The soft side of critical realism

Critical realism has appealed to a range of sociologists and political scientists, in part because of the legitimacy it renders for the study of social structures and organizations. However, many of the things sociologists study are not "things" at all, but rather subjective features of social experience -- mental frameworks, identities, ideologies, value systems, knowledge …

Discovering the nucleus

In the past year or so I've been reading a handful of fascinating biographies and histories involving the evolution of early twentieth-century physics, paying attention to the individuals, the institutions, and the ideas that contributed to the making of post-classical physics. The primary focus is on the theory of the atom and the nucleus, and …

Inductive reasoning and the philosophy of science

I've just finished reading Sharon Bertsch McGrayne's book on Bayesian statistics, The Theory That Would Not Die: How Bayes' Rule Cracked the Enigma Code, Hunted Down Russian Submarines, and Emerged Triumphant from Two Centuries of Controversy. McGrayne presents a very interesting story of the advancement of a scientific idea over a very long period (1740s through …

Predicting, forecasting, and superforecasting

I have expressed a lot of reservation about the feasibility of prediction of large, important outcomes in the social world (link, link, link). Here are a couple of observations drawn from these earlier posts: We sometimes think that there is fundamental stability in the social world, or at least an orderly pattern of development to …

Is the mind/body problem relevant to social science?

Is solving the mind-body problem crucial to providing a satisfactory sociological theory?   No, it isn't, in my opinion. But Alex Wendt thinks otherwise in Quantum Mind and Social Science: Unifying Physical and Social Ontology. In fact, he thinks a solution to the mind-body problem is crucial to a coherent social science. Which is to …

How to do cephalapod philosophy

How should researchers attempt to investigate non-human intelligence? The image above raises difficult questions. The octopus is manipulating (tenticlating?) the Rubik's cube. But there are a raft of questions that are difficult to resolve on the basis of simple inductive observation. And some of those questions are as much conceptual as they are empirical. Is …

Range of reactions to realism about the social world

My recent post on realism in the social realm generated quite a bit of commentary, which I'd like to address here. Brad Delong offered an incredulous response -- he seems to think that any form of scientific realism is ridiculous (link). He refers to the predictive success of Ptolemy's epicycles, and then says, "But just …

The case for realism in the social realm

Image. Orderly chaos in flight path of ocean-foraging albatross The case for scientific realism in the case of physics, microbiology, and chemistry is a strong one. The theories of physics, biology, and chemistry postulate unobservable entities, forces, and properties. These hypotheses are specified in a fair degree of precision. They are not individually testable, because …

Niiniluoto on scientific realism

Debates over realism have been at the center of the philosophy of science for at least seventy-five years. The fundamental question is this: what exists in the world? And how do we best gain knowledge about the nature and properties of these real things? The first question is metaphysical, while the second is epistemic. Scientific …

The similarity space of actor-centered research frameworks

  There are a number of approaches to the study of the social world that give special priority to individuals in social settings. Rational choice theory and game theory (Becker, Harsanyi) attempt to understand social outcomes as the result of the strategies and calculations of rational actors. Actor-centered sociology and pragmatist theory attempt to uncover …

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