Thursday, December 03, 2015

Jon Elster on 'qualitative' social science (which trumps both the 'soft' and 'quantitative' varieties)

Snippets from Jon Elsters comments on “qualitative social science”:

“I believe the best training for any social scientist is to read widely and deeply in history, choosing works for the intrinsic quality of the argument rather than the importance or relevance of the subject matter. Here are some models: James Fitzgerald Stephen, A History of the Criminal Law of England; E.P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class; G.E.M de Ste Croix, The Class Struggles in the Ancient Greek World; Joseph Levenson, Confucian China and Its Modern Fate; Paul Veyne, Le pain et le cirque; G. Lefebvre, La grande peur; Keith Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic….  What these writers and others of their stature have in common is that they combine utter authority in factual matters with an eye both for potential generalizations and for potential counterexamples to generalizations. By virtue of their knowledge they can pick out ‘telling detail’ as well as ‘robust anomaly,’ thus providing both stimulus and reality check for would-be generalists.

The same is true for authors of ‘case studies,’ among which one of the greatest remains Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. Although it does not fit neatly into the category, I would also include Joseph Schumpeter, Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy. A seemingly eccentric but, I believe, compelling candidate is Arthur Young’s Travels in France, covering the years 1787, 1788, and 1780. These are ‘character portraits’ of whole societies or regimes, all of them with a comparative perspective. Marc Bloch, La société féodale, also belongs here.” [….]

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“…[T]he classics are not obsolete. I would find it hard to take seriously someone who claimed that classical works are not worth taking seriously today because their findings, when accurate, are fully incorporated into current thinking. They have much more than antiquarian interest. I do not claim, though, that a dialogue with past masters is the only or the best way of generating new insights. Thomas Schelling, for instance, does not seem, in any obvious way at least, to have been standing on anyone’s shoulders. Kenneth Arrow may have rediscovered and generalized Condorcet’s insight, but he was not influenced by him. The work of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky was as far as I know not generated by knowledge of any precursors. When I once had the occasion to point out to Tversky that one of his distinctions (between the ‘endowment effect’ and the ‘contrast effect’) had been anticipated by Montaigne and by Hume, he replied only that he was happy to be in such good company. Since the scholars I have just named are responsible for what were arguably the most decisive advances in social science over the last fifty years, one obviously cannot argue that the dialogue with the past is the only road to new insight. [….]

This being said, the dialogue with the past can be immensely fruitful, if only to identify the positions one has to refute. It is hard to imagine that non-Marxists such as Weber or Schumpeter could have written what they did if they had not read Marx closely. Direct or positive influence is also common, of course. It seems likely that some recent theories of the evolution of property systems were directly influenced by David Hume, rather than simply claiming him as a precursor. Paul Veyne’s work on the psychology of tyranny in antiquity owes much to Hegel’s analysis of the master-slave relation. George Ainslie, who has done much to render one of Freud’s basic insights analytically persuasive, might not have arrived at his ideas but for Freud’s earlier, inchoate version. I suspect that Bentham’s Political Tactics is still insufficiently mined. In these cases…the ideas inspired by the classics have to stand on their own once arrived at. The good use of the classics does not include an argument from authority.” — From Elster’s indispensable volume, Explaining Social Behavior: More Nuts and Bolts for the Social Sciences (Cambridge University Press, 2007): 447-48 and 454-55 respectively.

I am preparing a bibliography on “Philosophy, Psychology, & Methodology for the Social Sciences,” and came across the above from my notes and thought to share it.


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