Coverage of the social sciences

Suppose we took the view that the social sciences ought to provide sufficient conceptual and methodological tools to analyze and explain any kind of social behavior. This would be a certain kind of completeness: not theoretical or explanatory completeness, in the sense of having a finished set of theories that can explain everything, but conceptual completeness, in the sense that there are sufficient conceptual resources to give a basis for describing every form of social behavior, and methodological completeness, in the sense that for every possible research question there are starting point for inquiry in the social sciences. And, finally, suppose we stipulate that there are always new hypotheses to be discovered and new theories to be invented.

If this is one of the ultimate aspirations for the social sciences, then we can ask — how close is the current corpus of social science research and knowledge to this goal?

One possible answer is that we have already reached this goal. The conceptual resources of anthropology, economics, political science, and sociology serve as a “fish-scale” system of conceptual coverage that gives us a vocabulary for describing any possible configuration of social behavior. And the most basic ideas about empirical research, causal reasoning, hypothetical thinking, and interpretation of meaning give us a preliminary basis for probing and investigating any of the “new” phenomena we might discover.

Another possible answer goes in the opposite direction. The concepts of the social science disciplines are parochial and example-based. When new forms of social interaction emerge we will need new concepts on the basis of which to describe and represent these social behaviors. So concepts and empirical knowledge must go hand in hand, and new discoveries will stimulate new concepts as well.

Consider this thought experiment. Suppose the social sciences had developed to this point minus micro-economics. The reduced scheme would involve many aspects of behavior and thought, but it would have omitted the category of “rational self-interest.” Is this a possible scenario? Would the reduced set be complete in the sense described above? And what kind of discovery would be required in order for these alternative-world social scientists to progress?

The incompleteness of alternative-world social science is fairly evident. There would be important ranges of behavior that would be inscrutable without the concept of rational self-interest (market equilibria, free-rider problems). And the solution would appear fairly evident as well. These gaps in explanatory scope would lead investigators to ask, what is the hidden factor we are not considering? And they would be led to discover the concept of rational self-interest.

The moral seems to be this: it is always possible that new discoveries of anomalous phenomena will demonstrate the insufficiency of the current conceptual scheme. And therefore there is never a point at which we can declare that science is now complete, and no new concepts will be needed.

At the same time, we do in fact have a rough-and-ready pragmatic confidence that the social sciences as an extended body of theories, concepts, and results have pretty well covered the primary scope of human behavior. And this suggests a vision of the way the social sciences cover the domain of the social as well: not as a comprehensive deductive theory but rather as an irregular, overlapping collection of concepts, methods, and theories — a set of fish-scales rather than an architect’s blueprint for all social phenomena.

Area studies and social science knowledge

How do the social sciences complement the study of particular regions and cultures? How do the researches and theories of political science, sociology, or anthropology extend our understanding of China or Mexico?

There is one answer to this question that can be disposed of fairly quickly: many sociologists, economists, or political scientists are also specialists on China or Mexico. In this case the social scientist finds his/her empirical data in a particular place — and the research findings produced through this specialized inquiry is a substantive contribution to understanding of the particular region. In this sense the specialist is a contributor to the area studies literature on China or Mexico (or Latin America and East Asia).

But area studies is more than simply the accumulation of knowledge of a region based on several distinct disciplines. Somehow we think that area studies researchers need to be inter-disciplinary experts. The scholar of East Asia needs to be able to synthesize the best
available insights from a range of disciplines. When we ask, what are the important processes underway in China today, we want to have a response that incorporates observations and judgments that include sociology, popular culture, economic policy, demography, and urban change. So an area specialist is not primarily a discipline specialist — even though he/she normally has received primary training in one discipline or another. Instead, the area specialist is a specialist of the region, encompassing all its social and cultural aspects.

Put this way, are there any genuine area experts? There are some leading writers on China whose work is interdisciplinary in a meaningful way — Ezra Vogel, for example. And there are journalists who have developed broad and deep knowledge about Africa, Latin America, or East Asia. However, as a general rule, the deck is stacked against the “discipline-generalist, region-specialist” combination. This has partly to do with the discipline-based standards of rigor that define scholarly excellence; partly the sheer difficulty of mastering multiple areas of disciplinary knowledge; and partly with the epistemic value that we associate with detail and precision over breadth and lower resolution.

So if a real “area specialist” is likely to be a rare creature, what should we look for when we want knowledge of a region or area? The most promising answer is the inter-disciplinary working group and the inter-disciplinary scholarly association. A center for Chinese studies is likely to include experts across the social sciences and humanities; and they are all likely to acquire new perspectives through their cross-discipline interactions. And perhaps the best knowledge we can reach about a region and culture is the multithreaded fabric that emerges from the research seminars and writings emanating from the area-studies working group. Certainly organizations like the Asian Studies Association and the Middle Eastern Studies Association have proven their worth in bringing together a variety of disciplines and perspectives on their regions; and arguably, the scholars who participate in these associations have come to a broader perspective on their own particular areas of research.

So, once again, what is the relation between knowledge of a region and knowledge of a social science discipline? The area specialist needs to be informed by the best social science knowledge of the region. Second, he/she needs to be fluent with the best models and theories being developed in the social sciences, in order to be able to use these theories in explaining various patterns or developments in the region of interest. But, third, the area specialist should keep always in mind the cross-disciplinary nature of the subject matter. It is important not to be seduced by the power of the hammer, into thinking everything is a nail.

The social science disciplines

The social sciences consist of a variety of disciplines, subject areas, and methods, and there is no reason to expect that these disciplines will eventually add up to a single unified theory of society. Political science, sociology, history, anthropology, economics, geography, and area studies all provide their own, largely independent, definitions of scope, research agenda, and research methods. And there is no grand plan according to which the disciplinary definitions jointly capture all that is of scientific interest about the social.

History rather than logic explains the particular configuration of social science disciplines that we now face. The major social science disciplines have grown up in the past century and a half by creating stylized answers to these topic areas: the “political” concerns institutions of coercion and governance; the “economic” has to do with production, exchange, and distribution of goods and services; the “anthropological” has to do with the cultures, values, and practices through which individuals and groups conduct their local lives. Area studies are defined according to a different axis; Asian studies or Latin American studies demand that we cut the social differently: not from the point of view of social domains, but from the point of view of geographical complexes of related social, cultural, economic, political, and normative regimes.

At the same time, we as “users” of the results of social inquiry have no inherent interest in the intra- and inter-disciplinary debates that have led to the constitution of the disciplines of the social sciences as they currently exist. The social world does not come to us labeled as “political,” “economic,” or “ethnographic.” We ordinary citizens have questions that cut across these boundaries recklessly: Why does the US state so commonly ignore the needs of poor people? Why are Indonesian rice farmers reluctant to make use of HYV rice strains? Why did the hi-tech bubble occur in the American economy in the 1990s? How do police departments succeed in recruiting good potential officers? When is the practice of charitable giving most likely to thrive or falter? Why did the Chinese Communist revolution occur? Why did it succeed? Note what a mixture of topics, human interactions, and methodologies is invoked by this collection of questions. Some of these queries raise the question of why individuals behaved as they did; some focus on group action, while others single out individual choices; some have to do with the institutions within which individuals live; some suggest turning to ethnography, comparative economics, or political science; and so forth.

The upshot is this: Users of the social sciences have a different way of parsing “the social” than is found in academic social science. We are interested in human agency and behavior — individual and collective. We are interested in the ways social relations and institutions work, and how they affect the behavior and choices of the individuals who operate within them. We are interested in how large agglomerations of human activity work — how they emerge, how they behave over time, and how they go wrong (cities, states, corporations, networks of friends, …), and we are interested in the dynamics of face-to-face social interaction.

This suggests that new thinking about the social sciences needs to start with the idea of acquiring a strong commitment to interdisciplinary study of common social topics.

(Here are several other posts on “social science disciplines” (tag).)

Basis for the social science disciplines

Is there a reason or rationale underlying the scope and methods of the social science disciplines? Or is the current division of the subject matter arbitrary and contingent on accidents in the history of thought (as perhaps Michel Foucault believes in The Archeology of Knowledge and The Discourse on Language)?

There are abbreviated definitions of the subject matters of sociology, political science, of economics — “Sociology is the study of groups and norms,” “political science is the study of the institutions and behavior through which political decisions are made,” “economics is the study of rational behavior in the context of scarcity”. And likewise for the core methods of inquiry and explanation. But the questions remain: Is this a logical way of covering the domain of possible inquiry?Are there areas of phenomena that are overlooked in this taxonomy? And pragmatically–is this combination of topics, scopes, and methods likely to solve the problems of explanation and policy to which we would like the social sciences to contribute?

It is worth noticing in this discussion that each of the core disciplines of the social sciences is actually an umbrella encompassing a wide range of sub-disciplines, and these sub-disciplines themselves show significant variation in assumptions about subject matter, ontology, and methodology. Within political science, for example, there are wide rifts between new institutionalists, rational choice theorists, comparativists, area specialists, and American politics specialists, and there is no common perspective that gives substantial coherence across these divides. Similar observations are true of economics, anthropology, and sociology as well.

So how should we begin to analyze the status and adequacy of the current definitions of the social science disciplines?

What would we want from a division of the disciplines in a large field of study (biology, physics, social science, psychology)? This is an epistemic question: we want to know how best to go about acquiring knowledge about a broad domain of phenomena. We would want to be sure that the most fundamental processes and the most practically important phenomena are given close scrutiny. We would want to be sure that there are a variety of methods of inquiry that are well designed and effective in probing the nature of the phenomena under study. And, of course, we would want the disciplines to be organized in such a way that practitioners are motivated and evaluated towards valid discovery. Finally, it would appear logical that we would want there to be mechanisms of scientific communication through which discoveries and insights in one discipline may inform or deepen the discoveries of other neighboring disciplines.

This last point deserves emphasis. Disciplines provide focus; they encourage researchers to dig deeply into the specialized problems and methods that have been defined by the discipline. But it is also true that specialization creates tunnel vision — with the result that scientific understanding of a complex phenomenon may miss essential parts of the process because they overlap disciplinary definitions of subject matter. So a logical expectation of the organization of scientific knowledge would presumably include a process through which interdisciplinary sharing is encouraged and facilitated.

It needs also to be noted that it is entirely possible for a discipline to be mis-conceived. The founders may have taken a wrong turn in highlighting what appeared to be the most important phenomena and mechanisms; the discipline may have adopted methodological commitments that were fashionable at a time but poorly fitted to the research problems of the subject matter (extreme behaviorism in psychology, for example); the disciplinary institutions (journals, universities) may have designed procedures of peer review that were discouraging to genuine progress in the discipline’s ability to gain knowledge about the subject matter.

There are many threads that this subject opens. But a few preliminary observations are justified. First, it is worth observing that the social world does not come to us with a prior division of phenomena into “economic,” “ethnographic,” or “sociological.” So the social world itself does not dictate the way in which we parcel out research problems across specialists. Almost all social phenomena have dimensions of each of these characteristics, and the methods of each of these disciplines are relevant to inquiry and explanation of a single phenomenon. So the insistence on using only the methods of one’s discipline in analyzing a complex social phenomenon is a problem–along the lines of the saying that “to a person with a hammer, everything looks like a nail”. Second, it is noteworthy that each of the major social science disciplines has undergone harsh “methodology wars” in the past several decades–between rational choice theory and more empirical research in political science, between quantitative and qualitative researchers in sociology, or between interpretive and materialist ethnography methods. Are these disputes productive of further discovery into the workings of the social world? It is not evident that they are. And third, the points made above about the general utility of interdisciplinary communication and collaboration seem especially applicable to the social sciences. Given the inherently complex and mixed nature of social phenomena, surely the social sciences would benefit from a greater degree of interdisciplinarity and mutual respect. Pluralism in theory and method would seem to best serve the goals of the social sciences.

(See Andrew Abbott, Chaos of Disciplines, for a lively and illuminating examination of the social science disciplines.)

A simple sociology

What is involved in providing a scientific study of society–a scientific sociology?

Several features of science are crucial. Scientific claims are intended to be true and rationally supportable. Scientific knowledge is based on empirical research and rigorous reasoning. Science provides a basis for explaining the phenomena it considers. And science depends upon the idea of critical research communities: peers and collaborators who challenge, test, evaluate, and extend a set of results. In addition to these core features, positivist philosophers have added a few features drawn from the experience of the natural sciences. These observers hold that science involves the discovery of strong generalizations and laws that describe and govern empirical phenomena; that explanation means subsumption under some of these laws; and that natural phenomena constitute a law-governed, interconnected system.

Positivism is a poor theory of the social sciences, because the phenomena of social life do not conform to the law-governed ontology stipulated for natural phenomena. But let us stick with the minimal set of features and consider what kind of science is possible for social life.

First, sociology involves description. Social phenomena are observable, and it is straightforward to design rigorous research efforts aimed at establishing the facts about a particular domain. This aspect of sociology involves rigorous empirical study of social phenomena. Examples of descriptive research include ethnographic research and micro-sociology along the lines of the Chicago School. But large-scale description is feasible as well, including empirical description of large social patterns and institutions.

Descriptive findings often take the form of statistical estimates of the frequency of a feature within a group–for example, rates of suicide among Protestants (Durkheim). Properties may be correlated with one another within a given population; variation in one variable may be associated with variation in another variable. Descriptive research can thus sometimes reveal patterns of behavior or social outcomes–for example, patterns of habitation and health status. And patterns such as these invite efforts to find causal relationships among the characteristics enumerated.

Second, sociology involves discovery of social causation and mechanisms. Is there such a thing as social causation? What does social causation derive from? What is the ontology of “social necessity” (analogous to natural necessity)–the way in which one set of circumstances “brings about” another set of outcomes? In general we can begin with an ontology grounded in purposive social action by agents within institutional settings and environments. Social causation derives from the patterns of behavior that are produced in this setting. (For example, we can explain the degradation of environmental quality of a common resource as the consequence of free-riding behavior.)

Third, sociology can provide explanations of some social outcomes as a causal consequence of proposed social mechanisms. Once we have a generic idea of what social causal mechanisms look like, we can turn to specifics and try to discover the processes through which behavior is created and constrained. So we can try to discover or hypothesize the mechanisms through which tropical agriculture tends to under-serve farmers (Bates). Social theories are hypotheses about social causal mechanisms; so theories provide a basis for explanation of social phenomena.

Research and explanation along these lines creates major and visible limitations on the degree of systematicity, interconnection, and determination that sould be expected of social phenomena. The social world is highly contingent, the product of many independent actors. So we should only expect a weak degree of systematic variation among social phenomena.

Finally, the epistemic setting provided by the disciplinary institutions offers a basis for estimating the rational credibility of social science knowledge: journals, peer review, tenure evaluation. Social research and explanation remains fairly close to the level of the facts. Researchers in the disciplines and sub-disciplines are charged to test and explore the empirical and theoretical claims of their peers.

The results of a science including these components will be empirically disciplined, theoretically eclectic, and systemically modest. The goal of providing an over-arching theory that demonstrates the systematic integration of the social is abandoned.

(It is worth noting that there is a period in the history of sociology when the epistemic values of the discipline were most consistent with this view. That was the period of the Chicago School. See Andrew Abbott’s Department and Discipline: Chicago Sociology at One Hundred).

Sociology as a social science discipline

Sociology is one of the core disciplines of the social sciences, along with political science, economics and anthropology. So one might imagine that it is a coherent, unified, and comprehensive science with a well-defined subject matter and a clear set of methods. But as most practitioners will agree, this is not the case. And that is a good thing, because the social world is not a unified system that can be reduced to a small number of theoretical premises.

Since its founding (or emergence?) in the nineteenth century, sociology has taken on a somewhat meandering set of topics for study: classification of whole societies, analysis of large social factors (race, crime, urbanization), study of the behavior of groups, provision of tools for social policy design, and study of particular institutions, social movements, globalization, and the organization of businesses. In 2007 the American Sociological Association includes 44 sections devoted to particular topics and methods. The methods of inquiry and the models of explanation are equally varied, including quantitative analysis of large data sets, small-N comparisons, micro-sociological investigation, process-tracing, Marxism, functionalism, structuralism, and feminism.

What does this diversity of topic, method, and theory imply about the discipline of sociology today? Is it a unified discipline, or a patch-work melange of many topics and approaches, unified only by the fact that the subjects of investigation have to do with social processes and social behavior? One possible interpretation is that the vast range of potential research subjects for sociology are covered by this patchwork structure. Another possibility is that the current range of sub-disciplines is itself the product of many “random walks” down particular research approaches, with heavy coverage of some areas of potential research, sporadic coverage of some problems and no attention at all to other problems. The latter possibility suggests in turn that there is ample room for future development of sociological research, in the formulation of new empirical problems and new theoretical approaches. The discipline of sociology can continue to evolve and grow — possibly in ways that lead to significant innovation in approach and explanatory strategy.

An earlier posting on “Racial Inequalities” illustrates this point well. There is no single methodology or theory that is uniquely suited to attempting to understand the racial outcomes that we observe in American society. Instead, we need to combine the insights of many fields and approaches, in order to have a basis for explaining the patterns of segregation and inequality that we observe.

The diversity and multi-dimensional aspects of contemporary sociology is in fact a scientific advantage, in my view. This aspect of the discipline permits researchers to seek innovative approaches and innovative explanations of the social phenomena that they consider. In fact, it is the occasional impulse towards trying to make the discipline “more scientific” by enforcing a paradigm of research and theory on junior researchers that is most debilitating to the progress of knowledge — whether it is the rational choice paradigm in political science, Marxism in Chinese social science, or the quantitative methods paradigm in sociology. Methodological and theoretical pluralism is an intellectual advantage. Sociological researchers who are receptive to analyzing the multiple aspects of a social problem from several different points of view are more likely to arrive at truly illuminating analysis. Not all these approaches will be equally fruitful; but a mixed “portfolio” of research strategies and theoretical models is more likely to be adequate to the messy reality of a changing social world.

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