Multi-dimensional substance matter
In a very basic sense, it is important to distinguish three fundamental notions (and fields of inquiry):
- Ontology ("the study of being") is concerned with the question "what exists?"
- Is there a "transcendental" world? How did our world come about? Where is it going?
This is the realm of general philosophy, religion, diverse world views ("Weltanschaungungen") and ideologies, each claiming some absolute "truths“ which, however, often are conflicting or non-compatible.
Here, we only can "agree to disagree“.
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Epistemology (the "study of knowledge", i.e. theory of science) addresses the question "what can we know?"
- What are the foundations of scientific knowledge?
- How can we be sure about our insights?
- What evidence do we have?
Again, there are many controversies in these respects, but within certain "schools of thought" and the respective scientific disciplines some agreements can be found.
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Finally, methodology (the reflection about and the knowledge of procedures and tools in science) answers the question "how do we acquire scientific knowledge"?
- How reliable and valid are our tools and techniques?
- How can we be sure of the evidence?
- How can these insights be inter-subjectively (i.e. among scientists in a particular field) transmitted and accepted?
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The social sciences (dealing with human beings and their interactions) cover a particular area which is distinguished from the "natural" sciences (dealing with inanimate objects and "nature") in a number of important respects.
These concern the "multi-dimensionality“ of their subject matter, the "malleability“ and "plasticity“ of their objects changing over time and the fact that we as human beings and investigators are ourselves part of the subject matter which, again, poses special epistemological problems of interacting with it.
These distinctions are covered in the following slides.
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The social sciences deal, implicitly or explicitly, with three distinct dimensions.
- an "objective" one: some tangible objects as in the natural sciences;
- a "subjective" one of human perceptions and consciousness;
- and a "normative" one of human values and judgments.
These and their possible interactions can be illustrated in the graph below.
Multi-dimensionality of the social sciences
Such distinctions are common in all the sciences dealing with human existence (Immanuel Kant 1787/1956).
- in medicine they correspond to distinctions between "body" and "soul", or anatomy and psychology;
- in a similar way we distinguish between "hardware" and "software" in our computers;
- in all these disciplines, however, the normative/ethical dimension and concerns as expressed by the "oath of Hippocrates" in medicine or "internet ethics" today are also present.
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In the social sciences, different approaches emphasize one of these dimensions:
- for example, historical-materialist (Marxist) approaches take the "object" dimension (the economy and the modes of production) as their starting point;
- behaviouralists emphasize "subjective" perceptions and behaviour;
- "normative-ontological" (e.g. "Straussian") approaches discuss basic values of a "good" political order.
The plastic matter of social sciences
For Karl Popper (1972), the degree of determination of theories is located on a continuum between, at the extremes, "clocks" and "clouds".
"Clocks" are highly deterministic, mechanical systems which allow for great precision in pre-dicting or retro-dicting (as in astronomy). By contrast, "clouds" are almost intangible, have no clear structures or patterns and remain unpredictable. In between is a more malleable "plastic" substance matter where Almond and Genco (1977) place the social sciences (see Figure 2).
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Epistemologists distinguish between "naturalist" theories which take the "real world" for granted and, at the other extreme, "constructivist theories" which consider the world to be merely "constructed" by our concepts and perceptions;
- "Realist" theories take an intermediate position accepting a "real" world as perceived by our senses, but "constructing" and interpreting it through our concepts and theories (Moses/Knutsen 2012);
- Naturalist theories are located to the left of the continuum in Figure 2, constructivist theories to the right;
- In between is the area of "medium range" theories in Robert Merton‘s (1968) bounded in time and space;
- Carl Hempel‘s (1965) covering laws at best refer to the "clocks" on the left;
- Statistical methods (and restrictions) apply to the "probabilistic" realm, still more to the left, with possibilities, based on large numbers, of statistical inference;
- In the social sciences with a "small N" often only "conditions of occurrence", more in the middle, can be established.
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In fact, there is not a single absolute "law" in the social sciences, even “Duverger‘s laws“(1954) about the impact of electoral systems on party systems or Anthony Downs’ “median voter theorem“ (1957) are highly contextualized;
- systematic comparative methods like "Qualitative Comparative Analysis" (QCA) can establish some "covering conditions" in these respects;
- further to the right, "qualitative" studies of even fewer cases can be found, these can be "deeper" and more complex, but even less generalizable.
All these things are further complicated by the fact that we ourselves are part of this substance matter (Niklas Luhmann 1996).
This poses specific problems of perception or "objectivity" and creates interactions with the objects we study, as for example "self-fulfilling" or "self-defeating" prophecies in electoral studies or in the stock market, but it also opens up specific possibilities of understanding ("Verstehen" in Max Weber‘s (1949) sense) and more sensitive interpretations of others and the world we live in.
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"Constructivist" approaches can dig deeper into this subjectivity and the possible plurality of meanings in Foucault‘s (1970) sense.
This is another “differentia specifica“ of the social sciences as compared to the natural sciences.
From all this, a high level of social and political responsibility and the (practical-political) relevance of what we are doing in a normative sense follows as well.
Linking levels of analysis
In the social sciences several levels of analysis need to be distinguished:
- a "macro"- level referring to large social entities like entire societies, economies, states;
- a "micro"- level of individual persons living and acting in these entities;
- and a "meso"- level of more or less organized groups of persons and associations in between.
The links between these levels and their interactions can be illustrated with James Coleman‘s (1990) "bathtub" (Figure 3). An explanation of social events starts at the macro-level on the upper left-hand side (the "conditions of occurrence"), these then shape the possible perceptions and actions of individuals at the micro-level. In order to become effective in a larger sense, these actions often have to be aggregated by organizations at the meso-level on the right-hand side (for example social movements, interest groups, political parties), these then influence the final outcome on the macro-level on the right-hand side (the "explanandum").
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In this way, the major emphasis of important theoretical approaches also can be illustrated:
macro theories (for example historical-materialist) can be located at the upper left-hand corner drawing direct conclusions as to the "explanandum“ on the upper right-hand side;
by contrast, "methodological individualists" start at the micro-level, often based on very strong assumptions as to the "rational" behaviour of actors, Rational Choice Theory for example about a "homo oeconomicus" in economic theory maximizing his/her material benefits or voters making their choice according to such criteria.
Such assumptions can be extended to include a more comprehensive situation of individual actors as "Restricted, Resourceful, Evaluating, Expecting, Maximizing Men" (or women) (RREEMM) in Hartmut Esser‘s (1993) sense.
Further aspects concern various social Identities (family ties, group membership, ethnic, religious, etc.) and more Individualising tendencies in modern societies leading to assumptions of RREEIIMM (in German this can be used for a play of words: to make a „Reim“ (engl. rhyme) about something means making sense).
"Bounded rationality" at least takes into account some restrictions on the macro-level ("opportunity set", Jon Elster 1989) or "cultural framing".
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The "meso- level" on the right-hand side poses specific problems of aggregation, for example for "collective actions" (Mancur Olson 1968) with the possibility of "free-riding" by those who are not part of a particular organisation but nevertheless share the benefits (for example of union activities).
This whole pattern can, of course, also be "sequenced" showing dynamic interactions, but also sometimes a certain "path dependency" over time.
Thus, we all live in a multi-dimensional, ever-changing world of which we are all part in our specific ways and with which we have to deal with our various methods and approaches.
This makes our efforts to come to grips with it all the more complex and difficult, but also more challenging and worthwhile!
Risorse della lezione
- Epistemological foundations of the social sciences
- Mill‘s canons
- Further Advances, Comparative Research Designs
- Most similar and most different designs. Matching and Contrasting of Cases
- Introduction to Boolean Algebra, main steps of QCA
- QCA applications, troubleshooting, Multi-Value QCA (mv-QCA)
- Fuzzy set analyses, basic features
- Fuzzy set applications (fs/qca)
- Macro-quantitative (statistical) Methods
- Conclusions and Perspectives