Innovation in social research

The social sciences are charged to arrive at a good empirical understanding of the social world around us. They are charged to provide hypotheses and theories on the basis of which to explain the outcomes and patterns they discover. And they are charged to help design policies and interventions that will contribute to durable solutions to important social problems.

This is a big agenda, and it will only be achieved, I believe, if the next several decades witness a substantial burst of creative new thinking in all the social sciences. The disciplines, the inter-disciplines, and the social science institutions need to stimulate a lot of innovative thinking, if we are to arrive at a better understanding of the social world and a better ability to solve social problems.

Why should we think this is true? What makes us think that the current theories and research methodologies are not sufficient? And what kinds of innovation should we be aiming at?

The need for innovation results from several points. First is the tendency of the social science disciplines to give excessive primacy to a few methodologies and theories as the preferred wisdom. Quantitative methods, survey methodology, rational choice theory, and formal modeling techniques have defined “cutting-edge” social science research for several decades in several disciplines. When we take full measure of their specific limitations, these are perfectly useful components of social science research. But we should never imagine that they suffice for every research problem. The problems confronting the social sciences need a broader palette, a larger tool box.

Second, social phenomena almost always involve a mix of processes and behaviors that fall within the boundaries of distinct disciplines. This means that the hypotheses and theories of a single discipline will not capture the dynamics of the given body of phenomena. This in turn means that it is essential for social scientists to approach research problems with an interdisciplinary spirit; they need to welcome a somewhat eclectic mix of approaches.

Third, there is a need for some new thinking about causal processes and the reasoning we use to investigate causation in the social realm. The turn to causal mechanisms is an important step in this direction, but more new thinking is needed as well.

Fourth, it is important to find better ways of incorporating the study of agency and concrete individual behavior into social science theories. The cultural turn and the willingness to attempt to make use of some of the tools of ethnography and social psychology within structural and quantitative approaches is a good start, and we need to go further.

Fifth, we need some new ideas about how separate social processes aggregate and interact. The basic idea of a social agglomeration as a composition of lesser processes seems very compelling; so a better set of tools for modeling and analyzing these compositional processes is needed.

Much of this has to do with a particular kind of innovation: finding ways of borrowing across disciplines to permit the construction of analyses that are more sufficient. But there is also a need for a more fundamental form of innovation as well, at the level of the concepts and theories we use to characterize the social world. Could we arrive at a new concept of social identity that captures more of the fluidity and variability of the ways social identities actually work in a complex social world? Could our concept of social class be replaced by a different construct that was more friendly to the many strands that are involved in the phenomena of social class? Could we arrive at a better conceptual scheme for analyzing the institutions of government power and the exercise of state power?

Here is a short list of innovative social theorists whom I would recognize in the past several decades: Albert Hirschman, Ben Anderson, James Scott, Charles Sabel, Seyla Ben-Habib, Martha Nussbaum, Thomas Schelling, Edward Said, Charles Tilly, Pierre Bourdieu, G. William Skinner, Elizabeth Perry, Robert Bates, Stephen Greenblatt, Robert Brenner, Mark Elvin. Each brought forward some genuinely novel ideas that shed new light on some aspect of the social world. And in many instances those ideas have demonstrated their staying-power. And, with almost no exceptions, none of these thinkers is narrowly defined by a single discipline.

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