Mapping the Philosophy of Social Science

How would you map the current state of the philosophy of social science? I really like how Daniel Little does this here – it’s a very informative post which deserves to be read in full:

There is a traditional lineup of topics that has guided courses and books in the philosophy of social science. But a shorter list of topics have generated a great deal of debate and discussion in the field today. Here is a sketch:

  • Reduction and emergence; microfoundations and meso causation
  • Actor centered sociology
  • Microfoundations
  • Social ontology; heterogeneity and plasticity; assemblage; actor-network theory
  • Analytical sociology
  • Causal mechanisms
  • Critical realism
  • The status of social structures

In each of these areas there are well defined debates underway, and in some cases there are interesting cross-references across these areas of theorizing. If we were drawing a graph of these debates, we might consider several major poles — analytical sociology, critical realism, and ANT — and arrange the other topics according to their interconnectedness with the claims of one or the other of these poles.

I think these maps are important because of what Omar Lizardo identifies as the changing place of theory in the intellectual field of contemporary Sociology. I don’t think the trends he identifies are as true in the UK as in the US but the former is definitely heading in the direction of the latter. Lizardo’s argument is that theory is being de-institutionalised (i.e. gradually marginalised in graduate education) and de-valued (theory papers are worth less and less) with an ensuing fragmentation of the field undermining any consensus about its means and end – how theory should be ‘done’, how theory should be evaluated, what issues are important etc. His arguments leads to an important recommendation:

The main point is that theory and theorizing is just not a single thing. Yet, the problem is that this is not just a definitional or “lexicographic” issue, or even an issue of the fundamental polysemy of all meanings; it is a reality, an objective fact that there are multiple modes of doing theory and that these modes entail a different set of initial dispositions, a different history of acquisition, and ultimately the mastery of distinct (and possibly conflicting) sets of skills. I think that the proper metaphor is that there exist different “genres” of theory, and that we can all become proficient (realistically) in one, two, or at most three of these genres. As theory becomes devalued, and the field becomes increasingly heteronomous, the basic danger is to rush into thinking that our salvation entails the privileging of any one of these genres (e.g. the one preferred by so-called “Analytical Sociologists”) to the denigration of all others (e.g. theory in the classical mode, or theory in the meta-methodological mode). This (essentially retrogressive) temptation must be fought at all costs.

I think mapping in Little’s sense can be an important antidote to this tendency. It can help us get a sense of the theoretical landscape as a whole, encouraging debate about the key issues and how different approaches relate to them. I don’t think it can ‘fix’ theoretical fragmentation but I think it can ameliorate some of the negative tendencies which flow from it.

Categories: Outflanking Platitudes

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