Ideas Shaping Practice: Philosophy of Home Economics/Human Sciences

Vol. 19, No. 1
ISSN: 1546-2676

Guest Editor:
Sue L. T. McGregor

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Kappa Omicron Nu FORUM, Vol. 19, No.1  
1546-2676. Editor: Lisa W. Booth. Official publication of Kappa Omicron Nu National Honor Society. Member, Association of College Honor Societies. Copyright © 2012. Kappa Omicron Nu FORUM is a refereed, semi-annual publication serving the profession of family and consumer sciences. The opinions expressed by the authors are their own and do not necessarily reflect the policies of the society. Further information: Kappa Omicron Nu, 1749 Hamilton Road, Suite 106, Okemos, MI 48864. Telephone: 517.351.8335

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Abductive Reasoning in Everyday Life:
Implications for Home Economics

Sue L. T. McGregor
Mount Saint Vincent University



This paper explores the role of abductive thinking and reasoning in the everyday life of families and how insights into this inference model might affect home economics philosophy and practice1. As a caveat, although both abductive reasoning and intuition are forms of "cognitive economy" (Wong, 2006, p. 1), they are not the same thing. Abduction (i.e., best guess given what is known in the context) is a logical explanation, though an unassured one, for a very curious or surprising (anomalous) observation (Kolko, 2010; McKeever, 2008; Patokorpi, 2006). The reaction to a surprising anomaly is one factor that distinguishes abduction from intuition. Although intuition is an integral part of everyday life and everyday intelligence (Cappon, 1993), it is not a form of reasoning as is abduction. Rather, an intuition is a compelling feeling people have (Pust, 2012), something they know or consider likely, but a feeling arrived at without a reasoning process (Pierce, 1868).

Pierce, the father of abductive reasoning, asserted that everything we know is determined by something we previously knew. He claimed, "We have no power of Intuition" (1868, p. 141). By this he meant that intuitions are not best guesses based on previous knowledge, as are abductions; rather, intuitions are inner convictions, hunches, gut feelings, a 6th sense about something without evidence or knowledge (Wong, 2006). Intuitions are "random flashes or sudden realizations, not a process of inference, much less one based on some given evidence" (Timothy, 2004). In sharp contrast, abductive reasoning follows from being directly confronted with evidence or knowledge of something. It is an inference, a faculty of knowledge complete in that inference, and deduction usually follows (Patokorpi, 2006).

Caveat aside, abductive reasoning matters for home economics because "it is frequently employed in everyday reasoning" (Douven, 2011, p.4). In fact, "the bulk of human knowledge in everyday life is based on abductive thinking" (Patokorpi, 2006, p. 79). Sometimes people's use of abductive thinking is obvious and explicit, and sometimes it is so routine and automatic that it easily goes unnoticed. In either case, after observing something, people come up with an interpretation of the situation (a conclusion) that best explains what has been seen. Abductive thinking is most commonly called Inference to the Best Explanation (Douven, 2011; Pierce, 1878). It is in sharp contrast to the familiar deductive and inductive logic.

People fall back on abductive thinking when there are multiple explanations for a surprising, strange, or confounding event they encounter; the best they can do is guess at what is going on. They end up making weak inferences—weak because they cannot be sure they believe in the truth of their explanation, their guess—yet they have to conclude something so they can make sense of what they are seeing (Chaudhri, 2012). Patokorpi explained that "the method of reasoning used by Sherlock Holmes is abduction" (2006, p. 71). Other common examples of abductive reasoning include lawyers determining who likely committed a crime and doctors making a medical diagnosis on an unconscious patient (McKeever, 2008).

A defining characteristic of abductive thinking is that the conclusions drawn do not follow logically from the assumptions (premises) about the situation (Douven, 2011); they are just the best explanation at hand. Indeed, abductive thinking has been described as (a) informed guessing, (b) taking your best shot, (c) best guess leaps, (d) the logic of what might be, and (e) offering the best explanation, given what is known and the context (Kolko, 2010; McKeever, 2008; Patokorpi, 2006). You think about a confounding situation, draw a conclusion, and "that is what you come away believing" (Douven, 2011, p. 2). It is the best thing you can come up with at the time.

To illustrate, "You happen to know that Tim and Harry have recently had a terrible row that ended their friendship. Now someone tells you that she just saw Tim and Harry jogging together. The best explanation for this is that they made up. You conclude they are friends again. . . . What leads you to this conclusion . . . is precisely the fact that Tim and Harry being friends again would, if true, best explain the fact that they have just been seen jogging together" (Douvet, 2011, pp. 1-2). Douvet explained that you are able to infer they are friends again because abductive logic allows your conclusions to go beyond what is suggested by the premises.

Gibbs (in press) placed abductive thinking in a larger context, drawing on its psychological aspect (see Patokorpi, 2006). He explained that people go about their everyday lives until they become aware of a discontinuity in the harmony of their way of being. This harmony is disrupted or ruptured by an observation that what they see does not match the reality of what they have come to know (per above example, seeing Tim and Harry together after a huge breakdown in friendship). Worse, people cannot find adequate meaning to resolve the discontinuity that disturbed their previous tranquillity. In these surprising, strange, or inexplicable situations, people can resort to abductive thinking, whereby they seek to find the best way of understanding or reframing their reality in order to regain balance and harmony (i.e., Tim and Harry must be friends again, despite everything to the contrary).

In addition to bringing some semblance of reality back into balance, abductive reasoning can also lead to giant leaps in thinking, to breakthrough ideas. Abductive thinking involves leaps of imagination and visualization that scarcely seem warranted by the mere observations promoting the abduction; Einstein's thought experiments about space and time were cited as a powerful example (McKeever, 2008). "This form of reasoning [also] conveys the manner in which people reason when making discoveries in the sense of coming up with new ideas. . . . [Their conclusion] might open up a new perspective into things even when there is nothing out of the ordinary about [the facts or observations]" (Patokorpi, 2006, p. 73). In the previous example, it was not ordinary to see two people jogging together when their friendship was over. The following quote from Wolf (2004) illustrates an instance of a breakthrough idea. Here is an example of an abductive argument given by Aristotle:

The world must be spherical in shape. For the night sky looks different in the northern and southern regions, and this would be so if the earth were spherical. - Aristotle, Physics.

To put this argument in standard form, we might interpret it as follows: (1) The night sky looks different in the northern and southern regions. (2) The best explanation for this fact is that the earth is round. (3) Therefore (probably) the earth is spherical in shape. . . . Aristotle never explicitly says that the 'spherical earth' hypothesis is the best explanation for his observations. . . . Of course we know that the conclusion is true. But looking back, we might regard Aristotle's inference as a shrewd and daring guess. (Wolf, 2004, p. 3)

Absence of Abductive Reasoning in Home Economics

This section addresses the absence of abductive reasoning in home economics and why this lacuna matters. "Abductive reasoning typically begins with an incomplete set of observations and proceeds to the likeliest possible explanation for the set [of observations]. Abductive reasoning yields the kind of daily decision-making that does its best with the information at hand, which is often incomplete. . . . Abductive reasoning is characterized by lack of completeness, either in evidence, or in explanation, or both. . . . [People] make their best guesses based on what they know" (McKeever, 2008, p. 2, emphasis added).

Not surprisingly, given its importance in daily decision-making, abduction is a central element of everyday thought (Douven, 2011; Patokorpi, 2006). Indeed, home economics has an abiding concern for everyday life (McGregor, 2012; Tuomi-Gröhn, 2008) but not for abductive thinking. To the contrary, it has long valued deductive reasoning, evident in its embrace of the scientific, empirical, technical approach to practice, values reasoning, and critical thinking. Professionals within the field who are drawn to other ways of knowing and thinking, including interpretive and critical science approaches, will also be familiar with inductive reasoning.

To explain, deductive logic is causal and linear in nature and is used for scientific, technical reasoning while inductive logic can either (a) help discern how people are making sense of their world (interpretive) or (b) persuade or lead people to new insights, emancipation, and liberation by revealing power relationships (critical). The home economics profession has not explicitly engaged with abductive reasoning in its body of knowledge, despite its focus on the daily life of individuals and families and the day-to-day reasoning process, much aligned with abductive thinking—best guesses.

This paper begins to address this missing piece in our philosophical foundation. It follows that an exploration of abductive reasoning will help home economists better understand everyday life as well as give some valuable hints for practice, especially our philosophy of practice. The balance of the paper expounds upon the idea of abductive reasoning with examples of abductive thinking, couched within family life.

Conceptual Clarification

Deductive, inductive, and abductive reasoning are the three main forms of logic used by humans, as set out by Aristotle (Pierce, 1878). For the sake of conceptual clarity, deduce is Latin deducere, to lead down. It refers to drawing a conclusion from something already known. Induce is Latin inducere, to lead into by persuasion or influence. Abduce is Latin abducere, to lead away, to draw or take away from (Harper, 2014).

Figure 1. Three Forms of Logic

In a deductive argument, "the premises are intended to provide such strong support for the conclusion that, if the premises are true, then it would be impossible for the conclusion to be false. . . . [T]he truth of the conclusion is thought to be completely guaranteed." Conversely, in an inductive argument, "the premises are intended only to be so strong that, if they were true, then it would be unlikely that the conclusion is false. . . .[T]he premises provide good enough reasons to believe the conclusion is true" (IEP Staff, n.d., p.1, emphasis added). In an abductive argument, people "draw a [best guess] conclusion from an array of seemingly disparate and unconnected facts and observations" (Patokorpi, 2006, p. 71).         

In more detail, a deductive argument claims that if its premises are true, its conclusion must be true. An inductive argument claims that if its premises are true, its conclusion is probably true. The conclusion of an abductive argument is merely the best explanation we can imagine. It is not as secure as the conclusion of a sound deductive argument. It is not necessarily even probable, as is the conclusion of a strong inductive argument; but it is the best people can do given their ability to take away from (abduce) the facts and observations at hand (Muehlhauser, 2009).

There are two enduring, textbook illustrations of abductive thinking and logic, the wet lawn and the bag of beans, each based on a known rule. First, it is a known rule that if it rains the grass is wet; so, to explain the fact that the grass is wet, one infers (guesses) that it has rained (knowing there are many other reasons grass can be wet, e.g., sprinklers, floods). Second, it is a known rule that all of the beans in the bag are white; so, to explain the fact that the beans are white, one infers (guesses) that the beans are from this bag, knowing the beans could have come from somewhere else (Patokorpi, 2006).

Psychological and Logical Aspects of Abduction

As noted earlier, abduction "has both a psychological (synthetic) and logical (analytic) dimension closely intertwined" (Patokorpi, 2006, p. 73). Gell (1998) drew on Pierce's (1878) concept of synthetic inference (as opposed to analytic inference) to explain that when people face very strange, confounding circumstances, they assume that things can be explained by some rule, thereby enabling them to suppose that the rule explains what is going on (i.e., they abduce). Citing Roesler, Patokorpi (2006) shared the following example. Someone was surprised when she observed a round, orange-coloured and porous object. She reasoned that if this object was an orange (a known rule to her), it would make sense to her and thus cease to be surprising. Ergo, she abduced (took away) from her observations that the object was an orange (a plausible explanation given the facts at hand).

Using synthetic inference, this person reduced the psychological angst created by finding something that did not match what was known before (i.e., the previous example of the joggers who were thought to be no longer friends). In these instances, people can have degrees of trust in the manner used to infer their conclusion, knowing that their belief "tends to fix itself under the influence of inquiry" (Pierce, 1878, p. 719). In some instances, "abduction does require backing up by deduction . . . and induction . . . to make [sure] the guesses are not just plausible but accurate as well" (Patokorpi, 2006, p. 71). Many abductions are rejected or heavily modified by subsequent abductions. It is likely that one would want to follow up to see if Tim and Harry had indeed made up, or if they just happened to be seen on the same jogging path at the same time.

It's Human Nature to Abduce

Not surprisingly then, abductive thinking is more intuitive than deduction or induction (Gell, 1998). Intuitive means instinctual, having a natural tendency for something. Charles Sanders Pierce (1878), the first to write about abductive logic (see also Hartshorne and Weiss, 1960) concurred, explaining that people are able to guess successfully (use abductive reasoning) because human minds have a natural affinity for doing so. It is not blind luck; rather, abductive thinking is guided by lumen naturale, a term from Medieval times meaning humans are quite capable of reasoning without divine revelation. Pierce (1908) further believed that the success of people's guesses far exceeds that of random luck because humans have a natural instinct to successfully guess (abduce) when not hampered by the formal laws of deductive and inductive logic.

"Abduction guesses a new or outside idea so as to account in a plausible, instinctive, economical way for a surprising or very complicated phenomenon" (Wikipedia Encyclopedia, 2014, p. 5, emphasis added). Not only must the guess be the most sufficient and plausible explanation, it must also be the most economical explanation for what is going on. Simplification and economy both call for that leap of abduction. As well, the abductive process uses pragmatic logic; insecure guesses (weak inferences) must at least be conceivable, capable of being imagined, possible.

The abductive process can also be very creative, intuitive, even revolutionary (McKeever, 2008). Its logic is a powerful path for the creation of new knowledge and insights. "The abductive insight comes to us like a flash. It is an act of insight, although extremely fallible insight. It is true that the different elements of the [insight] were in our minds before; but it is the idea of putting together what we had never before dreamed of putting together which flashes the new suggestion before our contemplation" (Pierce Edition Project, 1988, p. 227, emphasis added).

Sense Making and Following Clues

Taking an interesting stance, Kolko (2010) proposed that people use abductive reasoning to make sense of their complex lives (see also Patokorpi, 2006). Sensemaking involves an internal, personal process whereby people try to understand connections between people, places, and events. When sensemaking, "it is less important to be 'accurate' and more important to give some abstract and tangible form to the ideas, thoughts and reflections [emergent from the connections]" (Kolko, 2010, p. 18, emphasis added). Abductive thinking lets people propose C as a best guess as to why B is occurring, even though C was not part of their original observations of the phenomenon. People are better able to make sense of the strange and confounding things they encounter if they can resort to outside the box, creative insights enabling them to make an informed guess about what is going on.

Along a similar line of thinking about informed guessing, Patokorpi (2006) proposed that abductive thinking "is essentially a matter of finding and following clues. However, . . . a clue alone is not enough. A clue merely leads the reasoner to something that he or she already knows. Abduction, in contrast to the mere following of clues, aims at eliciting new knowledge" (p. 80). Much like Kolko's (2010) notion of sensemaking, by actively paying attention to signs and clues that are open for all to see, abductive thinkers give meaning to these things, producing new knowledge. Knowledge based on abduction can be communicated to others because it is based on visible signs and clues. It is the power of guessing that reveals the knowledge. Furthermore, people differ in their ability to detect clues and to abduce (take away) new insights or conclusions. And, people differ in their previous knowledge of the world, in their experiences and their logical acumen. These personal differences explain why people exposed to the same strange and confounding circumstances may indeed come up with different conclusions (guesses about what is going on) (Ginzburg as cited in Patokorpi, 2006).        

Forms of Abductive Reasoning Applied to Families          

To aid in employing this logic in practice, it is helpful to know that there are four forms of abductive inference: selective, creative, non-sentential, and manipulative (see Figure 2) (Magnani, 1998; Magnani, Piazza, & Dossena, 2002; see also Patokorpi, 2006). Some examples of abductive thinking, couched within family life, are now shared.

Figure 2. Four Forms of Abductive Inference

First, when using selective abduction, people select the rule that is already in their mind. To illustrate, if the daughter in a family comes into the kitchen and sees a tuna fish sandwich beside an open can of tuna and her mother standing there, she can guess the tuna came from the open can and that her Mom made the sandwich. Eco (1983) called this quasi-automatic selective abduction; the daughter selected a rule that was already "a part of the furniture" of her reasoning mind (Patokorpi, 2006, p. 78); her Mom has made tuna sandwiches for her before.

Second, what if the Mom was surprised and shocked to see her daughter emerge from her bedroom wearing an outrageous outfit that is totally out of character? Mom may not have a rule in her head for this strange situation in her family life; her daughter had never done this before! So, the Mom has to develop a new rule through creative abduction to explain what is going on in her daughter's head. This form of abduction involves the creation of new causal relations—radical new connections to explain something, likely involving dropping closely held assumptions. In this case, if the Mom drops her previous assumptions about how her daughter normally behaves, she can be creative in trying to figure out what is going on, perhaps abducing that her daughter has reached that stage of adolescence when she chooses shock value to claim independence from family. Note that Magnani et al. (2002) likened creative abduction to doctors who abduce a new disease from a set of surprising symptoms, with HIV AIDS as the example.

Third, it is a given that abductive reasoning relies on observations as well as facts. These observations involve all five senses that provide clues that can be used when explaining what is going on. Rather than expressing their reasoning using sentences (verbal expressions), some people draw on mental images or pictures (called non-sentential abduction because they are not verbally representing their thought processes in sentences). So, in this family scenario with the wayward teenager, the Mom may find a broken chair in the living room. When trying to make an informed or educated guess about what happened to the chair, she now pictures in her mind the wild party that her daughter must have held. She knows full well that it could be broken for other reasons, but the daughter's previous shocking behaviour leads to the Mom's best guess as to what went on and the mental image of a wild party came to mind.

The final form of abductive thinking is manipulative reasoning. Mathematics teachers will be familiar with using manipulatives to help students learn geometry. Students hold and manipulate actual objects in their hands, using the tacit knowledge forming in their heads to abduce (take away) geometrical principles (Magnani et al., 2002). Back to our family example. Perhaps the Mom could deal with her daughter's never-before-expressed fashion sense (likely a means for expressing her emergent identity), by taking her daughter shopping so she can try on different clothes and styles and explain why she likes or dislikes each one. The Mom would be taking an educated guess that this form of manipulative abduction might help her daughter express why she is dressing the way she is now and maybe this can lead to a conversation about the larger issue of teen identity.

Some Implications for Home Economics

Not perfect examples for sure, but they serve to illustrate how pervasive abductive reasoning seems to be within family life and why it merits further consideration by the home economics profession. "Abductive educated guessing" is the mainstay of everyday thought processes (Patokorpi, 2006, p. 79, emphasis added). Educated guessing "simplifies the complexity of daily reality, making it intelligible to us" (p. 73). It helps people make sense of a very convoluted, complex world. People's knowledge of the world is provisional, meaning it can change in the future. Being able to cope with surprising, pressing situations that are not immediately conducive to deductive, even inductive, logic necessitates another form of thinking—abductive thinking.

"Abductive reasoning yields the kind of daily decision-making that does its best with the information at hand, which often is incomplete" (McKeever, 2008,  p. 2). Some home economists may have to overcome their resistance to "solutions that are presented as magical insights rather than as the results of thoughtful, well articulated processes" (Clakre, 2013). We may have to trust individuals and families as they take their best stab at compelling issues (e.g., family, personal, social, economic, political, environmental, religious, cultural). Abductive thinking is a form of decision making on the run, doing the best one can with what one has at hand, given the circumstances and what is known.

The pragmatic logic behind abductive thinking holds promise for respecting that families are making do on a daily basis. With imperfect information, families respond to clues (maybe miss clues that others can see) and try to figure out what is going on and then what to do. Knowing that home economists are familiar with deductive and inductive logic predicated on hypotheses, we can now suggest that hypothesis takes on a whole new meaning. "Hypothetically, this is what might be going on," and that is sometimes all they have—a best guess. In some cases, their best guesses actually lead to powerful new insights in addition to simply solving an immediate problem (like the Mom abducing that her daughter is experiencing hormonal changes as she becomes a woman, rather than deducing she is somehow now on the wrong track in life). Sudden flashes of insights that emerge from abductive thinking shape everyday life (Patokorpi, 2006).

This form of logic and inference is a legitimate aspect of daily family life and warrants further profession-wide dialogue. For this reason alone, home economists should pay more attention to abductive reasoning. After all, humans have a natural instinct to successfully guess (abduce) what is going on in their lives. This natural inclination behoves home economists to engage with abductive reasoning so they can respect and support the role that educated guesses play as individuals and families deal with the trials and tribulations of daily life.

For instance, professionals need to explore how pervasive abductive reasoning is in the daily life of individuals and families. Does this form of inference serve us or just lead to, what Clakre (2013) called, magical insights, seemingly not warranted by what has been observed? Are educated or best guesses alright in some instances? Douven (2011) echoed this concern, noting that "[e]ven if it is true that we routinely rely on abductive reasoning [in everyday life], it may still be asked whether this practice is rational" (p. 11). And, we are reminded that home economists have long lobbied for families to engage in critical thinking, values reasoning, and practical perennial problem solving—all predicated on deductive and inductive logic, not abductive logic. Is it logical for us to give credence to the idea that individuals and families spend a lot of time just making best guesses? Is individual and family well-being and quality of life somehow compromised by this form of inference?

Other queries come to mind. What are the implications for practice given that people differ on their abductive acumen? Families will take away different things from similar circumstances. Also, how big a role does abductive reasoning play when individuals and families engage in sensemaking and in finding meaning in their daily lives—making sense with imperfect information? How should we (if at all) help families find and follow clues (and which ones) that can lead to new knowledge and insights about their lived experiences? What is the best combination of selective, creative, non-sentential, and manipulative abductions for a given family or even for families in general? Given that "there is widespread agreement that people frequently rely on abductive reasoning," this paper invites home economists to engage with the idea (Douven, 2011, p. 11).

On a closing note, home economics professionals have the opportunity to trust their own instinctual, educated guesses about what is best for individuals and families, given what is known at the time. Using these natural instincts, these educated guesses, home economists can make conceptual leaps that may lead to revised and forward-looking practice. Professionals should not underestimate the power of quantum leaps in thinking that scarcely seem warranted by the mere observations we are making. These sudden flashes in insights could become the mainstay of our practice. Given the apparent prevalence of abductive thinking in families and its potential benefits for the profession, we should rethink how our curricula, research, pedagogy, practice, and philosophy might have to change to embrace the idea of abductive reasoning.


1   Other titles of programs include family and consumer sciences, human ecology, human sciences, human environmental sciences, among others.


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Kappa Omicron Nu Forum Volume 19 No. 1

Home Economics Philosophy in Latvia: An Exploratory Study

Sue L. T. McGregor, Mount Saint Vincent University
Vija Dišlere, Latvia University of Agriculture

Everyday Life: A Home Economics Concept

Sue L. T. McGregor, Mount Saint Vincent University

The Role of Philosophy in Home Economics

Sue L. T. McGregor, Mount Saint Vincent University

Marjorie Brown's Philosophical Legacy: Contemporary Relevance

Sue L. T. McGregor, Mount Saint Vincent University

Abductive Reasoning in Everyday Life: Implications for Home Economics

Sue L. T. McGregor, Mount Saint Vincent University

Enriching Home Economics Philosophy with Phenomenological Insights:
Aesthetic Experiences, Bodily Being, and Enfolded Everyday Life

Henna Heinilä

Postmodernism and Home Economics: Revitalizing the Conversation

Sue L. T. McGregor, Mount Saint Vincent University

History and Potential of Home Economics in the People's Republic of China:
Implications for Philosophy of Practice

Peng Chen PhD, Higher Vocational Education College, China Women's University

History and Potential of Home Economics in the People's Republic of China:
Implications for Philosophy of Practice

Peng Chen PhD, Higher Vocational Education College, China Women's University

Existentialism and Home Economics

Sue L. T. McGregor, Mount Saint Vincent University

Can Home Economics Practice be Informed by Bakhtinian Themes?

Dr. Mary Gale Smith

Conceptualizing Home and Household

Sue L. T. McGregor, Mount Saint Vincent University