Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The major debates in the social sciences

This is post #2 in my series based on Andrew Abbott's excellent book, Methods of Discovery: Heuristics for the Social Sciences (2004, Norton). Many or most of these resonate with theoretical perspectives in archaeology. Arguments between Binfordites and Hodderites reproduce several of these, as do arguments between selectionists and processualists or between materialists and culturalists. Think about archaeology as you read through these. I think they are very instructive and helpful.

These are Abbott's brief descriptions from a table (page 52-3); that is, this is a long quotation.. The table is preceded by brief sections on each debate.

Methodological Debates
·         Positivism: reality is measurable.
·         Interpretivism: there is no meaning without interaction and hence no measurement in the abstract.

·         Analysis: there is no explanation without causality.
·         Narration: stories can explain.

Debates about Social Ontology
·         Behaviorism: social structure (i.e., routine behavior) is the proper foundation of analysis.
·         Culturalism: culture (i.e., symbolic systems) is the proper foundation for analysis.

·         Individualism:  human individuals and their acts are the only real objects of social scientific analysis.
·         Emergentism: social emergents exist, are irreducible to individuals, and can be real objects of social scientific analysis.

·         Realism:  social phenomena have endurance and stability; analysis should focus on the enduring, stable qualities of social phenomena.
·         Constructionsim: social phenomena are continually reproduced in interaction; analysis should focus on that reproduction.

·         Contextualism:  social phenomena are inevitably contextual and cannot be analyzed without taking account of context.
·         Noncontextualism: social phenomena have meaning (and can be analyzed) independent of their contexts.

Debates about Problematics
·         Choice: analysis should focus on why and how actors make choices and on the consequences of those choices.
·         Constraint: analysis should focus on the structural constraints that govern action.

·         Conflict: we need to explain why there is so much social conflict.
·         Consensus: we need to explain why there it not more social conflict.

Debates about Types of Knowledge
·         Transdendent knowledge: our knowledge should apply at all places and times. It should be ‘universal.’
·         Situated knowledge: our knowledge must be limited in its application. It is always local or particular.

I find these all quite apt and intuitive, except perhaps conflict/consensus. As pointed out by Randall Collins in his review of the book, Abbott's discussion of this debate is the opposite of how this pair is normally understood.

Later in the book Abbott presents a very interesting discussion of the productivity of arguments moving back and forth between particular sides or approaches. The overall focus of the book is on heuristics - how to find new ideas. Abbott provides examples of, for example, contextualist researchers who make a non-contextualist move (and the reverse), resulting in new insights.


Anonymous said...


Marcus said...

Actually, this play of opposite poles is like the dialectic, isn't it?

Michael E. Smith said...

@Marcus- I'm not sure what you mean by "the dialectic."

Marcus said...

As far as I understand it, Hegel's dialectics is about two opposite approaches, which then enter into a kind of discussion or interaction that generates a synthesis. So, if you have a debate about choice/constraint, the debate swings from one position to the next and so on, until some position is reached that can presumably account for both positions.

Hegel's account is focused on thought, while its Marxist offshoot dialectical materialism holds that such debates reflect material conditions. However, I would find find it quite remarkable if nature would have structured itself along such neat binary opposites.

Mind you, I do not really agree with a Hegelian perspective, but I just noticed that your post bore some apparent resemblance to it.