Push and Pull Epistemologies

Painted-Faces1 Two Questions

If we wish to explain the dynamics of human social activity we can ask two subtly but profoundly different questions:

  1. why have these people acted in this way?
  2. why has this event or practice occurred in this way?

These questions overlap, of course, but they evoke very different boundaries and emphases of investigation.

The first question is actor-centered. It draws our attention to the factors that condition an individual’s actions, emphasizing the subjectively meaningful perceptions, motivations, and intentions of specific people.

The second question is event-centered. It draws our attention to what was done rather than to who did it, emphasizing the conditions that make certain actions possible or impossible, easy or difficult, and consequential or inconsequential.

We can think of these two questions as emphasizing what I will call “push” and “pull” epistemologies, respectively.

2 Push and Pull

In “push” epistemologies, we explain phenomena in terms of forces that move from the past into the future, driving or impelling action in certain directions and not in others.

In “pull” epistemologies, we explain phenomena in terms of possibilities that translate from the future into the past, inviting or drawing action in certain directions and not others.


For instance, a gas tends to expand into the volume available to it. Therefore, changing the shape of the container changes the shape of the gas itself.

Or, to pick a better example, given sufficient time, ecosystems tend to evolve to take advantage of energy and material resources available to them. As new species evolve, organism populations fluctuate, and so on, the life of the system spreads into the possibility spaces available to it.

In both cases, the tendency of a system to expand into the spaces available to it can be treated as a given, allowing the researcher to treat the changing shape of the available opportunity space as the prime explanatory variable. This is what I mean by a ‘pull’ epistemology.

3 A Few Notes

The terms ‘push’ and ‘pull’ are poetic and figurative, not rigorous scientific concepts. Technically, compressive and expansionistic forces appear in both modes of explanation.

Pull epistemologies address some of the same phenomena as teleological explanations, without the anthroporphising or  metaphysical connotations of teleologies. For instance, although a gas or an ecosystem will expand into the shape of an opportunity space made available to it, there is no sense in which the *goal* of assuming precisely that shape is present in the molecules of the gas or what have you.

Push and pull epistemologies are in principle commensurate, complimentary, and mutually translatable.  However, translation between the two is not always feasible or convenient. (If it were, there would be no need for more than one epistemic strategy.)

Event-centered, pull epistemologies are less intuitive and self-evident than actor-centered, push epistemologies because of  our automatic tendency towards egocentrism.  They de-center the individual human subject as the cause of social events. This is psychologically and ideologically distressing in much the same way that non-geocentric astronomy and evolutionary biology have been.

4 Action

To facilitate the practice of event-centered explanation using a pull epistemology, we can make the following ad-hoc axiomatic assumption:

Action tends to expand into the possibility space available to it.

This is a slightly more refined way of saying, things happen because they can.

As a metatheoretical axion, this claim is tautological and not designed to be falsifiable. Rather, it provides a conceptual structure that directs our attention in certain ways,  provokes certain questions.

5 Shit Happens

In general, the assumption that action tends to expand into the possibility space available to it implies that for any social event, instead of asking “why did these actors act in this way?” we can ask “what conditions made this action possible and inviting?”.

From this perspective, once an action is possible and inviting, we can assume that someone will carry it out.  The motives that that individual had for performing that action appear as secondary, because we are not interested in why they did it, we are interested in why *it happened at all*.

6 People Will Do Anythingdirect_numerical_simulation_of_stratified_turbulence_b

To extend this approach, we can make a substantive and perhaps falsifiable assumption: that human action is generally anomic, chaotic, and opportunistic.

This assumption implies that where we find people behaving nomothetically, we need to investigate the opportunities, compulsions, synergies, negative feedback loops, attractors, and so on which produce this order amidst the general background of turbulence.

The assumption may be unfalsifiable in the sense that it might always be possible to go on explaining order as the product of contingent ordering forces emerging out of universal turbulence rather than as the result of universal laws. It’s not obvious how one would test the competing assertions that social action is essentially anomic or essentially nomothetic, except pragmatically by their respective utility in generating satisfying explanations of phenomena.

7 Applying a Pull Epistemology (Teaser)

My point, though, is only to suggest that pull epistemologies can complement push epistemologies and produce, in some cases, more parsimonious and coherent explanations for complex social phenomena than push epistemologies.

For instance, if we want to consider certain connections between Marxist social theory, state politics, and genocide,  using a pull epistemology gives us a satisfying rough explanation more conveniently  than a push epistemology.  I’ll explain what I mean by this in my next post.

One thought on “Push and Pull Epistemologies

  1. Pingback: Marxism and Genocide | The Practical Theorist

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