the real philosophy of social science puzzle
There is an intrinsic interest in the philosophy of social science. Ideally, we all want well motivated and logical explanations for how we should do our professional work. However, there is usually one question that you don’t hear much about – why does scholarship seem to progress in the absence of a well motivated philosophy? In other words, doctors probably have a bad philosophy of science, but I don’t see philosophers refusing the services of their physicians.
I don’t have an answer to this, I’ve only started to think about this issue. But I raise it in the shadow of our debate over critical realism and the earlier debate over post-modernism. The claim of some supporters is that social scientists really need a new theory of social science (e.g., critical realism) because social scientists rely on a flawed positivist theory. It may be true that positivist social science is wrong and that we should adopt a newer theory. This view does not take into account two issues: (a) The cost of adopting a new theory is steep. If Kieran can’t quite get critical theory after reading it for 18 months, then I sure won’t get it. (b) A new social science that proceeds along new rules of engagement may not generate enough differences to make it worthwhile. For example, now that Phil Gorski has adopted critical realism, how would his book, The Disciplinary Revolution, be written any differently? Not clear to me since a lot of what Gorski does in that book is apply a specific theoretical lens in reading various developments in state formation. He might sprinkle a discussion of “multiple levels of causation” at the top but then he’d probably proceed to make similar arguments with similar data.
The ultimate puzzle, though, is in areas that seem to make progress even when practitioners work with a bad philosophy. This suggests that the demand for better foundations simply isn’t important for generating knowledge. Another datum is that advances in science, or social science, rarely require entirely new foundations. Take sociology. I don’t need to adopt anything new to, say, appreciate Swidler’s attack on functionalism. And I seem to be able to understand most feminist sociology by using meat and potatoes positivism. The bottom line is that, at the very least, there needs to be an explanation for the ubiquitous disjuncture between foundations and practice.