More on Quantitative Methods in Social Science

17 November 2006 at 10:17 am 2 comments

| Peter Klein |

Thanks to Cliff Grammich for his reading suggestions in the comment below. Let me add some details and links:

Richard Lewontin’s “Sex, Lies, and Social Science” (New York Review of Books, April 20, 1995; online version for NYRB subscribers only), savages three books on sex by sociologists. The resulting replies and rejoinders (here and here) make for interesting reading. In one rejoinder, Lewontin describes “the central methodological issue” raised by one set of authors under review:

It is their view that, although people may lie or exaggerate in autobiographies because they are trying to create a public persona, they will tell the truth in anonymous interviews, because there is no motivation to manipulate the impression that strangers have of us. Is it really true that quantitative sociologists are so divorced from introspection and so insensitive to social interactions that they take such a naive view of human behavior? Do they really believe all those things they hear from the person on the next bar stool or the seat next to them in the airplane? The Yellow Kid, who made a living from fleecing the gullible, used to say that anyone who could not con a banker ought to go into another line of work. Maybe, but before giving up, they should try professors of sociology.

And again:

Far from having “an animus against the social sciences,” I have considerable sympathy for the position in which sociologists find themselves. They are asking about the most complex and difficult phenomena in the most complex and recalcitrant organisms, without that liberty to manipulate their objects of study which is enjoyed by natural scientists. In comparison, the task of the molecular biologist is trivial. . . .

Data on birth, death, immigration, marriage, divorce, social class, neighborhood, causes of mortality and morbidity, occupations, wage rates, and many other variables are indispensable for sociological investigations. . . . But it does not follow that collecting statistics, especially survey statistics with their utter ambiguity of interpretation, is sociology. A better model is Chevalier’s Classes laborieuses et classes dangereuses. Chevalier’s realization was that social phenomena could not be understood without the demographic statistics, but that these numbers can have no interpretation in themselves without a coherent narrative of social life. For contemporary life we have our own experience to help us understand the numbers. For the past we depend on literature, so the locales, characters, and events in the novels of Balzac, Hugo, and Sue form as much a part of the evidence about nineteenth-century Paris as the schedules of mortality and the tables of wage rates.

Even though the world is material and all its phenomena, including human consciousness, are products of material forces, we should not confuse the way the world is with our ability to know about it.

Cliff also points us to Jonathan Cohn’s “When Did Political Science Forget About Politics?” (New Republic, October 25, 1999), a critique of the rational-choice revolution in political science. Writes Cohn:

The rational choicers believe their quest for universal and logically consistent theories makes them the only true practitioners of political science. As for all the other, more familiar approaches to studying politics — looking at case studies, digging into history and culture, poring over survey research — the rational choice theorists believe those constitute lesser forms of inquiry: “history,” “literary criticism,” or, worst of all, “journalism.” Although most rational choice scholars tend to be cautious with their public pronouncements these days, their writings and their conduct within faculty departments suggest that they would like to relegate these other scholars to a greatly diminished role — if any — within the discipline. And, while rational choice theorists might not be the first group with such aspirations, they’ve been among the most successful at realizing them.

Donald Green and Ian Shapiro’s 1994 book Pathologies of Rational Choice Theory is described as an “intellectual counteroffensive.”

Green and Shapiro raised no objection to the math, and they didn’t even quibble with the Rochester School’s goal of trying to find scientific truth in politics. But, if the goal of rational choice is to be more scientific, Green and Shapiro argued, quite reasonably, then it should pass the basic test of all true scientific theories: it should work in practice. Since Green and Shapiro were fluent in the mathematics, they were equipped with the tools to test this proposition. And they discovered that, lo and behold, rational choicers made the same series of mistakes over and over again — all of them rooted in dubious assumptions and oversimplifications calculated to make political behavior conform to neat mathematical formulas.

Entry filed under: - Klein -, Methods/Methodology/Theory of Science.

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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. C. Grammich  |  18 November 2006 at 8:38 am

    Regarding the second Lewontin excerpt above, I recall the syllabus from the first course I had with Gerald Suttles, one (of the last?) of the Chicago School of sociology. Suttles, a North Carolina (hill country) native, was also the type of guy who, somebody from the NORC (!) once told me, could walk into, say, a bowling alley and within a short time tell you something insightful about the social organization of the place. Later, when I was writing a dissertation on what I’ll loosely call politics and society among some small Protestant churches in the South, he would encourage me to visit places like Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker’s theme park to get a better idea of how affluence was reshaping some versions of “Bible-based” religion. Suttles also shared mine (and Peter’s, I see) fascination with maps, and later held a joint appointment in geography.

    Anyway, his syllabus, for an intro to urban sociology, was almost as likely to contain, say, a Saul Bellow novel as it was to contain a quantitative analysis of urban areas. I can see more easily in hindsight than I could at the time why those were very good additions. Even the casual student of the city of Chicago, for example, can learn something important from, say, the changes over time in the proportion of the vote for “organization” Democrats. But there’s also a good deal to be learned in the literature on the city (in Chicago and elsewhere, of course). On that note, I recall James T. Farrell (author of the Studs Lonigan trilogy) was once a sociology student at Chicago.

    There was another point in the Lewontin article and subsequent exchanges that I think deserves emphasis. Specifically, so much of the general approach that Lewontin rips seems atomistic, or, as Richard Sennett perhaps better put it, “dissociat[ed] from the entanglements, contradictions, and difficulties of actual social experience.” Which, of course, seems contradictory to the very purpose, or even premise, of sociology. I’m reminded of a quip by Rodney Stark in his lamentation over the emphasis of the individual rather than social setting in explaining deviance: “Yet, through it all, social scientists somehow still knew better than to stroll the streets at night in certain parts of town or even to park there.” (“Deviant Places: A Theory of the Ecology of Crime,” Criminology, 1987, Vol. 25, No. 4, p. 894.)

  • 2. David Hoopes  |  16 February 2010 at 9:01 pm

    What a great discussion.

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