth constitutes an important concept for us to understand in relation to Durkheim’s “social facts” and Max Weber’s pursuit of meaning.

Another part of understanding “social truth” lies in the fact that each region has its own prolonged historical processes. People living in specific and concrete temporal-spatial contexts are subject to their unique environments, thus forming certain historical traditions, cultural habits, or collective ethical personalities and spiritual qualities that have clear group attributes. Here we use the term “layered society” to discuss this aspect of “social truth,” emphasizing that in specific temporal-spatial scenes, invisible social structures, cultural traditions, and popular sentiments are formed through a prolonged “layering” of historical processes. Those details, taken for granted and largely unseen, are important entry points through which we can better understand human social behavior.

Interpretive truth: Conceptual production and theoretical expression

The term “interpretive truth” refers to the process in which researchers analyze and interpret the data and stories collected through fieldwork based on “factual truth” and “social truth.” It is also the process of refining concepts through interpretation, engaging in theoretical dialogues, and conducting theoretical revisions, which further completes theoretical production. Most researchers believe that the production of theory and concepts, as well as their explanatory power and compatibility with empirical reality, largely determine the success or failure of a study. 

However, that interpretation presents a somewhat narrow definition of the roles of “theory” and “concepts” in social science research. Theories and concepts essentially become external forms of a researchers’ interpretation of the empirical world, implying that researchers themselves propose an “interpretive truth” about the fieldwork and investigative experience.

There is evidence of this “interpretive truth” throughout several classic studies of Chinese rural society at the end of the 19th and early 20th centuries. This topic has long been a focus of attention in various disciplines, giving rise to numerous theories and concepts. Du Zanqi proposed the concepts of “protective brokers” and “appropriative brokers” in his study of North China’s rural society, Fu Yiling proposed the concept of “clan power” in his study of societies in northern Fujian, and Chen Hansheng addressed the idea of “group landlords” in his study of rural Guangdong. These scholars used different concepts to theoretically expound on the “social truth” discovered in different regions, presenting different “interpretive truths” rhetorically. However, behind their “interpretive truths” lies a latent consensus on the consciousness of the “modern Chinese rural society.”

In the field of social science research, theory not only appears in the form of concepts but can also be presented in the form of narratives. This narrative interpretation mode can be labeled the “theoretical narrative.” Narratives have theoretical significance if researchers have first identified a “social truth,” revealing a “tacit consensus” on social phenomena, historical traditions, organizational cultures, and institutional logics. Social scientists must attempt to present the layered society buried underground. Laws about society can only be discovered by digging deeply into shared narratives. Such narrative modes, even if they do not propose any new “concepts,” still provide us with an “interpretive truth” which improves understandings of society. Ying Xing’s sociological study of the Chinese revolution has extremely inspiring implications for our understanding of theoretical narratives and “interpretive truth.”

The discussion of “interpretive truth” attempts to propose another theoretical expression for social science research. Theory can not only mean laws, theorems, and new concepts; it can also be a structured narrative, an interpretation of the empirical world made by researchers mobilizing their own theoretical resources and research acumen. This interpretation provides us with another layer of truth about the empirical world.

Meng Qingyan is a professor from the School of Sociology at China University of Political Science and Law.

Edited by YANG XUE