The sciences’ objects of research: peculiarities and concepts
The intangible properties of many psychical and social phenomena (e.g., psyche, social relationships) complicate their definition, differentiation and investigation. Moreover, psychologists’ study phenomena involve also those (e.g., conceptualising) by which any science is made (Valsiner 2012); therefore, psychologists must distinguish their study phenomena from the means for exploring them, as reflected in the terms psychical versus psychological (from Greek -λογία, -logia for body of knowledge; Lewin 1936; Uher 2016a). The TPS-Paradigm provides metatheoretical concepts, integrated and refined from various disciplines and historical lines of thought, that define, describe and differentiate properties of various kinds of phenomenaFootnote 3 studied in or in relation to individuals (for details, Uher 2015a, c; 2018a, c; 2019). The following outlines some relevant concepts.
Formalising modes of accessibility, conceptual differentiations and methodological implications
To highlight essential differences among the sciences’ study phenomena and to help formalise their modes of accessibility to human perception under everyday conditions (and thus also the ways to make them accessible under research conditions), the TPS-Paradigm considers three metatheoreticalFootnote 4 properties. These are (1) location relative to the studied individual’s body (internal–external dimension), (2) temporal extension (transient–temporally stable dimension), and (3) spatial extension, conceived complementarily as physical (spatially extended) versus “non-physical” (without spatial properties). PhysicalityFootnote 5 denotes corporeal, bodily properties of material phenomena as well as properties that are not corporeal in themselves but become manifest in material phenomena with which they are systematically connected, thus immaterial physical.
Physical phenomena can be described in terms of their spatial properties (even if only subatomic), whereas spatial properties cannot be conceived at all for “non-physical” phenomena (e.g., psyche), which are therefore not simply contrasted against the physical but conceived as complementary instead (indicated by the quotation marks). This distinction resembles Descartes’ res extensa and res cogitans (Descartes et al. 1983) but implies only a methodical and not also an ontological dualism (Uher 2015c, 2016a, 2019). This follows the concept of complementarity,Footnote 6 which emphasises the necessity to account for the observation of two categorically different realities that require different approaches, frames of reference and criteria of truth, such as the wave-particle duality of light and matter (Bohr 1937; Heisenberg, 1927) and psyche-physicality (body-mind) properties (Brody and Oppenheim 1969; Fahrenberg 1979, 2013; Walach and Römer 2011).
The particular constellation of metatheoretical properties that can be conceived for study phenomena also enables their conceptual differentiation as well as derivation of methodological concepts for investigations. This is now briefly illustrated in three study phenomena relevant for the present analyses—behaviours, psyche and constructs.
Behaviours: immaterial but physical phenomena external to individuals
Behaviours, defined as the “external changes or activities of living organisms that are functionally mediated by other external phenomena in the present moment” (Uher 2016b, p. 490), involve properties that are externally located, transient and (mostly immaterial) physical (e.g., movements, vocalizations, secretions). Their public accessibility enables multiple persons to jointly perceive the same behavioural acts and the same entities of the properties studied in them using so-called extroquestiveFootnote 7 methods.Footnote 8 Extroquestive accessibility helps establish inter-subjectivity, an important meta-condition of measurement (see below). Behaviours’ spatial properties enables application of physical methodsFootnote 9 of investigation (e.g., pedometer). Their transience and processual nature requires methods enabling their real-time capture, called nunc-ipsum methodsFootnote 10 (Uher 2019). This constellation of metatheoretical properties differs from those conceived for the psyche.
The phenomena of the psyche: experiential processes
The psyche is defined as the “entirety of the phenomena of the immediate experiential reality both conscious and non-conscious of living organisms” (Uher 2015c, p. 431), with immediacy indicating absence of phenomena mediating their perception (Wundt 1896). The particular forms regarding the three metatheoretical properties that can be conceived for psychical phenomena highlight peculiarities that complicate their accessibility to investigation (Uher 2016a). Their lack of spatial properties and of systematic relations to the physical phenomena with which they are connected (e.g., brain morphology, physiology)—reflecting complementary psyche-physicality (body-mind) relations—make psychical phenomena inaccessible to physical technologies (Fahrenberg 1979, 2013). Psychical phenomena are conceived as located entirely internal to individuals’ bodies, directly perceivable by each individual itself but inaccessible to others (Locke 1999), requiring so-called introquestive7 methodsFootnote 11 of investigation.
Temporal properties vary. Ongoing psychical events (e.g., thoughts, emotions) are transient, therefore called experiencings (Erleben). Temporally more extended phenomena (e.g., beliefs, knowledge, mental abilities) are called memorised psychical resultants (experiences, Erfahrung), with memorisation referring to any retention process. But, although temporally extended, they are accessible only in individuals’ experiencings and must be reconstructed in each moment anew within the given context, whereby they are adapted and changed before becoming memorised again (Schacter and Addis 2007). Therefore, psychical phenomena must be conceived as occurrents (perdurants in formal ontology)—as processes.
Of processual entities, only a part exists at any moment so that they cannot be determined without knowledge of previous occurrences. Occurrents are opposed to continuants (endurants in formal ontology), which do exist in their entirety at any moment (e.g., material objects). As processes, psychical phenomena can be conceived only through abstraction from their occurrences over time. This leads to beliefs and knowledge about them, which are psychical phenomena in themselves as well, but not the same as those they are about (see Uher 2015d, 2016a; similarly Whitehead 1929).
The psyche’s capacities for abstraction are essential for thinking, and thus for the making of science. Abstractions also constitute important study phenomena in themselves.
Constructs as study phenomena: abstract conceptual entities
Many psychological and social-science objects of research are abstractions and complex ideas that are theoretically constructed by humans, therefore called constructs (Slaney 2017). Examples of these conceptual entities are ‘intelligence’, ‘socio-economic status’, ‘populism’ but also ‘climate’, ‘biological fitness’, and ‘heritability’ studied in the life sciences. Their abstract theoretical nature entails that any given construct always refers to several concrete entities, which may involve occurrences and continuants of physical phenomena (e.g., behaviours, temperature, material objects) but also various “non-physical” phenomena (e.g., emotions, thoughts, social relationships). Abstraction involves that some aspects of the concrete entities to which a construct refers are emphasised and others deemphasised (Whitehead 1929). Differences in the particular referents, aspects and levels of abstraction that persons (implicitly) consider enable unparalleled proliferation, complexity and thus changeability in the constructs created. Therefore, theoretical definitions of constructs meant to denote the same conceptual entity can vary (e.g., different definitions of ‘socio-economic status’ or ‘intelligence’) and, as a consequence, also the operational definitions devised for generating data about them (see below).
Data generation across the sciences: metatheoretical and methodological concepts
To enable transdisciplinary comparisons and considering the role that human factors play in all empirical sciences, both technical measuring instruments and the data-generating persons in themselves must be analysed for the functions they fulfil in measurement processes. This is seldom done in any science. For this purpose, a metatheoretical definition of data and methodological principles of data generation highlighting the involvement of human abilities are now briefly outlined and then applied to pinpoint key differences in measurement practices among sciences (Sects. 3 and 4).
What are data? A semiotic definition
The signs used to indicate quantifications (e.g., Arabic numerals, Latin letters) and to which particular scientific communities attribute particular meanings (e.g., mathematical properties) are commonly called data.Footnote 12 As signs (e.g., variable names, values), the function of data is to represent in physically persistent ways (e.g., print, digital) information about properties of the study phenomena as conceived by the data-generating persons. These representational functions of signs are so deeply engrained in our everyday language and thinking that we seldom become aware that any sign comprises three constituents. These are (1) a physical constituent (e.g., visual ink patterns) used as signifier that symbolically represents (2) the referent, the actual object of consideration to which it refers (e.g., property, physical object), and (3) the meaning (the signified) that both have for the sign-using persons, which in itself is a psychical phenomenon (Fig. 1; similarly Ogden and Richards 1923).
These triadic interrelations among signifier, referent and meaning, involving both physical and psychical phenomena, are conceived in the TPS-Paradigm’s metatheoretical concept of semiotic representations. It specifies, on an abstract level, the basic ideas underlying sign systems (e.g., written and spoken language; Uher 2015a, 2016b, 2018a, 2019). The term representation highlights that it is persons’ psychical representation (meaning) that connects a signifier with its referent, thereby establishing the triadic relationship that first turns this composite into a sign and creates its functionality. This highlights that a sign is more than just its signifier (as common parlance often implies) because its meaning is not inherent to the signifier itself but only assigned to it. Therefore, the same signifier (e.g., visual patterns like I, V, X) can have different meanings (e.g., Roman numbers or letters). Which particular meaning a signifier has for particular persons and which particular referents it represents for them is not directly apparent from the signifier itself (with very few exceptions, e.g., icons).
Semiotic representations have important functions for abstract thinking—and for measurement. They allow humans to represent perceivable phenomena and their properties (e.g., one green bean) in single words (e.g., written or spoken as ‘one’, ‘green’, ‘bean’). Words enable us to make concrete entities (referents) independent of their immediate perception and to abstract them into objects of consideration (conceptual entities, the signified)—thus, reifying them (e.g., ‘quantity’, ‘green colour’, ‘beans’). Through this so-called hypostatic abstraction (Peirce 1958, CP 4.227), we develop words that refer to concrete referents not only while we can perceive them but also in their absence, thus abstracted from the ‘here and now’. It also allows us to develop abstract words that have not concrete but abstract referents, such as concepts and ideas describing phenomena and properties that are distant from immediate perception (e.g., ‘vegetables’) or imperceptible in themselves (e.g., ‘quantity’, ‘nutrition’)—thus, constructs. Hence, every word is a concept in itself (Khanam et al. 2019; Vygotsky 1962)—an important point for language-based methods of data collection (see below).
These metatheoretical analyses highlight that lexical and numerical data (e.g., variable names and values) can be used to represent information about research objects (referents) in various degrees of abstraction, ranging from properties directly perceivable at given moments, over those that can only be inferred from perceivable ones, up to abstract ideas that are only construed by humans but do not exist as concrete entities in themselves (constructs). But the level of abstraction represented by particular data is not apparent from the signifiers in themselves (e.g., written words, mathematical symbols). This has important implications for data generation, analysis and interpretation, especially regarding psychological and social-science constructs (see below).
Conversions of information: the essence of data generation
When assigning quantitative values during measurement execution, information about the objects and properties under study are encoded into the signs used as data. When informationFootnote 13 from one kind of phenomenon (e.g., physical objects, behaviours) are represented in another kind of phenomenon (e.g., signifiers printed on paper), this is called conversion of information in the TPS-Paradigm. This term is very broad; for any specific case, it requires specification of what kind of information is converted in what ways into what other kind of information. This is commonly done explicitly in metrology, but not so in psychology and social sciences (Uher 2018a). In metrology, engineering and also in psychophysics, information conversion is commonly called transduction; in other fields, also translation or transcription (e.g., molecular biology). But unlike those, the concept of information conversion explicitly refers to person-executed processes and specifies possible sources of the (considerable) losses and inaccuracies that may inevitably occur in them (detailed in Uher 2019). Information conversions are the essence of any data generation, whether executed by persons directly or using technical measuring instruments (see below).
Person-based measurement execution and data generation: abilities and decisions required
For every person-executed conversion of quantitative information (e.g., reading scale displays of measuring devices, observing and encoding behaviours), persons must make decisions about how to identify the information of interest in the study phenomena. In all sciences, however, measurement theories commonly do not explicitly consider the role that measurement-executing persons in themselves must fulfil in measurement processes and what abilities and decisions are required from them.
Three important tasks must be accomplished in any data generation: demarcation, categorisation and encoding (information conversion; Uher 2018a). First, in the multifaceted perceptions available at any moment, data-generating persons must be able to reliably demarcate the entities of interest using similarities and dissimilarities in the study phenomena’s properties. For measurement, this must involve both qualitative and quantitative properties. This is because quantity denotes divisible properties of entities of the same kind, thus of the same quality, whereas quality denotes properties of different kind (Hartmann 1964). Accordingly, measurement-executing persons must first determine the study properties’ quality and then compare entities of the same quality regarding their divisible properties. This presupposes that the qualitative and quantitative properties used for demarcation are (made) directly and accurately perceivable for the data-generating person. Temperature, for example, is directly perceivable but not accurately enough so that entities cannot be reliably demarcated, whereas directly perceivable material phenomena (e.g., tubed mercury), given their corporeal and temporally more extended properties, enable reliable demarcations. Some study phenomena feature considerable variations in their perceivable properties (e.g., spatial extensions of biological cells and behavioural acts vary). This complicates demarcations and requires data-generating persons to make decisions about what constitutes one entity (e.g., individual cells, single acts).
Second, measurement-executing persons must categorise the entities thus-demarcated (e.g., individual cells into cell types, single behavioural acts into behavioural categories). This involves not only consideration of their perceivable properties (e.g., qualities, different structures) but often also theoretical and contextual interpretations, especially in psychical and social phenomena. Behaviours, for example, are commonly categorised by their known (or assumed) functions because perceivably similar acts can have different meanings in different contexts (Uher 2015b).
Third, measurement-executing persons must convert information from the entities thus-categorised into information encoded in the data. For systematic and standardised encoding, scientists must specify all three constituents of the particular signs used as data. That is, they must specify the decisions that the measurement-executing persons have to make about which pieces of information from the phenomena and properties under study should be demarcated and categorised in what ways, and the rules by which these should be assigned to the signifiers (e.g., mathematical symbols, lexical descriptions). These specifications must be made explicit and involve properties that are directly and accurately perceivable by data-generating persons during measurement execution (Uher 2018a, 2019).
Developing inter-subjective agreement in demarcation, categorisation and encoding is facilitated when the study phenomena are (or can be made) publicly accessible, thus extroquestively. But in phenomena that cannot be made publicly accessible by any means and are accessible only to each individual, thus only introquestively (e.g., psychical phenomena), inter-subjective agreement can be developed only indirectly and always involves uncertainty about the actual entities and properties considered. This has particular implications for psychological and social-science measurement (see below).
These metatheoretical and methodological foundations are now applied to scrutinise and compare the different sciences’ theories and practices of measurement.