Notebooks

Methodology for the Social Sciences

06 Mar 2018 11:40

Nearly every sociological thesis proposes a new method, which, however, its author is very careful not to apply, so that sociology is the science with the greatest number of methods and the least results. --- Henri Poincaré, Science and Method, chapter I [^quotehunt]

That is: what are the appropriate methods for studying social or cultural phenomena in a scientific way? In principle, this is a sub-division of general scientific methodology, but arguably (this is one of the big questions here!) social phenomena are sufficiently different from natural ones that they need truly distinctive methods. (Or perhaps social phenomena can be studied with the same methods as biological ones, but both are distinctive from inorganic nature.) It seems to be true that how one should study society depends on what society is like, i.e., general issues of social theory. But my hope is to learn something about methods which are relatively agnostic about social ontology, because they'd work even under very different assumptuions about the nature of society.

It's probably a bad thing that so many of my favorite works in this genre are relentlessly negative.

[^quotehunt]: An even better line, sometimes attributed to Poincaré, is "Sociolgists discuss sociological methods; physicists discuss physics" (e.g., Christopher Alexander, Notes on the Synthesis of Form, preface [Harvard University Press, revised edition, 1971]). But I can't locate this in Poincar&eacute's works (which, admittedly, I can only read in translation), and suspect it is the product of someone's memory working on what I did quote, especially since that comes at the end of a paragraph which also talks about metho s in physics.

See also: Agent-Based Modeling; Archaeology; Economics; Historical Materialism; Historiography; Mechanistic Explanations; Network Data Analysis; Scientific Method and Philosophy of Science; Sociology; Statistics

  • Kieran Healy, "Fuck Nuance" ["Abstract: Seriously, fuck it."]
  • Peter Hedstrom, Dissecting the Social: On the Principles of Analytical Sociology
  • Kevin D. Hoover, "Reductionism in Economics: Intentionality and Eschatological Justification in the Microfoundations of Macroeconomics" [PDF preprint via Prof. Hoover]
  • ibn Khaldûn
  • Gary King and Margaret Roberts, "How Robust Standard Errors Expose Methodological Problems They Do Not Fix" [PDF preprint]
  • Charles E. Lindblom and David K. Cohen, Usable Knowledge: Social Science and Social Problem Solving [Why social science will almost never be able to acheive the kind of rational authority that the natural sciences possess, and some suggestions about how social scientists might instead direct their efforts so as to be useful in solving social problems.]
  • Paul E. Meehl
    • "Why Summaries of Research on Psychological Theories Are Often Uninterpretable", Psychological Reports 66 (1990): 195--244 [PDF reprint]
    • "Theory-Testing in Psychology and Physics: A Methodological Paradox", Philosophy of Science 34 (1967): 103--115 [PDF reprint]
  • Karl R. Popper, The Poverty of Historicism
  • Ole Rogeberg and Hans Olav Melberg, "Acceptance of unsupported claims about reality: a blind spot in economics", Journal of Economic Methodology 18 (2011): 29--52 [By no means is the problem described here limited to economics, though economists may be unusually blind to it, owing to the entirely malign and unwarranted influence of Milton Friedman. See also]
  • Alexander Rosenberg, Economics: Mathematical Politics or Science of Diminishing Returns?
  • W. G. Runciman, A Treatise on Social Theory [This is a trilogy, of which I've finished the first, methodological volume...]
  • John R. Sutton, Marshall's Tendencies: What Economists Can Know [An exposition of the strengths and limits of the usual econometric approach (statistical inference within a fully-specified model), and Sutton's alternative, of deriving results, usually inequalities, which hold uniformly across broad ranges of models.]
  • Charles Tilly
  • Michael D. Ward, Brian D. Greenhill and Kristin M. Bakke, "The perils of policy by p-value: Predicting civil conflicts", Journal of Peace Research 47 (2010): 363--375

      Recommended half-heartedly:
    • Stanley Lieberson and Freda B. Lynn, "Barking Up the Wrong Branch: Scientific Alternatives to the Current Model Sociological Science," Annual Review of Sociology 28 (2002): 1--19 [I'm sympathetic, but would offer the correction that even what sociologists try to do isn't like classical physics at all, though it may be like what they imagine physics to be. Also, a lot of this is very similar to what Popper said in The Poverty of Historicism. PDF reprint via Prof. Lieberson.]
    • Stanley Lieberson and Joel Horwich, "Implication Analysis: A Pragmatic Proposal for Linking Theory and Data in the Social Sciences", Sociological Metholodgy 38 (2008): 1--50, with discussions and replies, pp. 51--100 [PDF via Prof. Lieberson. These are all reasonable bits of advice, but I alternated between thinking "This needs saying?!?" and "Sadly, this needs saying". The best short summary is provided by Mizruchi on p. 68; this makes it clear that what Lieberson and Horwich propose is far too shapeless to count as a method of analysis. (Unfortunately Mizruchi goes on to rather spoil the effect by showing (p. 70) that either he has no conception of what it means to compare alternative explanations, or he doesn't understand what multiple linear regression does, or perhaps both.) One of the shrewdest comments is that by Tilly: this is obviously the right way to go, and it will involve a substantial change in how sociologists reproduce themselves professionally.]


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