Underdetermination and truth

We say that a statement is underdetermined by available facts when it and an alternative and different statement or theory are equally consistent with that body of facts. It may be that two physical theories have precisely the same empirical consequences — perhaps wave theory and particle theory represent an example of this possibility. And by stipulation there is no empirical circumstance that could occur that would distinguish between the two theories; no circumstance that would refute T1 and confirm T2. And yet we might also think that the two theories make different assertions about the world. Both statements are underdetermined by empirical facts.

Pierre Duhem further strengthened the case for the underdetermination of scientific theories through his emphasis on the crucial role that auxiliary hypotheses play in the design of experiments in The Aim and Structure of Physical Theory.  Individual theoretical hypotheses — “light is a wave,” “people behave on the basis of their class interests” — do not have definite empirical implications of their own; rather, it is necessary to bring additional assumptions into play in order to design experiments that might support or refute the theoretical hypothesis.  And here is the crucial point: if an experimental result is inconsistent with the antecedent theory and auxiliary hypotheses, we haven’t demonstrated that the hypothesis itself is false, but rather that at least one among the premises is false. And it is possible to save the system by modifying the theory or one or more of the auxiliary assumptions.  As W. V. O. Quine put the point, scientific knowledge takes the form of a “web of belief” (The Web of Belief).  

On the extreme assumption that both statements have precisely the same consequences, we might infer that the two theories must be logically equivalent, since the logical content of a theory is the full range of its deductive consequences and the two theories are stipulated to have the same deductive consequences. So it must be possible to derive each theory from the other. And if T1 and T2 are logically equivalent, then we wouldn’t say that they really express different assertions about the world.

A more problematic case is one where two theories have distinct bodies of deductive consequences; but where the subset of deductive consequences that are empirically testable are the same for the two theories. In this situation it is no longer the case that the two theories are logically equivalent but rather “empirically equivalent.” And here it would be credible to say that the two make genuinely different assertions about the world — assertions that cannot be resolved empirically.

A third and still weaker case is one in which T1 and T2 have distinct consequences for both theoretical statements and a specific subset of empirical statements; but they overlap in their consequences for a second body of empirical statements. And consider this possibility: Because a given level of instrumentation and inquiry limit the types of empirical statements that can be evaluated, this body of data does not permit us to differentiate between the theories. So we can distinguish between “currently testable” and “currently not testable”. For this third case, we are to imagine that T1 and T2 have distinct implications for theoretical statements and for currently not testable empirical statements; but they have the same consequences for currently testable statements. In this case, T1 and T2 are currently underdetermined — though advances in instrumentation may result in their being empirically distinguishable in the future.

It is worth noting how heroic is the notion of “determination” of theory by evidence. If we thought that science should issue in theories that are determined by the empirical evidence, we would be committed to the idea that there is one uniquely best theory of everything. This assumption of ultimate theory uniqueness might be thought to follow from scientific and metaphysical realism: the world has a specific and determinate structure and causal properties; this structure gives rise to all observations; well-supported theories are approximately true descriptions of this hidden structure of the world; and therefore there is a uniquely best scientific theory — the one that refers to this set of entities, processes, and structures. And if an existing theory is false in description of this unobservable reality, then there must be observational circumstances where the false assumptions of the theory give rise to false predictions about observation.  In other words, well-confirmed theories are likely to be approximately true, and the hidden structure of the world can be expected to create observations that refute out false theories.

However, this foundational approach is implausible in virtually every area of science.  Our theories rarely purport to describe the most fundamental level of reality; instead, they are meso-level descriptions of intermediate levels of phenomena. Take the effort to understand planetary motion.  The description of the orbits of the planets as ellipses generated by the gravitational attraction of the planet and the sun turned out to be only approximately true.  Did this refute the pure theory of gravitation? Certainly not; rather, it raised the possibility of other causal processes not yet identified, that interfere with the workings of gravitational attraction.

So how do these general considerations from the philosophy of science affect the situation of knowledge claims in the social sciences?

It would seem that social science claims are even more subject to underdetermination than the claims of mechanics and physics. In addition to the problem of unidentified interfering causes and the need for auxiliary hypotheses, we have the problems of vagueness and specification.  We commonly find that social science theories offer general statements about social causes and conditions that need to be further specified before they can be applied to a given set of circumstances. And there are almost always alternative and equally plausible ways of specifying the concept in a particular setting.

Take the idea of class conflict as a theory of political behavior.  The theory may assert that “workers act on their material interests.” Before we can attempt to evaluate this statement in particular social settings, we have to specify several things: how to characterize “material interests” in the setting and how to represent the cognitive-behavioral models the worker uses as he/she deliberates about action.  Is retaining support from City Hall a material interest? Or are material interests restricted to wages and the workplace? Are workers thought to be rational maximizers of their interests, or do they also embody social commitments that modulate the dictates of maximization? And here is the crucial point: different specifications lead to different predictions about political behavior; so the general theoretical assertion is underdetermined by empirical observation.

This discussion seems to lead us into surprising territory — not the limited question of underdetermination but the large question of truth and correspondence and the question of the rationality of scientific belief. Do we think that social assertions are true or false in the semantic sense: true by virtue of correspondence to the facts as they really are; or do we think that social assertions are simply ways of speaking about complexes of social phenomena, with no referential force? Is the language of class or ideology or ressentiment just a way of encompassing a range of social behaviors, or are there really classes and ideologies in the social world? And if we affirm the latter possibility, does the evidence of social observation permit us to unambiguously select the true theories?

I suppose one possible approach is to minimize the scope of “truth” when it comes to the social sciences. We might say that there is a limited range of social statements that are unambiguously true or false — Jones robbed a store, Jones robbed a store because he was economically desperate, people sometimes commit crimes out of economic necessity — but there is a broader class of statements that have a different status.  These are more akin to interpretive schemes in literary criticism or to a set of metaphors deployed to describe a complex social situation.  The language of class may fall in this category.  And we might say that these statements are not truth claims at all, but rather interpretive schemes that are judged to do a better or worse job of drawing together the complex phenomena to which they are applied.  And in this case, it seems unavoidable that statements like these are radically underdetermined by the empirical facts.

(See Kyle Stanford’s essay on underdetermination in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.)

The inexact science of economics

Image: social accounting matrix, Bolivia, 1997

Economics is an “inexact” science; or so Daniel Hausman argues in The Inexact and Separate Science of Economics (Google Books link).  As it implies, this description conveys that economic laws have only a loose fit with observed economic behavior.  Here are the loosely related interpretations that Hausman offers for this idea, drawing on the thinking of John Stuart Mill:

  1. Inexact laws are approximate.  They are true within some margin of error.
  2. Inexact laws are probabilistic or statistical.  Instead of stating how human beings always behave, economic laws state how they usually behave.
  3. Inexact laws make counterfactual assertions about how things would be in the absence of interferences.
  4. Inexact laws are qualified with vague ceteris paribus clauses. (128)

Economics has also been treated by economists as a separate science: a science capable of explaining virtually all the phenomena in a reasonably well-defined domain of social phenomena.  Here is Hausman’s interpretation of a separate science:

  1. Economics is defined in terms of the causal factors with which it is concerned, not in terms of a domain.
  2. Economics has a distinct domain, in which its causal factors predominate.
  3. The “laws” of the predominating causal factors are already reasonably well-known.
  4. Thus, economic theory, which employs these laws, provides a unified, complete, but inexact account of its domain. (90-91)

These characteristics of economic theories and models have implications for several important areas: truth, prediction, explanation, and confirmation.  Is economics a scientific theory of existing observable economic phenomena?  Or is it an abstract, hypothetical model with only tangential implications for the observable social world?  Is economics an empirical science or a mathematical system?

Let’s look at these questions in turn.  First, can we give a good interpretation of what it would mean to believe that an inexact theory or law is “true”?  Here is a possible answer: we may believe that there are real but unobservable causal processes that “drive” social phenomena.  To say that a social or economic theory is true is to say that it correctly identifies a real causal process — whether or not that process operates with sufficient separation to give rise to strict empirical consequences.  Galilean laws of mechanics are true for falling objects, even if feathers follow unpredictable trajectories through turbulent gases.

Second, how can we reconcile the desire to use economic theories to make predictions about future states with the acknowledged inexactness of those theories and laws? If a theory includes hypotheses about underlying causal mechanisms that are true in the sense just mentioned, then a certain kind of prediction is justified as well: “in the absence of confounding causal factors, the presence of X will give rise to Y.” But of course this is a useless predictive statement in the current situation, since the whole point is that economic processes rarely or never operate in isolation. So we are more or less compelled to conclude that theories based on inexact laws are not a useable ground for empirical prediction.

Third, in what sense do the deductive consequences of an inexact theory “explain” a given outcome — either one that is consistent with those consequences or one that is inconsistent with the consequences? Here inexact laws are on stronger ground: after the fact, it is often possible to demonstrate that the mechanisms that led to an outcome are those specified by the theory. Explanation and prediction are not equIvalent. Natural selection explains the features of Darwin’s finches — but it doesn’t permit prediction of future evolutionary change.

And finally, what is involved in trying to use empirical data to confirm or disconfirm an inexact theory?  Given that we have stipulated that the theory has false consequences, we can’t use standard confirmation theory.  So what kind of empirical argument would help provide empirical evaluation of an inexact theory?  One possibility is that we might require that the predictions of the theory should fall within a certain range of the observable measurements — which is implied by the idea of “approximately true” consequences.  But actually, it is possible that we might hold that a given theory is inexact, true, and wildly divergent from observed experience.  (This would be true of the application of classical mechanics to the problem of describing the behavior of light, irregular objects shot out of guns under water.)  Hausman confronts this type of issue when he asks why we should believe that the premises of general equilibrium theory are true. But here too there are alternatives, including piecemeal confirmation of individual causal hypotheses. Hausman refers to this possibility as a version of Mill’s deductive method.

I take up some of these questions in my article, “Economic Models in Development Economics” link, included in On the Reliability of Economic Models: Essays in the Philosophy of Economics.  This article discusses some related questions about the reliability and applicability of computable general equilibrium models in application to the observed behavior of real economies.  Here are some concluding thoughts from that article concerning the empirical and logical features that are relevant to the assessment of CGE models:

“The general problem of the antecedent credibility of an economic model can be broken down into more specific questions concerning the validity, comprehensiveness, robustness, reliability, and autonomy of the model. I will define these concepts in the following terms.

  • Validity is a measure of the degree to which the assumptions employed in the construction of the model are thought to correspond to the real processes underlying the phenomena represented by the model.
  • Comprehensiveness is the degree to which the model is thought to succeed in capturing the major causal factors that influence the features of the behavior of the system in which we are interested.
  • Robustness is a measure of the degree to which the results of the model persist under small perturbations in the settings of parameters, formulation of equations, etc.
  • Autonomy refers to the stability of the model’s results in face of variation of contextual factors.
  • Reliability is a measure of the degree of confidence we can have in the data employed in setting the values of the parameters.

These are epistemic features of models that can be investigated more or less independently and prior to examination of the empirical success or failure of the predictions of the model.”

(Hausman’s book is virtually definitive in its formulation of the tasks and scope of the philosophy of economics.  When conjoined with the book he wrote with Michael McPherson, Economic Analysis, Moral Philosophy and Public Policy, the philosophy of economics itself becomes a “separate science”: virtually all the important questions are raised throughout a bounded domain, and a reasonable set of theories are offered to answer those questions.)

Piecemeal empirical assessment of social theories

The philosophy of science devotes a large fraction of its wattage to this question: what is the logic of empirical confirmation for scientific beliefs? (A good short introduction is Samir Okasha, Philosophy of Science: A Very Short Introduction.) In the natural sciences this question became entangled with the parochial fact about the natural sciences, that scientific theories postulated unobservable entities and processes and that the individual statements or axioms of a theory could not be separately confirmed or tested. So a logic of confirmation was developed according to which theories are empirically evaluated as wholes; we need to draw out a set of deductive or probabilistic consequences of the theory; observe the truth or falsity of these consequences based on experiment or observation; and then assign a degree of empirical credibility to the theory based on the success of the observational consequences. This could be put as a slogan: “No piecemeal confirmation of scientific beliefs!”

This is the familiar hypothetico-deductive model of confirmation (H-D), articulated most rigorously by Carl Hempel and criticized and amended by philosophers such as Karl Popper, Nelson Goodman, Norwood Hanson, and Imre Lakatos. These debates constituted most of the content of the evolution of positivist philosophy of science into post-positivist philosophy of science throughout the 1960s and 1970s.

I don’t want to dive into this set of debates, because I am interested in knowledge in the social sciences; and I don’t think that the theory-holism that this train of thought depends upon actually has much relevance for the social sciences. The H-D model of confirmation is approximately well suited — but only to a certain range of scientific areas of knowledge (mathematical physics, mostly). But the social sciences are not theoretical in the relevant sense. Social science “theories” are mid-level formulations about social mechanisms and structures; they are “theories of the middle range” (Robert Merton, On Theoretical Sociology). They often depend on formulations of ideal types of social entities or organizations of interest — and then concrete empirical investigation of specific organizations to determine the degree to which they conform or diverge from the ideal-typical features specified by the theory. And these mid-level theories and hypotheses can usually be empirically investigated fairly directly through chains of observations and inferences.

This is not a trivial task, of course, and there are all sorts of challenging methodological and conceptual issues that must be addressed as the researcher undertakes to consider whether the world actually conforms to the statements he/she makes about it. But it is logically very different from the holistic empirical evaluation that is required of the special theory of relativity or the string theory of fundamental physics. The language of hypothesis-testing is not quite right for most of the social sciences. Instead, the slogan for social science epistemology ought to be, “Hurrah, piecemeal empirical evaluation!”

I want to argue, further, that this epistemological feature of social knowledge is a derivative of some basic facts about social ontology: social processes, entities, and structures lack the rigidity and law-governedness that is characteristic of natural processes, entities, and structures. So general, universal theories of social entities that cover all instances are unlikely. But second, it is a feature of the accessibility of social things: we interact with social entities in a fairly direct manner, and these interactions permit us to engage in scientific observation of these entities in a way that permits the piecemeal empirical investigation that is highlighted here. And we can construct chains of observations and inferences from primary observations (entries in an archival source) to empirical estimates of a more abstract fact (the level of crop productivity in the Lower Yangzi in 1800).

Let’s say that we were considering a theory that social unrest was gradually rising in a region of China in the nineteenth century because of a gradual shift in the sex ratios found in rural society. The connection between sex ratios and social unrest isn’t directly visible; but we can observe features of both ends of the equation. So we can gather population and family data from registries and family histories; we can gather information about social unrest from gazettes and other local sources; and we can formulate subsidiary theories about the social mechanisms that might connect a rising male-female ratio to the incidence of social unrest. In other words — we can directly investigate each aspect of the hypothesis (cause, effect, mechanism), and we can put forward an empirical argument in favor of the hypothesis (or critical of the hypothesis).

This is an example of what I mean by “piecemeal empirical investigation”. And the specific methodologies of the various social and historical sciences are largely devoted to the concrete tasks of formulating and gathering empirical data in the particular domain. Every discipline is concerned to develop methods of empirical inquiry and evaluation; but, I hold, the basic logic of inquiry and evaluation is similar across all disciplines. The common logic is piecemeal inquiry and evaluation.

(I find Tom Kelly’s article on “Evidence” in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy to be a better approach to justification in the social sciences than does the hypothetico-deductive model of confirmation, and one that is consistent with this piecemeal approach to justification. Kelly also reviews the essentials of H-D confirmation theory.)

Realism for the social sciences?

Scientific realism is the idea that scientific theories provide descriptions of the world that are approximately true. This view implies a correspondence theory of truth — the idea that the world is separate from the concepts that we use to describe it. And it implies some sort of theory of scientific rationality — a theory of the grounds that we have for believing or accepting the findings of a given area of science. (See a brief article on the basics of scientific realism including some useful references here.) Realism, objectivity, and facts go together. We can interpret a theory realistically just in case we believe that there is a fact of the matter concerning the assertions contained in the theory. (See earlier postings relevant to this topic, Concepts and the World and Social Construction.)

Realism raises all kinds of interesting questions when we consider applying it to the social sciences. For one thing, it requires a useable distinction between the world and the knower. This raises the question: is there an objective social world independent from the perceptions and concepts of observers? And this also is a complicated question, because the persons who make up social processes at the micro-level are themselves “knowers” of the social world. So there is a question about the objectivity of the social world and a corresponding question about social construction of social reality. If all social phenomena are socially constructed, then how can it be the case that some statements about social phenomena are objective and independent from the conceptual schemes of the observer?

Scientific realism got its impetus from the fact that physical theories invoke theoretical concepts that are not themselves directly observational — muon, gravity wave, gene (at an early stage of biology). So the question arose, what is the status of the reference and truth of scientific sentences that include non-observational concepts — for example, “muons have a negative electric charge and a spin of -1/2”? Since we can’t directly inspect muons and measure their charge and spin, sentences like this depend for their empirical confirmation on their logical relationships to larger bits of physical theory — and ultimately upon a measure of the overall degree to which this physical theory issues true experimental and observational predictions. And the empirical confirmation of the theory as a whole, the story goes, provides a rational basis for assigning a reference and truth value to its constituent sentences. So the fact that “muon” is embedded within a mathematical theory of subatomic reality and the theory is well confirmed by experimental means, gives us reason to believe that muons exist and possess approximately the characteristics attributed to them by muon theory.

But all of this has to do with esoteric physical theory. Is there any relevant application of realism in the social sciences? Here’s one important difference: the social sciences are barely “theoretical” at all in the sense associated with the natural sciences. The concepts that play central roles in social theories — charisma, bureaucratic state, class, power — aren’t exactly “theoretical” in the sense of being non-observational. And social concepts aren’t defined implicitly, in terms of the role that they play in an extended formal theoretical structure. Rather, we can give a pretty good definition of social concepts in terms of behavior and common-sense attributes of social entities. In the social sciences we don’t find the conceptual holism that Duhem and Quine attributed to the natural sciences (Pierre Duhem, The Aim and Structure of Physical Theory; W. V. O. Quine, Word and Object). Instead, both meaning and confirmation can proceed piecemeal. So if realism were primarily a doctrine about the interpretation of theoretical terms, there wouldn’t be much need for it in the social sciences.

But here are several specific ways in which scientific realism is useful in the social sciences, I think. And they all have to do with the kinds of statements in the social sciences that we think can be interpreted as expressing facts about the world, independent of our theories and concepts.

Causal realism. We can be realist about the meaning of assertions about causation and causal mechanisms. We can take the position that there is a fact of the matter as to whether X caused Y in the circumstances, and we can assert the objective reality of social causal mechanisms. On the realist interpretation, social causal mechanisms exist in the social world — they are not simply constructs of the observer’s conceptual scheme. And the statement that “Q is the process through which X causes Y” makes a purportedly objective and observer-independent claim about Q; it is an objective social process, and it conveys causation from X to Y. Q is the causal mechanism underlying the causal relationship between X and Y.

Structure realism. We can be realist about the existence of extended social entities and structures — for example, “the working class,” “the American Congress,” “the movement for racial equality.” These social entities and structures have some curious ontological characteristics — it is difficult to draw boundaries between members of the working class and the artisan class, so the distinctness of the respective classes is at risk; institutions like the Congress change over time; a social movement may be characterized in multiple and sometimes incompatible ways; and social entities don’t fall into “kinds” that are uniform across settings. But surely it is compelling to judge that the Civil Rights movement was an objective fact in the 1960s or that the Congress exists and is a partisan environment. And this is a version of social realism.

Social-relations realism. If we say that “Pierre is actively involved in a network of retired French military officers”, we refer to a set of social relations encapsulated under the concept of a social network and composed of many pair-wise social relations. Here too we can take the perspective of social realism. It seems unproblematic to postulate the objective reality of both the pair-wise social relations and the aggregate network that these constitute. Each level of social relationship can be investigated empirically (we can discover that Pierre has regular interactions with Jean but not with Claude), and it seems unproblematic to judge that there is a fact of the matter about the existence and properties of the network — independent of the assumptions and concepts of the observer.

Meaning realism. Now, how about the hardest case: meanings and the objectivity of interpretation. Can we say that there is ever a fact of the matter about the interpretation of an action or thought? When Thaksin offends Charat by exposing the bottoms of his feet to him — can we say that “Charat’s angry reaction is the result of the meaning of this insulting gesture in Thai culture”? Even here, it is credible to me that there is a basis for saying that this judgment expresses an objective fact (even if it is a fact about subjective experience); and therefore, we can interpret this sentence along realist lines: “Thaksin’s gesture was objectively offensive to Charat in the setting of Thai culture.” It is evident that many of our interpretations of behavior and action are substantially underdetermined by context and evidence; so it may be that much interpretation of meaning does not constitute a “fact of the matter.” But this seems to be a fact about particular judgments rather than a universal feature of the interpretation of meanings.

So it seems that it is feasible and useful to take a social realist perspective on many of the assertions and theories of the social sciences; and what this says, is that we can interpret social science statements as being approximately true of a domain of social phenomena that have objective properties (i.e. properties that are independent from our conceptualization of them).

The "dis"-unity of social science

One of the central goals of Vienna Circle philosophy of science was the idea of the unity of science. The idea included at least two separable parts: methodological unity and unity of content under a single system of laws. On the methodological side there was the idea that the logic of explanation and confirmation should be the same in all the empirical sciences. If there were to be differences across disciplines, these should be heuristic rather than epistemic differences. (Jordi Cat provides an extensive discussion of the unity of science doctrine in an article in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.)

The more basic goal for unity was the idea of a single comprehensive theory that would, in principle, provide the foundation for the theories of all the special sciences. Physics was the intended foundation, and the goal was to demonstrate that all the fields of the natural sciences could be derived in principle from the laws of physics. For example, the hope was that the properties and laws of chemical elements and molecules should be derivable from fundamental physics.

The reasons for wanting to see a unified physical theory were a preference for parsimony and simplicity and a metaphysical conviction that all of nature must really derive from a single set of fundamental laws.

The fate of the unity of science doctrine can be pursued elsewhere. Here the question is whether there is a similar aspiration for the social sciences. The parallel principle could be stated along these lines: there should be some set of basic facts about individuals in social interactions that is sufficient to permit one to derive all varieties of social behavior, given relevant knowledge about context and boundary conditions.

The attractions of such a unified social science are the same as in the natural science case: parsimony, simplicity, and comprehensiveness. And, in fact, unifying theories for social explanation are sometimes advanced. The most thorough-going attempt is the effort by rational choice theory and microeconomics to unify all social action as the consequence of preference-maximizing individual rationality within constraints.

Attractive as this effort might be from an abstract or aesthetic perspective, it is profoundly misguided when if comes to understanding society. Social phenomena are not the law-governed consequences of a few underlying facts and features of individuals. Rather, they are the contingent and mixed results of an inherently heterogeneous set of motives, psychologies, and institutions. The fundamental problem is that the social world is not a system at all in the natural science sense. Instead, it is the contingent and dynamic sum of a variety of shifting processes and contexts.

A better metaphor for the social world — better than the metaphor of a table of billiard balls governed by the laws of mechanics — is a large urban flea market. The wares on sale on a particular Saturday are simply the sum of the accidents of circumstance that led a collection of sellers to converge on that particular day. There are some interesting regularities that emerge over time — in the spring one finds more used lawnmowers and in times of dearth one finds more family treasures. These regularities require explanation. But they do not derive from some governing “law of flea markets” that might be discovered. Instead, the flea market and the larger society are, alike, simply the aggregate result of large numbers of actions, motives, circumstances, and structures that turn kaleidoscopically and produce patterned but non-lawlike outcomes.

So where does this take us with regard to “unified social science”? It leads us to expect something else entirely: rather than unity, we should expect eclectic theories, piecemeal explanations, and a patchwork of inquiries at a range of levels of description. Some explanatory theories will turn out to be more portable than others. But none will be comprehensive, and the social sciences will always remain open-ended and extensible. Instead of theoretical unification we might rather look for a more and more satisfactory coverage, through a range of disciplines and methods, of the aspects of the social world we judge most interesting and important. And these judgments can be trusted to shift over time. And this means that we should be skeptical about the appropriateness of the goal of creating a unified social science.

(See an earlier posting on “Coverage of the Social Sciences” for more relevant comments on this topic.)

How does philosophy help guide the sciences?

Philosophy observes the sciences. But it has also played a role in the formation of the sciences. And this is especially true in the case of the social sciences.

The idea here is an elusive one. It is that the founders of the social sciences – perhaps similar to all intellectual or creative founders – possessed framing assumptions, presuppositions, or intuitions about what their eventual product ought to look like. Various ideas capture some of this: presupposition, paradigm, guiding framework, tacit knowledge, or “style”. A style of technology or architecture is a “mindset” that guides the creator into affirming one set of choices and denying another; ruling out certain solutions to a problem while favoring others. And many of these ideas derived from philosophy — for example, empiricism, rationalism, deductivism, atomism, or reductionism.

The nineteenth- and twentieth-century founders of the social sciences had a set of intellectual interests that led them to ask questions about the way that society works. They were led to engage in careful, disciplined study of social phenomena. But how to proceed? What should the results look like? What modes of explanation should be pursued? What should they expect to find? None of the founders proceeded with a “blank slate”. Instead, they were guided by specific intellectual hunches and presuppositions about what a scientific treatment of a subject ought to involve. The histories of physics, chemistry, and biology were very well known to the founders, and the chief logical characteristics of the science of these domains were also well understood. The “stylized facts” about what a domain of inquiry is and what a scientific study of a domain involves were fairly specific. It turns out that these facts were misleading in deep and broad ways when applied to the social world. And contemporary sociology continues to bear the imprint of these early presuppositions.

We might be tempted to call these assumptions about domain, method, and theory a “paradigm”, but it is better to think of them as constituting a “proto-paradigm”. “Paradigm” describes a more advanced stage of the formation of a field of knowledge. The framing ideas that guided the founders were less specific; they represented high-level, abstract presuppositions about the nature of science and the nature of any subject matter that is amenable to scientific study and explanation. They constitute a framework of advanced commonsense about the subject matter. We might describe this framework as a “folk philosophy of knowledge” that is to some extent unexamined but that guides the pursuit of knowledge, the form that it takes, and the ways in which it is evaluated.

Given these historical circumstances, naturalism as a “proto-paradigm” for the social sciences is unsurprising—even though it is profoundly misleading. The strongest — really, the only — examples of scientific achievement in the nineteenth century were in the fields of chemistry, physics, medicine, and biology. There was a developed “proto-theory” of nature that was the object of scientific study (the characteristics and metaphysics of law-governed natural phenomena). The natural world was conceived of as a system of law-governed events and processes. And the logical characteristics of natural science theory were reasonably well understood as well: induction, discovery of laws and regularities, explanation through assimilation within a set of natural laws, confirmation.

There is a fundamental problem with this set of “naturalistic” presuppositions: social phenomena are constituted by a fundamentally different ontology. “Agents in structures” are the fundamental “molecules” of social life — and this ontology should not be expected to give rise to strong regularities. Instead, we should expect a substantial amount of heterogeneity and plasticity among social entities and processes, and we should expect contingency and path-dependency in the unfolding of social phenomena.

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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