Empirical constraints on sociological theories

What makes sociology “scientific”? An important component of a reply is that assertions, hypotheses, and theories are subject to the test of empirical evidence. Hypotheses need to be evaluated in terms of observations of how the real world behaves. We should evaluate our assertions in terms of their fit with the empirical facts. This is the “empiricist” constraint.

Post-positivist philosophers of science have noticed that these simple ideas raise many of puzzles, however. Consider these points:

  • No set of observable facts guarantees the truth of a scientific assertion.
  • There is no sharp distinction between observation and theory; our observations of the empirical facts commonly depend upon the assumption of some elements of scientific theory. Observations are “theory-laden”.
  • Even the empirical “facts” are subject to multiple interpretations; it is often possible to redescribe a set of observations in a way that appears to support contradictory hypotheses.

In the social sciences there are additional complexities about how to arrive at empirical observations and measurements.

  • Social observations require us to “operationalize” the empirical facts we want to observe. For example, we may want to observe the standard of living of the working class. But we cannot achieve this directly. Instead, we need to arrive at “proxies” that are plausibly indicative of the property in question. So the wage basket that can be purchased with a given average money wage may be the index we use for measuring the standard of living. But there are other defensible ways of operationalizing the standard of living, and the various criteria may yield results that behave differently in given times and places.
  • Social observation requires aggregation of measurements over a diverse group of individuals. We have to make judgments and choices when we arrive at a process for aggregating social data — for example, the choice of using the gini coefficient rather than the share of income flowing to the bottom 40 percent as a measure of income inequality, or using the median rather than the mean to observe changes in income distribution. These choices must be made — and there are no decisive empirical reasons that would decide the issue.
  • Social concepts are needed to allow us to break down the social world into a set of facts. But there are plausible alternative conceptual schemes through which we can understand the nature and varieties of social phenomena. So, once again, we cannot hold that “observation” determines “theory”.

These are familiar logical difficulties with the basic requirement of empiricism. However, they are not fatal difficulties. At bottom, it remains true that there is such a thing as social observation. It is necessary to accept that observations are theory-laden; that no observation is uncontrovertible; and that empirical evaluation depends upon judgment. All this accepted, there is a range of social observation that is relatively close to the ground and to which we can attribute some degree of epistemic warrant. Finally, there is available to us a coherence epistemology that permits a holistic and many-sided process of conveying warrant.

My view, then, is that the situation of sociology is less like physics (highly dependent on long chains of reasoning in order to assess empirical warrant) and more like journalism (grounded in careful and reasoned constructions of observations of the social world). The social world is reasonably transparent. We can arrive at reasonably confident observations of a wide range of social facts. And we can provide a logical analysis of the degree of credibility a given sociological theory has, given a fixed set of (corrigible) observations. Much of sociology is closely tied to descriptive inquiry, and the epistemic challenges come in at the stage of building our observations rather than our theories.

Moreover, the common views that natural science theories are “under-determined” by all available evidence (so that multiple theories can be equally well supported) and that scientific theories can only be supported or undermined as wholes (with no separate confirmation for parts of theories) appear to be largely inapplicable to the social sciences. Rather, social theories are more commonly of the “middle range”, permitting piecemeal observation, testing, and empirical evaluation.

This also means that the celebrated hypothetico-deductive model of confirmation is less crucial in the social sciences than the natural sciences. The key explanatory challenge is to discover a set of causal processes that might explain the observed social world. And sophisticated observation is often the bulk of what we need.

(See “Evidence and Objectivity in the Social Sciences” for a little more on this topic. Ian Shapiro’s recent book, The Flight from Reality in the Human Sciences, is a tough critique of excessive formalism and theor-ism in the social sciences.)

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