Role of examples in social debate and research
Cartoon Warfare (Ann Applebaum, WP)
In recent years "the personal is political," a phrase whose origins are lost deep in the history of the women's movement, has among other things come to mean that just about anyone is allowed to transform her personal experience into a political program. Writing about oneself has a long history: The memoir, the autobiography, the roman à clef, the essay that draws on personal experience to make witty social observations -- all are legitimate literary forms. But writing about oneself and then turning these observations about one's narrow social circle into a party platform or a tax policy -- that is a more modern invention, and one of more questionable legitimacy and usefulness.
I wonder if this note is historically accurate. Certainly, Dickens tried to make social points as did Tolstoy and others. Using this 'I know a guy who' approach to social science also has a long tradition. But it does bring up a point of interest. Namely, what role does the 'illustrative example' play in our knowledge of social systems? It has an analogous question in the sciences where we could ask: 'What role does our knowledge of the bevior of ideal gas play in our knowledge of the weather?' The bigger question follows: does knowledge of parts (or purported parts) of a bigger system contribute to our knowledge of the system or should we approach the system as an independent entity with its own properties and rules governing its behavior (and treat the similiraty of these properties and rules to those of the systems components as the self-similarities we find in magnified fractal shapes)?