Positivism and social science

There is a strong current of positivism in contemporary sociology –in fact, one might say this is the dominant paradigm. Other paradigms exist — feminism, Marxism, comparative historical sociology, and ethnographic sociology, to name several. But the claim of science is generally couched in terms of a positivist theory of science and inquiry. This is unsurprising, in that several of the founders of sociology (Comte, Mill, and Durkheim in particular) were most emphatic in asserting the necessary connection between the two ideas, and Comte invented both “positivism” and “sociology” as modern terms.

The core assumptions of positivism include these: that social science is identical in its logic to natural science; that science involves the search for general laws about empirical phenomena; and that discovery and explanation depend upon a rigorous empirical scrutiny of the phenomena under question. Positivism is doubtful about the role of theory, preferring instead to make do with empirical observations, classes of empirical phenomena, and generalizations across classes of phenomena. Finally, positivism is dubious about the reality of causal connections between empirical phenomena.

It is true that science requires rigorous empirical inquiry. But much of the rest of the positivist program turns out to be badly suited to social science research and explanation. This is so for several reasons. First, social phenomena do not fall into fixed and distinct “types”, in which the members of the type are homogeneous. We can generalize about “water”, but not about “revolution”, for the simple reason that all samples of pure water have the same structure and observable characteristics; but not so for all “revolutions”. The category of “revolution” is not a “kind”, and we should not imagine that we can arrive at a set of necessary and sufficient conditions for membership in this group.

Second, there are few lawlike generalizations about social entities and processes (if any at all!). Each revolution, for example, proceeds according to a historically specific set of causes and circumstances. And there are no genuinely interesting generalizations across the whole category.

Third, it is important in social science to formulate hypotheses about unobservable mechanisms of causal interconnectedness. So “theory” is an important component of social-science thinking and the sociological imagination.

Finally, explanation in the social sciences requires that we identify the causal mechanisms that connect one kind of social circumstance with another. If we believe that improved transportation causes a change in habitation patterns, then we need to be able to provide a hypothesis and analysis of what the social mechanisms are that create this result.

Positivism is a poor guide for social science inquiry. Instead, we need to approach social science research with a readiness to find contingency, heterogeneity, path-dependence, and particularity among the phenomena that we study–corresponding to the plasticity of human institutions and human agency.

What is "power" in the twenty-first century?

Is “power” different in the twenty-first century?

Is power the same as “ability to influence behavior”?

Do the internet and new forms of communication and social networking create new opportunities for power–for good or bad purposes?

Think about the ways power was created and used in the nineteenth or twentieth centuries: the power of the state to regulate and enforce; the power of the police to arrest and confine; the power of Europe and North America to administer global empires; the power of the press to focus attention on subjects of concern (political corruption, tainted food, child labor).

These forms of power turn on a few more basic ideas: the ability to use force in order to coerce or threaten; the ability to use mechanisms of communication to influence public opinion and action; the ability to deploy a dispersed bureaucracy in order to organize the actions of distant actors.

Has the balance of power shifted between organized states and networked anti-state organizations?

The exercise of power is a crucial mechanism of social causation, and the analysis of the sources and organization of power is an important task for social science and social theory.

Human behavior and institutions

Ultimately social phenomena are the aggregate result of the behavior of socially constituted persons who are acting within the context of locally embodied institutions. If there are regularities within the social realm, they derive from common features of individual agency, common features of institutions, and common processes of aggregation of effects.

This implies that social scientists should always keep in mind the real underlying behavioral and institutional settings that constitute the social processes or patterns they are interested in.

It also implies that social scientists should expect plasticity and heterogeneity of social processes.

There is more discussion of this perspective in “Levels of the Social“.

New approaches to social research?

I believe we need to create significantly new approaches to the study of the social. Positivistic sociology, formalistic political science, highly mathematicized economics–these dominant paradigms in several disciplines proceed on the basis of misleading or overly narrow conceptions of science and the social. We need to do a much better job of crafting theories and research methods to the particular features of a social research topic. And we need to be much more open to the innovations and new perspectives that are emerging in various areas of the social sciences (for example comparative historical sociology). This means that there needs to be a freeranging, innovative consideration of the ways in which it is possible to study and explain various social phenomena. (See “The Heterogeneous Social” for more discussion of this critique.)

(Ian Shapiro’s The Flight from Reality in the Human Sciences is an interesting contribution.)

International social research?

I find it intriguing to imagine the sociological insights that might come from a discussion of a specific social problem that brings together the perspectives of some of the international visitors to this web site. How would observers from Manila, Lagos, Shanghai, and Detroit be able to contribute different perspectives on the issue of rising income inequality? Or the issue of racial discrimination? Or the issue of corruption? Or the challenge of an aging population?

Is there a place in the task of creating a new discipline of sociology, for the networked intelligence of observers throughout the world?

Does existing sociological theory and practice give us a basis for analyzing the important social problems that surround us — or do we need to seek out new theories, new perspectives, and new methods?

Can the richness that is present within a distributed community of thoughtful observers be the basis for a better science of sociology?

Plasticity of the social

I maintain that virtually all social entities are “plastic”: their properties change significantly over time, as a result of the purposive and unintentional behavior of the socially constructed individuals who make up a society. Organizations, labor unions, universities, churches, and social identities all show a substantial degree of flexibility and fluidity over time, and this fact leads to a substantial degree of heterogeneity among groups of similar social organizations and institutions. This points to a general and important observation about the constitution of the social world: The properties of a social entity or practice can change over time; they are not rigid, fixed, or timeless. They are not bound into consistent and unchanging categories of entities, such as “bureaucratic state,” “Islamic society,” or “leftist labor organization.” Molecules of water preserve their physical characteristics no matter what. But in contrast to natural substances such as gold or water, social things can change their properties indefinitely.

This interpretation interprets “plastic” as the contrary to “static and fixed”. A second way in which an entity might be unchanging is as a dynamic equilibrium. A social structure might be a self-correcting system that restores its equilibrium characteristics in the face of disturbing influences. The temperature in this room is subject to external influences that would result in change; but the thermostat provides cool or warm air as needed to bring the office temperature back to the equilibrium value. When I say that social entities are plastic, I also mean to say that they are not generally determined within a dynamic equilibrium (as sociological functionalism maintains, perhaps), with powerful homeostatic mechanisms that correct for disturbing influences. There is no “essential” form to which the structure tends to return in equilibrium.

This ontology emphasizes a deep plasticity and heterogeneity in social entities. Organizations and institutions change over time and place. Agents within these organizations change their characteristics through their own behavior, through their intentional efforts to modify them, and through the cumulative effect of agents and behavior over time and place. Social constructs are caused and implemented within a substrate of purposive and active agents whose behavior and mentality at a given time determine the features of the social entity. As individuals act, pursue their interests, notice new opportunities, and innovate, they simultaneously “reproduce” a given institution and also erode or change the institution. So institutions are not fully homeostatic, preserving their own structure in the face of disturbances. This is not to say that institutions lack such homeostatic mechanisms altogether; only that we cannot presuppose that a given institution or organization will persist in its fundamental characteristics over extended time and space.

A familiar example will illustrate the kinds of plasticity and variation that I am thinking of. Take the tenure process in American universities. We can see an overall similarity in processes, rules, and goals in the tenure processes at various institutions. Organization is to some extent influenced by function. But we also see substantial variation and drift in both process and content (criteria and processes for awarding tenure). For example, there are some universities that are incorporating “community service” into tenure criteria. Different universities give a different balance of faculty review and provost and dean review. There are different cultures of seriousness in review by faculty committees and academic administrators. Different institutions define different institutional goals: enhance national reputation of the faculty (through research productivity), improve teaching, orient faculty to community service, … There is a visible push-pull by stakeholders on these institutions: deans, provosts, presidents; faculty governance units; individual faculty. There have been changes in the past 20 years that have affected many institutions: post-tenure review, greater willingness to do reviews leading to removal, … So tenure institutions display the variability and plasticity that I believe is inherent in all social institutions.

So far I have focused on institutions and organizations. But features of social consciousness and social identity are also variable across time, place, and group. The mechanisms through which social identities and mentalities are transmitted, transmuted, and maintained are varied; inculcation, imitation, and common circumstances are central among these. But the transmission of an identity is a bit like the transmission of a message through a telephone chain. Because of “noise” in the system, because of individual differences among the transmitters, and because of multiple other influences on micro-identities, we should expect great variation within and across groups with regard to the particulars of their social identities. In fact, it appears that the plasticity of identities, norms, and mental frameworks is particularly great. The mechanisms of transmission invite variation across successive instances and generations. Local variations will take root in sub-populations. There are limited mechanisms of homeostasis. And individuals and groups have the ability to modify the content and meaning of these elements of social consciousness more or less indefinitely over time. Small variations in locally-embodied content proliferate through imitation and parent-child transmission.

Finally, we might also say that individuals too are “plastic”. The social psychology of the existing person is the product of the individual’s earlier experiences, education, and training. So this particular person—perhaps now a “rational maximizer with racial prejudice and a fear of flying”—has been constructed through a concrete set of experiences. But (a) this concrete present individual herself can be brought to change some basic motivational and psychological characteristics through additional experiences—perhaps diversity training and a positive experience with a person of another race; and (b) other individuals from a similar background can be brought to have a different set of motivational characteristics through different circumstances of development. So the individual’s basic characteristics of personality, belief, and motivation are plastic.

In each case we find that institutions, practices, and social identities show a substantial degree of plasticity over time and place. And this is what we should expect–fundamentally, because we can sketch out the social processes and mechanisms through which institutions are formed, maintained, and modified. Institutions are human products and are embodied in human actions and beliefs. Sometimes an institution is designed through a deliberative process; sometimes it results through a series of uncoordinated adaptations and appropriations by a number of participants. Institutions solve social problems; they coordinate individual activity, control resources, allocate benefits and burdens. And institutions either maintain their structure or change depending on the interests and actions of the participants. The participants in institutions interact with the particulars of the organization in ways that improve the effectiveness of the organization, or better serve a particular set of interests, or some combination of both. Leaders may determine that a modification of the institution would increase the capacity of the organization to deliver services, reduce costs, or improve their own ability to control activities within the organization. Participants may modify the organization in their own ways—through spontaneous local modifications of process; foot-dragging as a way of impeding the functioning of unpopular aspects of the organization; collaboration with other participants to modify the institution in directions more favorable to their interests; etc.

So it is important for social scientists to avoid the fallacy of “naturalism”–the idea that social science should resemble natural science, and the idea that social entities have a similar constitution and ontology to natural entities.