Sherlock Explains It All

“From a drop of water, a logician could infer the possibility of an Atlantic or a Niagara without having seen or heard of one or the other. So all life is a great chain, the nature of which is known whenever we are shown a single link to it.”

“By a man’s finger-nails, by his coat-sleeve, by his boots, by his trouser-knees, by the callosities of his forefinger and thumb, by his expression, by his shirt-cuffs—by each of these things a man’s calling is plainly revealed.”

–Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, A Study in Scarlet. In the story it’s presented as a quotation from “The Book of Life”, a magazine article by Sherlock Holmes


Russell Stutler’s illustration of Holmes and Waston’s lodgings at 221B Baker Street, compiled from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories.

It’s fashionable to look down on the humanities and social science. Even popular scientific celebrities like Bill Nye, Neil deGrasse Tyson, and Stephen Hawking have gotten in on the action of disparaging philosophy—and by extension, social research more broadly. Science and technology certainly have considerable power, and no one denies it. But in a world that is riven with war and injustice, the disavowal of philosophy and social theory among scientists, popular science wonks, and tech gurus seems less like the triumph of science than the masters of a fully ‘natural’ world running scared from the complications of the social and social-natural ones. To start to explain what critical research, and particularly critical research on society, can contribute to broader debates, it helps to look at one genre of popular fiction where research takes a central role: cop shows and detective fiction.

Researchers are often compared to detectives. Doing research, it could be argued, is akin to selecting facts within a large body of information, putting them together, and formulating a sequence of events, thereby uncovering some concrete, particular, and preexisting truth. In the opening quote, Doyle suggests that, from a drop of water, a good detective or a good scientist could scientifically extrapolate the entire Atlantic Ocean. This is certainly a particular view of science that might be unfamiliar to many scientists, but it’s particularly jarring for critical researchers. For many critical researchers, this is not how it works. Rather than uncovering facts that pertain to a murder that has clear victims and perpetrators, we are left with questions, each of which invites a critical analysis of the concepts it uses. You might spend a fair amount of time coming to understand different conceptions of murder in different societies, including for example the relationship of murder to the killings in war, before beginning to analyze whether it was even useful for a particular person to say that a particular murder had taken place.

Holmes and Watson in 221B Baker Street in a still from the Sherlock

Why do all this work? Because however useful empirical facts might be in many cases, as they certainly are, there are times when the ‘facts’ are nothing but a distraction. So doing otherwise than continuing to question the facts would be to simply accept the dominant conceptions of society and ideological explanations of events. This move is fundamentally problematic, particularly in societies like the US, for example, where systemic racism pervades the criminal justice system and people of color are regularly killed by police who, for their part, are rarely charged with murder. In such a context, as well as in others, it is vital to ask the question, “What is murder?” that is typical critical analyses but may be left out, or their answers are assumed, from detective work that is focused on finding a murderer, more than on understanding who gets to decide which killings are murders and which are not. However, it helps to have some further comparison between critical research and detective work in order to better understand how heterogeneous the former can be.

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Holmes and Watson in 221B Baker Street in a still from the films starring Basil Rathbone

Sherlock Holmes continues to fascinate, and he is interesting here precisely because he is presented as a rational scientist, but a scientist of sorts whose object of study includes society. The heterogeneous chaos that reigns in his and Watson’s apartment at 221b Baker Street, which becomes a character of its own, is representative of this context of Holmes as a scientist of society. Holmes has a telescope and a chemistry bench for doing lab experiments, but he also has a book and newspaper archive, a punching bag, a pistol, and a violin. As such, his apartment is a model, a grab-bag of emblematic activities of Victorian society that included science, literature, sports, and the arts. Although this is done partly because it’s funny, even so the Sherlock Holmes stories must have been oddly comforting for many middle and upper-class Victorian readers in the UK. The social transformations of the turn of the twentieth century must have been rather disorienting for people who were raised with the idea that the world was ordered, and that everyone had a rigidly defined place in it. (Not coincidentally, to them, their own place was the best one). Furthermore, the world wasn’t just ordered, but it derived all of its meaning from this order. So a world without order was a world without purpose.

In the midst of a maelstrom of social change, the character of Sherlock emerges as a clairvoyant interpreter. His ‘magical’ inductions are the work of reason whose knowledge and networks are so vast that they only seem magical. Don’t worry, he seems to imply: society is not fully disordered. It’s only that the social order has become so complicated that it takes a genius to understand it. But nonetheless, the order is still there. This helps to explain why the misfit Holmes could seem soothing to readers who founded their identity upon an already obsolete social order. As Christopher Clausen points out, despite his eccentricities, for a Victorian reader “Holmes is rarely or never threatening, however, because his potentially corrosive intellect never questions the basic assumptions of his society” (Clausen 1984, 115). He seeks out the guilty individuals, not the guilty institutions behind them.

Holmes and Watson in 221B Baker Street in a still from the films starring Robert Downey, Jr.

The order that Holmes represents is that of reason, and scientific reason, which Doyle characterizes as “the scientific use of the imagination” (cited in Clausen 1984, 120). In this particular imagination, the world, social as well as scientific has laws, and these laws operate according to reason. It’s only that the reasons aren’t as clear cut as they once were. Holmes must deduce social logic from aspect like those noted above: fingernails, coat sleeves, callouses, expression, and shirt cuffs. But the deftness required only further validates the belief that, amidst all of this, order must and will always exist. If someone has callouses on their hands then, according to the purported logic of society, then there is some non-random rational explanation, and this can be deduced from a knowledge of society. Holmes might conclude: the person is a manual laborer. Similarly, and offensively to many contemporary readers, Holmes is able to understand the stories and motivations of women, servants, and other oppressed peoples, for example. In this formulation, their clues are just as clear and open to deduction as those of the white men of similar, dominant socio-economic background as Holmes (or Doyle) himself.

Holmes and Watson in The Brownstone in a still from Elementary 

Holmes certainly benefitted from deep and intricate ethnographic knowledge about the Victorian UK. However, his position as a middle or upper-class white male who engaged primarily, though certainly not exclusively with other similarly situated white males shaped his knowledge of that society. As such, his particularly narrow practice of social-scientific deduction elides differences, and particularly different understandings of people and events among different groups in society. Yet even if he had even wider exposure beyond the UK and within it, his cannot be solved by further encyclopedic knowledge of society, because part of its myopia stems from the notion of an encyclopedia, a rigid ordering of society itself. That is precisely where the understanding of a researcher as detective fails, and where critical research has the most to offer.

To do critical research is recognize that you are yourself intervening, making connections that may or may not be causal, among disparate elements, which may or may not be suspects or even people, to recast a phenomena, which may or may not be a crime or even an event, in such a way that it may become completely unrecognizable, and indeed even the act of recognition itself comes into question as one that has its own politics. This politics in turn has inspired a critical literature in studies of liberal multiculturalism. Clausen points out that Holmes’s knowledge of philosophy (and by extension, Doyle’s) was ‘Nil’ (Clausen 1984, 108). But as philosophers would be quick to tell you, a lack of knowledge of philosophy isn’t ‘no philosophy’, it’s just an unreflexive and unimaginative one. So much the worse for everyone.

The 221b Baker Street Museum in London