April 10, 2003

· Internet

Dan Drezner is shocked, shocked that a mere sociologist should display clearer reasoning than a political scientist. Despite being a proud member of the social science field voted most likely to be cannibalized by Rational Choice Theory, Dan’s rationality threw him at the final fence on the God quiz.

Dan explains the source of his horror in passing, to those few of you who don’t care about interdisciplinary attitudes in the social sciences:

disciplines resembling the natural or physical sciences [have] greater status than those disciplines that more resemble the humanities. Political science usually does better than sociology on that scale.

Here’s my compressed two cents on that hardy perennial, “Are the social sciences scientific?” A few Sociologists, some Political Scientists and many Economists are prone to thinking that they are doing something akin to Physics when they show up for work in the mornings. I don’t know of any who actually wear lab coats (not that many Physicists do, either) but you get the feeling a few of them might if they felt they could get away with it. As it happens, there is a sense in which some social scientists—especially the Economists, again—really are following in the footsteps of the natural sciences, it’s just not in the way they imagine.

If I had to draw an analogy between natural and social science, and sociology specifically, I’d say we’re most like meteorology or climatology. Like them, we deal in large-scale, long-lived complex systems with many parts. Social systems are harder to deal with than the weather, because some of the parts have their own ideas about what they want to have happen. We’re pretty good at stuff at either end of the scale: we understand many long- or very long-range patterns fairly well, and we also know a lot about micro-level interactions in controlled contexts. The middle-range is much messier (and accurate forecasting is probably impossible) largely because of the nature of the beast under study. Unfortunately this is also the bit that people are most interested in getting knowledge about. But even there we have a lot of useful concepts, methods and models that can be applied in a wide variety of contexts, though you need to be careful.

In general, the thing to bear in mind is that even natural science isn’t like the standard picture of what natural science is like. If you see what I mean.

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I am Associate Professor of Sociology at Duke University. I’m affiliated with the Kenan Institute for Ethics, the Markets and Management Studies program, and the Duke Network Analysis Center.



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