1. The research process in anthropology
The distinctions between such concepts as information, data, meaning, theory or model, are often unclear. Roughly speaking, "theory" is an abstract, linguistic metaphor, a generalization of "empirical findings" to a pattern or system. "Models" and "theories" are both formalized expressions that seek to grasp sociocultural dynamics in simplified terms. A "model" (a term which has gained currency in anthropology since the Second World War) is generally more strictly formalized than a theory; it is more similar to mathematical or logical expressions (though, in anthropoology, it is very rare to find a model which can actually be translated into numerical terms). "Models" also tend to be more specific than theories: they are constructed with particular social or cultural situations in mind, rather than attempting to grasp overall characteristics of the human condition.
If theories and models rely on generalization, the ways in which this generalization is carried out are specified by the discipliine's "methods". "Methods" are thus in part concerned with practical techniques and "tricks of the trade", in part with more abstract principles of how collected information should be treated, what constitutes a sound generalization strategy etc. When we "apply theory to empirical finds by means of metods", we in effect "operationalize" the theory", by translating it into a specific research design that may be carried out in the field. What we obtain, a result of these procedures, is "data" (empirical findings classified according to relevance). Some say that the word "data" (meaning, in the original Latin, "that which is given") is inappropriate, and that it should be replaced by a word such as "capta" (meaning "that which is captured"), since the latter term emphasizes that systematic human effort is necessary in order to obtain (or, as some say: "create") data.
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2. Human cognition and communication in general
The scientific process of discovery may thus be envisioned as a cycle, moving from empirical discovery, through generalization, back to discovery. What moves through this cycles, as through any other cycle of human sensory or cognitive apprehension of the world, is "information". Information, in its turn, may be said to have or carry "meaning" (though information may also be "meaningless"). The term "information" entered anthropology from cybernetics and information theory during the post-war years has a more technical significance than "meaning", which derives from semiotics and hermeneutics. While "information" may be reduced to digital "bits and bytes" - Bateson's "difference that makes a difference" - "meaning" denotes the far more complex meaningful wholes that human being actually experience, with all their amibiguity, metaphoricity and emotionality.
See also cognition, metacommunication and meaning.
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