This post shifts focus slightly to consider social science and some of the key ideas I’ve considered over recent years and begun to embrace regarding the goals of social science, social research practices, and some philosophical aspects of such inquiry. Amongst other considerations, my current view is that social inquiry should have explanatory aims; can be enhanced by grounding explanations in microfoundations; should be nondoctrinaire in approach; and in some situations, have an applied orientation.
These dimensions are briefly outlined and discussed/considered below:
What does social science do for us? I believe a core objective of social scientists should be to conduct analysis that “opens up the “black box” of social life” (Camic et al, 2011, p.8), going beyond the description of facts (i.e. beyond a journalistic approach). What does this mean? In an abstract sense, it means going simple input/output models to identify intermediary and mediating processes and actions that give rise to social outcomes (Camic et al., 2011; Gross, 2009). Use of the metaphor of ‘opening the black box’ in fields like STS is related to situations where the ‘inner workings’ of something is viewed as opaque or obscured: if something is black-boxed its inner workings and complexity is opaque e.g. to users (link).
Key products of the social sciences are, according to this view, explanations of social life and social outcomes (e.g. explaining observed social behaviour, or social trends, etc) and related insights that help to reveal aspects of reality that otherwise would be opaque or remain hidden. A related claim is that the inner workings of social worlds tend to be opaque unless social scientists study them. Such inquiry also views causal explanation as the central form of social explanation, but it doesn’t expect the causal relations involved to be like strict and predictive laws of nature. The latter aspect is consistent with post-positivistic social science, given that I agree that social scientists shouldn’t “aim to identify universal causal laws of social life” (Gross, 2009, p.358). It also points to related issues with the covering law theory of explanation (see Godrey-Smith, 2003 – Chapter 13).
For example, sociologists have found that many forms of social inequality are enduring despite various efforts to reduce it (Rojas, 2017). Why? Why are social groups that have advantages (e.g. in terms of resources, status, etc) able to reproduce their advantages and thereby reinforce social inequalities? An input/output style model would only identify uneven resources and social advantage (inputs) and continuing social inequality (output). Moves to ‘open the black box’ necessitate exploration of how and why social inequality is maintained – despite efforts to counter it – typically in terms of the contingent causal mechanisms giving rise to such social outcomes. Whilst some aspects may seem obvious, many aspects of the myriad causal processes that are involved aren’t readily observable and their complexity requires careful study to identify and understand them.
Another example is group dynamics. Much of social life is spent in groups of various kinds. Social scientists have sought be understand the processes and actions which shape group formation, evolution and outcomes. An interesting example is group polarisation (Sunstein, 2009), an empirical pattern whereby deliberation in groups often moves opinion towards a more extreme point in the same direction of pre-deliberation views/judgements when like-minded folk get together. For example, if a group of climate skeptics get together it’s likely that – following deliberation – group members’ doubts about climate science will strengthen. The previous sentence is put in input (like-minded people deliberating on a topic) and output (more extreme views) terms. Scholars of group dynamics try to go further to identify the causal mechanisms giving rise to these social outcomes and, in doing so, help to open the ‘black box’ of social life (in group contexts).
Increasingly the nuts and bolts of such explanations are social and cognitive mechanisms which interact and are context-sensitive (not rigidly defined causal laws).
Microfoundationalism as a guiding explanatory strategy
As philosopher of the social sciences Daniel Little asserts, “microfoundationalism is not a general requirement on social explanation. It is rather one explanatory strategy out of many” (link). Little notes elsewhere that the idea of “microfoundations” posits that when seeking to understand social outcomes our explanations should be grounded in an understanding of the individual actors involved and the key choices they made in structured circumstances. Similarly, sociologist Neil Gross argues that “meso- and macrolevel social phenomena are constituted out of the actions and interactions of individual persons and that understanding individual-level action — its nature and phenomenology and the conditions and constraints under which it unfolds — is helpful for constructing theories of higher order phenomena” (link). Gross also suggests that there is a need for more reflection on the way we conceive of the individual social actor and the ‘worlds’ they inhabit.
For example, sociological theories and explanations typically assume some conception of human nature and behaviour, such as theories which present human beings as easily socialised (or not), as having strong (or weak) group identification tendencies, and human action as having strong (or weak) instrumentality (Rojas, 2017). Similarly, as I explored in my PhD thesis, some sociologists emphasise habituality, arguing that human beings tend to mobilise habits when confronting everyday problem situations. I found such actor theories to be useful as they aided development of explanatory inferences which I then further assessed against empirical data.
In saying the above I’m certainly not wanting to imply that I believe these considerations are more important than the social structures that form the context for thinking and action.
I have become increasingly suspicious of doctrinaire social research devoted to a particular doctrine or theory (e.g. a scholar who defines themselves as a Marxist scholar, etc, or who locates their work within a single rigidly-defined ‘school of thought’). There are a few key reasons for this.
First, as sociologist Fabio Rojas suggests in his book Theory for the Working Sociologist, “the complexity of the social world” is likely to “exceed the capacity of a theory to capture that complexity” (p.xxiv). Related to this he makes the key point that “an overly strong commitment to a single theory can hamper research” (Rojas, 2017, pxxiii). In this view social theory should be treated “more like a toolbox or playbook of ideas” (p.xxi) which is creatively used and frequently modified in practice, and social research involves a somewhat messy element of “puzzle solving”, zeroing-in on “the point of contact between theories and empirical data” (p.xxii). This description of social theory and social research is consistent with how I approached my doctoral research. I found this kind of eclectic approach to be particularly useful for explanatory case studies where over-time explanatory interferences are formed and examined (in contrast to hypothetico-deductivism).
Philosophy of science Peter Godfrey-Smith explains this as follows: the researcher develops an explanatory inference “from a set of data to a hypothesis about a structure or process that would explain the data”. He differentiates explanatory inferences from inductive inferences; the latter, inductive inferences, involve inference from particular cases to generalizations” (Godrey-Smith, 2003, pp.190-191).
Second, consistent with the concerns of some classical pragmatists, I also worry that rigid commitment to a fixed doctrine and/or a priori positions reduces openness to incoming data (of various sorts) particularly if data conflicts with these positions. Similarly, John McDermott of Texas A&M University notes the issue of being locked into what he terms “conceptual schemas” (link). He suggests that adopting a “pragmatic sensibility” involves a heightened awareness of such issues, more tentative styles of action, and a broad commitment to fallibilism. On these points I believe the pragmatists were on to something important, as was Bertrand Russell when he wrote about how “dogmatic assurance” often “closes the mind against speculation”.
A wider concern of mine is the many ways that research can be influenced by politics. This is a complex topic. By raising this concern I’m not suggesting that researchers shouldn’t have (or be motivated by) political views (as if this would be possible!), nor am I suggesting that such views shouldn’t inform their research (e.g. topic selection, etc). The issue is subtler. A key dimension is the role of values in research, in particular whether they influence the empirical claims that are made (Douglas, 2009). This can happen in subtle ways such as where values influence survey designs or interview methods and consequently research findings. I’ve also seen examples where the outcomes of a study are strongly influenced by the researchers’ values and politics. These issues appear to be more prevalent and problematic in doctrinaire research. Where values inappropriately influence research this raises major concerns about the reliability of knowledge (Douglas, 2009).
In some situations, an applied orientation (applied social research)
A second aspect of classical pragmatism I find interesting is the emphasis placed on the relations between inquiry, thought and action. As philosopher Peter Godfrey-Smith puts it, for pragmatists the chief purpose of thought, etc, is to guide practical problem-solving. In this sense all research is applied (to the pragmatists) as it’s an irreducible part of action processes. Related to this some influential pragmatists like John Dewey embraced an instrumentalist view of knowledge.
On these points, I wouldn’t go as far as the classical pragmatists. I agree that inquiry is often prompted in ways consistent with pragmatism. I also agree that a key potential benefit of social research is extending our ability to act effectively, however defined, and I note that cognitive scientists believe our thinking capacities similarly evolved for such purposes (Sloman & Fernbach, 2017). But I also believe that there are roles for ‘fundamental’ (or basic) research which is removed from application considerations and can later to be used by others in often unanticipated ways, similar to the ways that more fundamental cognitive science research findings can be picked up by other scholars who draw on these insights or apply them. For instance, social theory developed by sociologists can have a practical orientation (e.g. guiding action in relation to social order problems) and it can be far removed from action (e.g. many of Max Weber’s books don’t appear to have had clear practical purposes and simply sought to have theory-building benefits).
That being said, I personally often find myself being moved to do research partly in response to things in the world (which I experience and/or observe) and being motivated by the hope that research will help us to better understand and address real-world issues.
Camic, C., Gross, N. & Lamont, M. (eds) 2011, Social Knowledge in the Making, University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London.
Douglas, H.E. 2009, Science, Policy and the Value-Free Ideal, University of Pittsburgh Press.
Godfrey-Smith, P. 2003, Theory and Society: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Science, The University of Chicago Press.
Gross, N. 2009, ‘A Pragmatist Theory of Social Mechanisms’, American Sociological Review, vol. 74, no. 3, pp. 358-79.
Little, D. 1991, Varieties of Social Explanation: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Social Science, Westview Press, Boulder.
Little, D. 2011, ‘Neil Gross’s pragmatist sociology’, Understanding Society, weblog, December 7, <https://understandingsociety.blogspot.com.au/2011/12/neil-grosss-pragmatist-sociology.html>.
Little, D. 2014, ‘Actor-Centered Sociology and the New Pragmatism’, in J. Zahle & F. Collin (eds), Rethinking the Individualism-Holism Debate (Synthese Library, vol. 372), Springer, pp. 55-75.
Rojas, F. 2017, Theory for the Working Sociologist, Columbia University Press.
Sloman, S. & Fernbach, P. 2017, The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone, Riverhead Books, New York, NY.
Sunstein, C.R. 2009, Going to Extremes: How Like Minds Unite and Divide, Oxford University Press, Oxford ; New York.