In search of an adequate theory of human interaction; an account of my thoughts on scientific research.
 Introduction (the context of this paper)
 Ontology and the definition of the object of research (What is?)
 Epistemology and the semantic theory of human interaction (Why do we study ‘What is’?)
 Methodology and the way to do research (How do we study ‘What is’?)
 Choosing a theoretical framework (A possible way to study nursing leadership)
2. The subject of my research (ontology)
Research begins with curiosity about an object or entity, its qualities and its interactions (some say: its behaviour).
Isaac Newton studied, among other things, the mutual attraction between objects and formulated some laws about it (Boorstin, 1991).
Diederik Stapel – an idle, ambitious and over strung social psychologist – said he studied some very interesting social psychological phenomena (Carey, 2012; Otten & Classen, eds, 2011).
Investigations always start with the decision what to look at. As Newman (1995, p19) puts it: “The development of science, contrary to what one might assume, is not a smooth, orderly process. The beginnings center around a vague discontent regarding phenomena for which there are no available explanations. Moreover, the identity and nature of the phenomena themselves are not very clear”.
My PhD thesis involves studying nurses working with each other in a general hospital. So my subject could be defined as: humans interacting in a specific organizational environment.
What do we know about humans and their interactions? Without going into too many details, I would like to give the following short description, based on my own experience and literature on social (psychological) research in general.
What do we perceive with our senses about humans and their interactions?
First of all humans move themselves (or are moved) in space-time (walk, ride a bicycle, sit in a riding cab, etc.). They can move objects in space-time or change them (demolish them, put them together etc.). They interact with other humans: they send/receive sounds to/from each other, they touch each other (make love to or hurt each other). They feed themselves (eat, drink) and produce excrements. The list is quite small.
But when we look at the literature produced by the social sciences like (social) psychology, sociology, political science, economics and anthropology (and you could include also disciplines like geography, demography, history, and archaeology) you realize that there are thousands and thousands of subjects studied by them. Why is that?
In my view the reason can be found, in the fact that social reality is not an empirical reality like the physical reality we know (objects moving, colliding, and merging in time-space) but a semantic reality constructed by and residing within every single individual. The reality we study is situated in the human brain and is invisible to the eye (we can of course try to study brains and correlate brain functions to uttered thoughts or social actions; see for an interesting overview of the latest neurologic studies: Frank, 2010).
With the words ‘semantic reality’ I refer to the internal reality of a human that is represented and communicated to others by language, signs and behaviours.
Glüge and Wendemuth (2010), write the following about the meaning of the word ‘semantics’: “The semantics concerns the meaning of units of information. It can be considered as the study of the link between symbols and their referents or concepts; particularly the way in which signs relate to human behaviour”.
So, when we see John riding a bicycle, this fact only becomes a social fact at the moment we get answers to questions like: where is he going – to whom is he going – what is he going to do – what are his motives? The answers to these questions can’t be given at the moment we see John riding on his bicycle, but only when he reaches his goal. But of course we don’t have to wait John arriving somewhere. We just could stop him and ask him the above questions. So the empirical world is intelligible (that is semantically comprehensible) through communication with the actor. Of course there is a strong relation between what we see (behaviour) and what we hear (reasons and purposes/goals/intentions).
In other words: behaviour should be understood as a means to realize some internal goals and/or as a sign for a description of an internal state of the human under study. Therefore it is important, before starting any social research to have a good sense of the nature, disposition and character of humans.
Model of man
In describing the nature, disposition and character of humans we cannot do otherwise than build the best representation possible we can of the human being. I call this representation a model.
My (pre)conceptual understanding of humans is as follows. Humans are biological entities (organisms) that learn to avoid negative stimuli or contextual conditions and search and/or create positive ones. Humans interact and communicate with each other. These actions are supposed to be initiated and controlled by their brains.
We say brains learn, have a memory, process information, make representations, have beliefs, standards, desires, interests, values, morals and intentions. They also make predictions, plan their future, analyse their inner state and their environment, adapt to it or change it and construct models and abstractions of their world.
What is the aim of human verbal and non-verbal behaviour? I think there are only two possible answers: first humans adapt to the social and physical conditions in the environment and second humans (try to) change the social and physical environment. Human behaviour is aimed at survival, at mental and physical integrity and at attaining a ‘good’ feeling (like satisfaction) or avoiding a ‘bad’ feeling (like fear).
So in defining ‘semantics’ I would like to go further than Glüge and Wendemuth and join Merleau-Ponty who stated in 1942 that the perceived world is made meaningful by the body: semantics is the study of human behaviour and human interaction with his surrounding (social) world as means for satisfying the needs of its body and its brain. We should however distinguish between deliberate and non-deliberate behaviour or interaction, a distinction I will not elaborate on here.
We should realize that when we make statements like those here above, we are establishing theoretical constructs that will help us understand and explain (and therefore predict) possible outcomes of human behaviour and human interaction.
Having said this I would like to attract your attention to the fact that we have smoothly landed on the field of epistemology (the study of knowledge). For when we look at the construct ‘memory’ for example we can confirm that this construct is nothing more then the result of empirical observations on some of the ways the brain is working; just like we arrived at the construct ‘gravity’ by observing the attraction of physical bodies.
In the case of memory, what we observe is that after having seen object X at T1, a human can reproduce something at T2 (with T1 < T2) which we assume being a representation of the shown object X. We call this representation a model Y of object X
After having studied many times this phenomenon with different time intervals and with different stimuli we then coin this stimulus – response set as ‘memory’.
We therefore say that the concept of memory is founded in a not quantified law. We call this conceptual entity a (biological) function or system that processes stimuli (or information).
I would like to make a last remark about the difference between concepts constructed from observations of some part the physical world and the ones constructed form observations of some human behaviour. The latter concepts are designed from empirical observations but are also ‘known’ intrinsically (that is: scientists feel/know they have a memory and actively use it). There are concepts though that are purely intrinsic; think for example of the concept of dream (Stroeken, 2005). Dreams can be experienced as real and this mode (this brain function) is also responsible, I think, for what George Steiner indicates as the great influence of fictional characters on people with whom they identify (Steiner, G. in: Droit, R-P. (2007), p277).
Neurologists ask whether memory can be localized somewhere in the brain or how the neural correlates (circuits) of memory look like, but I will leave this subject at rest here. More interesting for the social scientist is the observation that all brain functions together lead to the generation of a ‘worldview’ (or theory of the world) within the human brain and that we may assume that this view (or at least part of it) can be transferred to (duplicated in) other brains by communication through language and signs.
So humans interact with each other in what I would call an empiric-semantic space. With this concept I refer to the fact that humans learn, move, produce sounds and interact in physical time-space but that these movements, sounds and interactions have meaning: they are closely linked to feelings, needs, motives, intentions, values, standards, desires, interests and beliefs. And most important of all: humans have the capability to learn and acquire knowledge.