Philosophy of Social Science 101

23 June 2007 at 10:27 am 15 comments

| Nicolai Foss |

As I recently informed the O&M readership (here), I was in a debate last week at the DRUID conference in Copenhagen on the issue of methodological individualism. The debate took place in the afternoon, and at lunch I overheard one professor asking another (both were tenured full professors at highly prestigious US universities), “Do you have any idea about the stuff that Sid and Nicolai will be debating later today?” The other person shook his head and said he had “no idea.” I tried to talk to as many people before and after the debate as I could. I was surprised at how many basically did not have a clue concerning the meaning of methodological individualism (including a fair amount of those who had been listening to the debate!). Some of the questions that were raised during the debate also revealed considerable ignorance. For example, a young lady in the audience took Peter Abell and I to task for defending a notion (i.e., MI) that is not falsifiable!

Upon reflection I submit that this is nothing unusual. Ignorance of basic, indeed, very basic, philosophy of social science is widespread in management (less so in economics, and while sociologists may often be muzzy-minded they do have an idea of what methodological individualism is about — and they know they dislike it). Many management scholars will, for example, not be able to tell the difference between intentional, functionalist, or evolutionary explanations; cannot clearly distinguish the notion of “unit of analysis” from “level of analysis”; cannot engage in a reasoned discussion of what is the proper domain of causality in the social sciences; don’t have a clue what Verstehen is about; etc. (all this is sampled from experience).

Graduate education is probably to blame here. Much management graduate education treats students as essentially practical people who are there to learn basic, mainly statistical skills. Like dentists, to paraphrase Keynes. But we also know what Keynes said of practical people being slaves to ideas of dead thinkers.

Another problem may be the lack of good textbooks. However, there is at least one superb textbook on basic social science philosophy, Martin Hollis’s The Philosophy of Social Science: An Introduction. Another useful textbook is Jon Elster’s Nuts and Bolts of the Social Sciences.

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

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15 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Joe Mahoney  |  23 June 2007 at 1:21 pm

    Dear Nicolai,

    Having had two years of German as an undergraduate my “understanding” of “Verstehen” (excuse the pun) is that understanding comes from within by means of intuition and empathy, in conrast to knowledge from without by means of observation and calculation.

    I, for one, do hold the view that social science is different from natural science due to Verstehen. Also unlike logical positivists of the Vienna circle, I reject their assertion that introspection is meaningless.

    That reminds me of the following:

    Two logical positivist make love, afterward one says to the other: “Your really enjoyed that, did I? “

  • 2. Joe Mahoney  |  23 June 2007 at 1:34 pm

    In terms of the concept of methodological individualism, my “verstehen” is that this principle asserts that explanations of social, political, or economic phenomena can only be regarded as adequate if they run in terms of the beliefs of individuals.

    I give two cheers to this idea (but not three cheers) for the following reason: Methodological individualism, strictly interpreted, would rule out all macroeconomic propositions that cannot be reduced to microeconomic ones. While methodological individualism may be regarded as a useful heuristic, when it is not currently possible, I do NOT believe that social scientists should lapse into silence on the grounds that we never defy the principle of methodological individualism.

    These ideas come from one of my favorite books: Mark Blaug’s “The Methodoloby of Economics”

  • 3. Joe Mahoney  |  23 June 2007 at 1:46 pm

    Questions about intentional, functional and evolutionary explanations.

    I suppose I can have a functional argument that firm-level decision makers minimize transaction costs without requiring that the managers intentions are to minimize transactions costs. Thus, a functional argument does not seem to require intention.

    Does an explanation that relies on intention automatically qualify as a functional argument?

    Also, we can we have an evolutionary argument that allows for intention (Lamarckian evolutionary theory)?

  • 4. Nicolai Foss  |  23 June 2007 at 1:46 pm

    Dear Joe, Thx for your thoughtful comments. I agree on what you say on MI. In my talk at the DRUID I was careful to say that MI should NOT be understood as a condemnation of aggregate analysis or collective constructs. It is more properly thought of as an ambition for research, something we should strive towards.

  • 5. Joe Mahoney  |  23 June 2007 at 1:51 pm

    In terms of “unit of analyis” versus “level of analysis” if you were to ask what is the unit of analysis in resource-based theory, I would answer: “the resource.” In terms of level of analysis, I might answer: “the firm.”

    If I am (way) off the mark, then please educate me here about the distintions between unit and level of analysis. Thank you, Nicolai.

  • 6. Nicolai Foss  |  23 June 2007 at 1:55 pm

    Joe, Here are my takes on your qs concerning explanatory types:
    1) I agree that a functional argument may require rather little intention (and of course may entirely exclude intention concerning the “real” function of the entity one seeks to explain). How much intention has been a matter of some debate in philosophy. Philippe van Parijs has done some excellent work here.
    2) Functional arguments are typically made with respect to institutions or other more permanent “social facts”. While institutions may be intentionally designed, the scope of intentional explanation is broader. E.g., a single action may be intentionally explained, not functionally.
    3) We most surely can have evolutonary arguments that allow for intention. In fact, contrary to common understanding, rational choice theory is consistent with an evolutionary argument. What is required is some sluggishness in adaptation. RCO Matthews brilliantly made this argument in an old paper in Economic Journal (I believe in 1984).

  • 7. Nicolai Foss  |  23 June 2007 at 1:56 pm

    Joe, I completely agree on your unit and level examples.

    Hey, there are very few people in management who know more about these issues than you do!!!

  • 8. spostrel  |  23 June 2007 at 6:41 pm

    On MI, I want to repeat my comment from the earlier post: There isn’t any problem with saying that aggregate explanations have to respect individual-level constraints (e.g., that’s why one might be interested in bounded rationality). There may be a big problem with saying that individual-level properties are strong enough to pin down aggregate behavior.

    And there may be an even bigger problem with supposing that, even if it were possible, the best theory at an aggregate level would be one directly derived from individual properties (it may be impractical to perform the aggregation, as in going from quantum theory to materials properties).

  • 9. links for 2007-06-24 at Jacob Christensen  |  24 June 2007 at 7:27 am

    […] Philosophy of Social Science 101 « Organizations and Markets Many management scholars will, for example, not be able to tell the difference between intentional, functionalist, or evolutionary explanations; (tags: academic education sociology) […]

  • 10. Nicolai Foss  |  24 June 2007 at 7:39 am

    Steve, Your second comment would seem to be critically dependent on what exactly you mean by “directly”. We can agree, I suppose, that representative agent modelling in macro-economics is, usually, a charicature of MI. But as a general rule, the “best theory at an aggregate level” would, “if it were possible”, be one that is ultimately derived from individual action and interaction.

  • 11. Peter Klein  |  24 June 2007 at 3:04 pm

    Incidentally, I don’t think economists are any more sophisticated than management theorists in this regard. “We’re more like plumbers than philosophers,” they will often say, with a self-mocking grin.

  • 12. Dr. Foss did not design my curriculum. « bobvis  |  24 June 2007 at 3:18 pm

    […] Um, yeah. Charge me guilty on virtually all counts. I *want* to know what all these things are. However, I don’t. Everything we learn in our program is decidedly practical. […]

  • 13. spostrel  |  24 June 2007 at 8:13 pm

    Nicolai: A theory of sound waves that spent a lot of time keeping track of individual particles of the medium wouldn’t be a very useful thing, I wouldn’t think, even if you could do it. (For all I know, theories like this really exist.) You want your theory of sound not to contradict the physical properties of the molecules of the medium, but it would be a bad idea from either a predictive or an intuitive understanding standpoint to build the core theory around individual molecular movements.

    People aren’t particles, and their purposive behavior places more constraints on aggregate theory, so I don’t think we disagree too much in practice about ultimate research goals. But I don’t think it’s correct to postulate that MI, in and of itself, is a priori a point of merit for an aggregate theory. MI is a means to an end, and its usefulness depends on what the tradeoffs are in the specific situation.

  • 14. jonfernquest  |  25 June 2007 at 6:56 am

    “And there may be an even bigger problem with supposing that, even if it were possible, the best theory at an aggregate level would be one directly derived from individual properties”

    I really don’t see why people insist on wearing theoretical blinders to certain subsets of factors (cultural, individual rationality of actors which Elster shows need not be narrowly defined,..) when a whole array of causative factors usually come into play and overdetermine most events as Taleb demostrates in his recent Black Swan book.

    I prefer the historian Braudel’s three levels of time-correlated constraints: longue duree, moyen duree, and histoire evenementuelle, with the first two levels acting as constraints on human agency which intrudes at the last level as a sort of Black Swan event (or strategic evasion of the constraints from the actor’s perspective).

    A refinement of the constraints classifies them as superstructure (ideas and beliefs), structure (economic, political, and social structure), and infrastructure (technology, food supply, enivironment, demography). Thanks for reminding me of those two great books. Certainly awareness of these methodological tendencies prevents you from falling into them subconsciously, especially functionalism!

  • 15. The Little Titan  |  10 June 2011 at 3:05 pm

    Fancy Words have little meaning and all lectured philosophers forgot the first lesson or were never taught it or you never listened.
    When asked, “Teacher what is the best school to go and learn philosophy?”
    Plato replied, ” School of Fools.” Life is the best teacher, “Go out into the World if you want to be a true phllosopher for it is the only way you will learn.
    He was the original teacher.
    To me that means you will not learn true philosophy in a classroom and you can teach a parrot to recite rhymes and ridules as your modern day SPIRITUAL leaders currently do.
    Well I did take the original masters advice and million years of tears later, I changed the verse to fit our modern times, ” Fools in a Fools Paradise.”
    Who never learn a thing from the original master.
    P.S. I had to leave my name and E-mail address to leave this message for all concerned.
    But Please add me to your, “Do not contact.” list, and , keep reciting the poetry your were taught in college or university so you can teach others your nonsense.

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