The big picture and the little picture

Dr. Mark Edwards

As well as having an eye and an ear for the minute, the mundane, the morsel of gossip and (sometimes unfortunately) the modicum of truth, we humans also have an instinct for developing big pictures, big stories and big ideas. There are many different types of big pictures and they can arise from any area of personal and cultural activity. Big pictures can be poetic (Dante's "Divine Comedy"), musical (Mahler's Resurrection Symphony), philosophical (Hegel's system), political (Roosevelt's New Deal), literary (Xavier Herbert's "Poor Fellow My Country"), mythic (the Vedas) or spiritual ("The Book of Revelation"). And, of course, as we will explore in this blog, they can be scientific.

In this blog I want to focus on a particular kind of grand scale, scientific, big picture building called integral meta-studies. My thinking here is that if, as appears to be the case, we have this instinct, this insatiable desire to build big stories and explanations and apply them for better or worse in the real social world, then we might as well do it with a little bit of scientific rigour. Big pictures are powerful and they can have a great impact on the natural and social worlds we inhabit and, when they are partial or distorted in some way, those impacts may not always be for the best. The mixed outcomes of such big pictures as Marxism and Monetarism are evidence enough of that.

Big picture or metatheories have not always been developed as systematically, as holistically or as integrally as they could have been. Sometimes these big pictures have missed out the interiors, sometimes they have neglected the collective realms, sometimes they have fallen into the trap of developmentalism and ignored mediational explanations. If we’re going to build these things we might as well do it properly. If we are to keep creating these grand stories of understanding and explanation, if we are going to connect the plurality of views and construct our big pictures, we might as well do so with the benefit of science. Even with all its limitations and unhappy biases and blind spots, science, in the broadest sense of that term, is still a vital source for engaging with the search for meaning and for uncovering the many truths that lie within and around us. Perhaps more importantly, science, at its very best, is a means for remaining humble and questioning about the limits of what we can know, what our big pictures can tell us and how they can shape and influence the many worlds we live in. Yes, the track record of big picture science is not particularly good but that’s all the more reason for upping the standards. The disastrous outcomes of 20th-century big pictures are no reason for abandoning this task. If anything, they raise the importance of founding and validating big pictures on and through scientific grounds.

There will be very little system to my entries for this blog. There will be no order for explaining what metatheory is, what integral metastudies might be or what metatheoretical lenses are. If definitions, references and explanations are needed then let me know and we can deal with them. Otherwise if a topic comes up we’ll have a go at it. But whatever territory we might wander through the focus will be on this question - How do we scientifically build and test our big pictures?