Wednesday, March 28, 2012

John Gerring: Methodological unity or diversity ?

I've started reading John Gerring's excellent second edition of Social Science Methodology: A Unified Framework (2nd edition, 2012, Cambridge University Press), and it has me thinking about unity and pluralism at various levels: within archaeology; within anthropology; and within the social sciences. I have recently been on a methodology kick. I read Gerring's Case Study Research: Principles and Practices (2006, CUP) a couple of months ago, and loved it. Wow, if you had told me a couple of years ago that I would be reading methodological books by a political scientist (and that I would find them fascinating), I would have said you are nuts.

In chapter 1, in a section called "The Problem of Pluralism" Gerring puts his finger on one of the reasons I have been thinking about sampling, causality and measurement recently. His book proposes "a unified framework" for methods in the social sciences, and it is one I find very attractive. Normally when you hear someone talk about unifying the social sciences, they are talking about a hegemonic move. They typically take some large-scale approach that describes their own research and say that it fits all of social science and that it will soon engulf and take over the field. This was claimed for sociobiology, and more recently for "Darwinian approaches," it has been claimed for rational choice theory, and also by modelers.

Gerring's approach is very different. He identifies common elements of methods across the social sciences and discuss productive ways to use them, and to think about them. What is "unified" is a common commitment to rigorous scientific research. He wants to promote cross-disciplinary communication. The methods and approaches in different disciplines (and subdisciplines) should be mutually translatable and not incommensurate.

 "There is no profit in incommensurability. To the extent that academics employ idiosyncratic or field-specific theoretical frameworks, we become islands in a boatless archipelago. Knowledge will not accumulate. Progress -- define it as you will -- is impeded." (pp. 9-10).

He makes the point that social science is important to understand current social issues and problems, and this provides an impetus for creating a common framework. The above quote is followed by this observation:

"To be sure, the need for agreement varies by topic. Those subjects firmly embedded in the past --  those, that is, with few contemporary ramifications -- can perhaps afford a wider array of views." (p.10).

This is the insight that helps explain my current methodology kick. It is no coincidence that this personal interest coincides with my exploration of urban studies outside of archaeology and anthropology. To publish in, say geography or urban planning journals, I have to convince editors and reviewers that my methods and epistemology are up to snuff. And I will soon be submitting a proposal (with a multi-disciplinary group) to several programs at NSF, including sociology and political science (and archaeology). If we can't talk the talk, we certainly won't walk the walk.

I have found methodological works like Gerring's books useful in several ways. First, they enable me to translate good scientific practice in archaeology into concepts and terms that other scholars will understand. To communicate archaeology to scholars in other disciplines, this is essential. Second, they help me understand ontological and epistemological issues in archaeology at a deeper level. And third, they enable me to see where archaeological practices that I thought were pretty good may actually be deficient methodologically and in need of improvement.

From Gerring's observation, an archaeology that is solely about the past can afford a plurality of theories, methods and approaches, something that probably sounds good to the postmodernists. But an archaeology that engages with contemporary social issues and their scholars needs to have a stricter approach, one that makes sense in the world of empirical social science.

Now while I am on a John Gerring kick, here is how he defines "positivism" in his glossary. He provides four meanings:
  1. Belief that the only true knowledge is based on sensory experience -- "positive facts" -- thus avoiding metaphysical speculation concerning causes and normative purposes.
  2. Logical positivism: the philosophy of science developed by Carnap et al in the Vienna Circle.
  3. Loosely, a naturalistic view of social science. Specifically, a strong faith in science as cumulative, falsifiable, objective, systematic, and logically unified endeavor.
  4. A position that slights the importance of causality, or sees it only in a neo-Humean fashion, as constant conjunctions and covering laws.
Sign me up for meaning #3. We all know that "positivism" is a bogeyman of the postprocessualists, but which meaning to they dislike? Probably all of them.

And if you are interested in ancient empires, check out Gerring et al (2011), which is VERY relevant (and blows away much prior thinking on hegemonic vs. territorial empires).

Gerring, John
2007    Case Study Research: Principles and Practices. Cambridge University Press, New York.

2012    Social Science Methodology: A Unified Framework. Cambridge University Press, New York.

Gerring, John, Daniel Ziblatt, Johan van Gorp, and Julián Arévalo
2011    An Institutional Theory of Direct and Indirect Rule. World Politics 63(3):377-433.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for this. I've been working on a federal grant app and had been trying to rethink some of the ways I structure my argument and the data/expectations. I didn't always agree with all the points he makes on the social sciences, and I think archaeology has some unique issues regarding the link between data and knowledge claims. But it is a really useful text for structuring research. His case study book also offered some useful ways to justify multi-sited and long term research. It meshes well with some of the 1970s stuff in archaeology (political economy processualisms), which was very comparative and still seems to resonate with grant reviewers.


William J. Kelleher, Ph.D. said...

Interesting take on Gerring and archeology. Here’s a critique of his call for more “relevance” in political science (I wonder where this would leave archeology):

William J. Kelleher, Ph.D.

Michael E. Smith said...

@William - Your paper looks interesting, and I look forward to reading it.