Methodology for the Social Sciences

02 Jan 2024 13:40

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 [*]

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.

*: 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 Poincaré's works (which, admittedly, I can only read in translation), and suspect it is the product of someone's memory working on, and improving, what I did quote, especially since that comes at the end of a paragraph which also talks about methods 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