Philosophy of Social Science 101
| 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.