Domain of the social sciences

Is the domain of “all social phenomena” a valid subject for scientific study? Is there a place for a purely general sociology, designed to be a theory of the social everything? Sociologists from Comte to Parsons have sometimes put forward this idea, and James Coleman pursued something like this in Foundations of Social Theory. But upon reflection, this seems like the wrong way of thinking about the social world.

Instead, the social world consists of a hodge-podge of actions, rules, organizations, motives, and the like, at a wide range of scales (link, link). A key task for social scientists is to segment social phenomena into related groups of actions or entities, with a scientific goal of making sense of how these various kinds of stuff work. So social scientists should permit themselves to be eclectic and specialized, identifying sub-domains of interest and uncovering the mechanisms and processes that are at work in this area of social life.

These considerations make it understandable that social research focuses on specific groups of social phenomena like these — contention, organizations, racial discrimination, norm systems, market behavior, voting behavior, families, delinquency, …. These are all selected groups of social action and structures, similar enough to admit of a condensed description of what unifies them and plausibly explained by a similar set of causal mechanisms and processes. This provides a logic to the separation of the discipline of sociology into a large number of sub-disciplines; as of last count the American Sociological Association encompassed 52 sections, each organized around a set of research topics and methods (link).

Consider a possible analogy. Suppose we have just arrived on planet Earth and have noticed that we are surrounded by noises, and we want to understand this blooming, buzzing confusion. More exactly, we “hear” a wide range of phenomena with qualitative properties through our auditory sensory systems. And suppose we wanted to formulate a science of sound. How would we proceed?

We wouldn’t begin, most likely, by collecting and cataloging the sounds that we perceive — birds tweeting, jets roaring, children singing, elephants rumbling, … No, we would begin by trying to determine what “sound” is (what the physical phenomenon is that underlies the phenomenology of sound through our hearing system). We will answer that question fairly quickly — “sound is the result of vibrations in a medium in a certain range of frequencies, conveyed through a medium that extends from the vibrating object to the sensory detectors in our inner ears.” And then the vast majority of sounds will be disregarded as scientifically uninteresting. The essentials have been identified: a source of vibration and a medium of transmission. More interesting will be the anomalies — harmonics, differential speeds of propagation, echoes, Doppler effect, … And we will be interested in the non-obvious mechanisms of sound production and transmission.

I’m not really interested in sounds, but rather in social phenomena. But there is a possible analogy here. The social world that we observe presents a bewildering variety of social phenomena. Where should we start in formulating a science of society? Perhaps the clue from acoustics and sound is this: we can ignore much of the phenomena, identify the surprising bits, and look for the mechanisms that underlie this surprising outcome or that. It is the fact of patterns and recurring surprises that will be of primary scientific interest.

There is a unifying feature of all sound phenomena — vibrations in a medium. And likewise, there is a unifying feature of all social phenomena — real human beings interacting with each other on the basis of their own mental maps of the world around them and conceptions of where they are trying to go, subject to constraints created by the natural environment and the behaviors and practices of individuals around them. But the real substance of research in both fields takes place at a more refined level, in which researchers seek to identify mechanisms and explanations for apparently anomalous outcomes.

What this thought experiment suggests is that we should not think of the subject matter of social science as the domain of all social action and social phenomena. Rather, much of what we observe in social life can be put in the category of noise, best filtered out as we focus our attention on surprising outcomes and mechanisms that permit of substantial illumination and explanation. The real subject matter is various bundles of related phenomena where we have succeeded in finding some important structural similarities and some relevantly similar causal mechanisms.

And we shouldn’t hold out the chimera of a unified social theory that explains all social phenomena — whether rational choice theory, world systems theory, or psychoanalysis.

This is the conclusion that I am inclined to support. But there is a different way of taking this analogy which comes back to giving greater support to James Coleman’s aspirations in Foundations of Social Theory. If it is agreed that there is a unifying feature underlying all social behavior —

real human beings interacting with each other on the basis of their own mental maps of the world around them and conceptions of where they are trying to go, subject to constraints created by the natural environment and the behaviors and practices of individuals around them

— then we might argue after all that “general sociology” is possible after all. It would consist of (a) discovery of the premises that govern the actors, (b) exploration of the most important ways in which actors interact, and (c) exploration of some of the specific boundary conditions within which (a) and (b) play out in the actual social world. Much of the variation represented in the list of the sections of the ASA above takes the form of enumeration of special cases in category (c). But the general science of sociology is contained in (a) and (b).

This gloss on the story also conforms to some extent to the science of acoustics: a common set of principles defining the physics and mathematics of the production and propagation of vibration through a medium, and a set of special cases where these principles produce odd results.

These contradictory conclusions point to a central tension within sociological theory between greater generalization and greater attention to context and variation. (This tension is highlighted in the recent post on Peggy Somers’ rebuttal to Kiser and Hechter; link.) But I’m forced to acknowledge that this is also a tension in my philosophy of social science as well. The question of the availability of general theories in sociology relates to my own advocacy for the idea of methodological localism — the idea that all social phenomena derive from the actions and thoughts of locally situated and locally constructed individual actors in proximate relations to other actors. “The “molecule” of all social life is the socially constructed and socially situated individual, who lives, acts, and develops within a set of local social relationships, institutions, norms, and rules” (link). But this formulation seems to leave it open that we might aspire to having general theories of the actor that permit us to explain social outcomes in terms of the features of action that are identified. And that seems to be the program that Coleman is exploring in Foundations.

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