Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Making Social Science Critical

I’ve been reading Bent Flyvbjerg’s Making Social Science Matter: Why Social Inquiry Fails and How It Can Succeed Again. It’s one of several works I’ve been looking through as I begin to think about my own research methodology, and this post represents the first of four examining different aspects of the work.

This book, however, ranges far beyond the mechanics of social science method, touching on core epistemological issues in defence of a goal that I also share: the construction of a grounded ethics that accounts for its own value judgments in terms of the historically and socially specific forms of perception and thought that characterise our own shared social experience. Discovering in Foucault a model for this project, Flyvbjerg contends (p. 101):

Our society and history… is the only solid ground under our feet. And this socio-historical foundation is fully adequate.

In many ways, this statement captures what I think must be an essential characteristic of a contemporary critical theory. I question, however, whether Flyvbjerg’s work follows through on this insight – whether Flyvbjerg fully grasps what would be required to construct an historically-embedded approach to grounding the ethical standards we use to judge contemporary institutions, forms of thought, and forms of social practice. In the next few posts, I will try to unpack the ways in which Flyvbjerg may fall short of his goal. In this process, I will suggest some of the standards a self-reflexive critical theory would need to fulfil, if it seeks to account for its own ethical standard – for the critical judgments it makes about the social world – without appealing to a transhistorical “view from nowhere” as the purportedly objective basis for its judgments.

The basic stock in trade of social theory – critical or not – is the claim that significant dimensions of our shared practices, institutions, forms of thought and perception, and other collective dimensions of our social experience are shaped in fundamental ways by our own social practice, and are therefore historically specific and can change over time. Social theorists may differ over how much is “social”, and how much therefore can change over time. Those elements of human practice that can be demonstrated to change over time, however, are the special concern of the social sciences.

This stance, however, poses particular challenges for a critical social theory. To be completely consistent, a critical social theory bears the burden of explaining why the theorist – who is, after all, as much a part of society as anyone else – can come to be critical of aspects of the society into which the theorist was socialised. While this goal may seem relatively straightforward, it has proven elusive in practice.

Instead, critical social theory has often taken various other routes to account for the critical judgments it makes about contemporary society – from claiming that the theorist possesses a special objectivity immune from socialising influence, through to claiming that the theorist’s normative standards are “natural”, while the society being criticised is perceived as artificial. Muddying the issue even further, appeals to personal objectivity or “natural” norms are not always explicit, and can lurk in the background, even where theorists explicitly proclaim a commitment to the historical and social specificity of social theory.

Flyvbjerg is conscious of these potential pitfalls – and is valuable precisely for his efforts in drawing our attention to them. Flyvbjerg’s analysis, however, operates at the level of a theoretical stance, a kind of a priori declaration: thus he asserts, for example, the historical specificity and social embeddedness of the critical judgments we express about our society, but he doesn’t close the circle by explaining what it is about our society that promotes these forms of critical thought – or, for that matter, what it is about our society that also works against the realisation of our critical insights. Without recognising that this final step would be required for a self-consistent, historically-specific, critical social science, Flyvbjerg falls short of providing an adequate theoretical basis for making social science matter.

This is an issue I will explore in the next few blog entries, in which I examine more carefully: Flyvbjerg’s attempt to appropriate Aristotle for contemporary social science; Flyvbjerg’s understanding of the distinction between science and social science; and how Flyvbjerg approaches the opposition between Habermas and Foucault.

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4 responses to “Making Social Science Critical

  1. NP April 10, 2005 at 3:50 pm

    Bruce –

    Thanks for commenting – I’m hoping there will be a bit more interaction on the blog, a bit less of my propounding (I say, as I prepare to propound a bit more… ;-P)

    As you’ve already commented, some of the issue does come down to terminology – and my hope is that a clearer terminology (or, put another way, a better conceptual framework) will actually help to resolve what often is – as you again point out – a kind of continuous chicken-and-egg debate in academic literature.

    This is a problem I need to attack from a few directions simultaneously, and I won’t be able to do full justice to it in the blog (but would have to do better justice to it in my actual work, if I want anyone to take seriously what I’m proposing): The first direction is to suggest that thought is not an ontologically different kind of practice from other kinds of social practice – or, more precisely, all social practices *involve* practices of thought, as well as practices of other kinds. So certain habits of thought go along with habits of social practice. However, those habits of thought are often very abstract – more abstract than what people usually think of when they discuss “ideas” (which is one of the reasons that the chicken-and-egg problem keeps arising). To capture this abstract dimension of socialised thought, I tend to use terms like “forms of perception and thought”, or “forms of experience” – but I’m still struggling for the best way to convey what I’m after. My basic contention, though, is that certain habits of perception and thought become socially plausible with the emergence of new forms of social practice, precisely because those forms of perception and thought are actually *part* of those new forms of social practice. Once new forms of perception and thought emerge in social practice, however, they are *portable*, and can be used to express a whole universe of new *ideas* – which then, as you point out, might themselves have quite transformative effects on social practice in their own right, and which can play a very strong role in determining how new forms of perception and thought come to be expressed in social institutions and cultural discourses.

    All of this sounds really abstract – it’s a little easier to communicate through an example: the one I often use (I’ve referred to it in earlier blog entries) comes from Marx, and involves new forms of perception and thought that emerged historically when the labour market became a widespread social institution. I won’t repeat the whole example here, but what Marx basically suggests is that a complex, differentiated division of labour facilitated by a labour market, among the various other social purposes it fulfils, involves acting out a particular kind of human equality. In this one dimension of social life, people “acted out” a kind of human equality, by exchanging the products of various types of labour – and thus suggesting that, for this social purpose at least, it was possible to abstract away from all of the particularities of specific labourer’s identities, the tools used in production, the region where manufacturing took place, even the kind of good produced: on some level, if goods could be exchanged, some kind of qualitative equality was somehow present. This social practice of a specific kind of equality appears, Marx suggests, to have historically made it possible for a “gestalt” of human equality to emerge – a gestalt that even a very bright thinker from an earlier historical period (Marx uses Aristotle as his example) couldn’t “grasp”.

    This gestalt then enabled the emergence of all kinds of new *ideas* – many of them conflicting with one another. Among these new ideas were the concept that all men who owned property ought to be equal in *political* terms (something which goes well beyond the kind of equality acted out by the labour market, but which reflects a similar form of perception – the ability to entertain the concept that humans can be in some way equal) – or that all men, full stop, ought to be equal in political terms – or that men and women ought to be equal – or that the concept of human equality was actually nonsense, and aristocracy and monarchy were appropriate governmental forms, etc. On the level of *ideas*, you could therefore have great diversity – and the conflict between these conflicting ideas, and how this conflict plays itself out over time, is pivotally important for understanding how history plays itself out in different regions “on the ground”. But all of these various ideas (and this is what I would have to develop and prove in my research) can be historically distinguished from the ideas that might be common in societies that were historically not “acting out” human equality in some dimension of social practice.

    These distinctions can seem a bit pedantic (and, for most purposes, they *are* pedantic), but they become very important when you’re trying to understand very broad strokes differences over long periods of history. And they help account for the emergence of some apparently very self-contradictory ideas – the one I often cite is Rousseau’s declaration that mankind is born free, but everywhere is in chains – these strange revolutionary assertions of “natural” rights, and “self evident” freedoms – which appear peculiar precisely because we can easily show that these are relatively new political ideals, and therefore can’t be “natural” in the normal sense of the term. My hope would be that, by understanding how these sorts of values come into being historically – how we have taught ourselves, as a society, that certain kinds of freedom are possible – we can provide a secular basis for grounding our own ethical standards. At least, that’s the long-term project… ;-P

  2. bruce April 8, 2005 at 10:22 am

    I would like to comment on the following statement in “Making Social Science Critical”:

    “The basic stock in trade of social theory – critical or not – is the claim that significant dimensions of our shared practices, institutions, forms of thought and perception, and other collective dimensions of our social experience are shaped in fundamental ways by our own social practice, and are therefore historically specific and can change over time.”

    I disagree with parts of this statement. My main problem being that I don’t believe that “forms of thought” are shaped solely by “social practice”. This could be a definitional problem of what “forms of thought” and “social practice” actually means. If you mean by “forms of thought” ideas, it is my opinion that at least some social practices are shaped by forms of thought, rather than vice versa. This is more than a chicken and egg type problem. There are numerous instances in history when the idea comes first and then the society is changed by people attempting to implement that idea, although often corrupted and compromised by social practices and self-interest. The most obvious is Russian communism, a corruption of the Marxist ideals. This did not evolve out of social practice. As another example, our economic institutions in the west are based on Capitalist ideology. This did not happen solely because it was social practice that developed. It was a directed development. There was a distinct set of ideas from the likes of Adam Smith and others which people of influence agreed with (most likely due to self interest), and they established laws and implemented educational and financial institutions that would see these practices implemented in society – but the idea came first. Christianity is another example, – it is an idea that has had huge impact on social practices. It was not that Judaism evolved into Christianity through social discourse and practice. On a smaller scale (and a more recent timescale) political decisions, and the subsequent laws and public service structures and institution, are often the result of political ideology.

    I am surprised from my very basic readings in the areas of criminology (an interest of mine) the lack of acknowledgement of the influence of ideas and philosophies on society and crime in society, which is interesting because sociologists deal in ideas. (Weber seems to be an exception to this).

    The other problems I have with the statement is that it does not seem to acknowledge the effect of the existence of differing power structures within society and also the role of self interest, unless these aspects are indeed included in the definitions of social practice. Both these aspects have a huge role in shaping society. I might expand on this later but this is enough for now.

  3. Chris Fitzgerald September 21, 2007 at 11:09 pm

    I think our society controls reaction.
    I think reaction is media.
    I think we take things too personally.
    I think we are apolitical babes in a wood of bears.
    I think our reaction controls society.
    I think we should stop… and think of the bears.
    I think that controls the reaction.

  4. N Pepperell September 22, 2007 at 12:40 am

    archives! dark jungle
    bears lurk, feeding on decayed
    thoughts, rotting prose – flee!

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