Total Drek

Or, the thoughts of several frustrated intellectuals on Sociology, Gaming, Science, Politics, Science Fiction, Religion, and whatever the hell else strikes their fancy. There is absolutely no reason why you should read this blog. None. Seriously. Go hit your back button. It's up in the upper left-hand corner of your browser... it says "Back." Don't say we didn't warn you.

Monday, September 20, 2004

Diplomacy

If you weren't in class with me the other day, you're excused from reading this post. Hell, if you WERE in class with me the other day, you're excused. Go play outside or something.

So, it wouldn't have been diplomatic to say this the other day, given our past relationship and all, but I just can't hold back altogether on this one.

If you're looking to find a classical sociologist to back up your contention that we should attend more to historical circumstances when attempting to explain phenomena, about the last person you should pick is Karl Marx. I know, I know, he spent a lot of time examining history and he included historical detail in works like The 18th Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, but that doesn't mean he would have been "down" with historical explanations. Let's be honest, shall we? Marx used history to derive a general theory that explains history. See the relevance there? He wanted to make history the object of his study, not the explanatory variable. Didn't he, in fact, refer to the coming of the communist worker's paradise as "the end of history?" That doesn't suggest, to me anyway, that Marx thought that history was anything other than a dependent variable.

Now I'll grant you that your specific written statement about Marx could be interpreted in a variety of ways, including only that Marx used history to fill in the details around his broad theory. We both know, however, from your argument in class, and the rest of what you wrote, that your claims were more broad than that.

Look, if you want to argue for historicity, that's fine, but use a classical sociologist who might actually agree with you. Max Weber springs to mind pretty quickly, that whole Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism thing of his is pretty much entirely a historical argument. When you add in his broader methodological views, I'd say you have a pretty strong case. Invoking good old Saint Karl, however, makes you look like an ass.

As long as we're on the subject, can I just ask why historical arguments have been so popular of late? I mean, don't get me wrong, I don't think that our theories can explain everything and there will always be a need to attend to specific historical detail to understand particular deviations from theory or to explain why some events happen at the precise moments that they do. I'm sure Brayden would agree with me there. I'm not arguing that there isn't a role for history to play in sociology.

The thing is, historical arguments defeat the entire point of sociology if taken too far. We're not here to provide an exhaustive accounting of all the circumstances that led up to certain things, we're here to provide parsimonious arguments that explain why things happen. The key term there is "parsimonious" or having the characteristic of parsimony. History provides us with a wealth of detail that can inform our models, but as scientists our job isn't to chuck it all into the mix like a manic-depressive Chef Boyardee, our job is to use as little data as possible to explain as much as we can. That's what makes us useful.

Historical arguments can very easily degenerate into a linear accounting of events that loses any real theoretical quality. This doesn't mean that it isn't good scholarship, but it does mean that it isn't good science. There is a difference. So, I could provide a very rigorous historical account of my last car trip:

The subject turned the ignition at approximately 3:15 PM. Turning to look out the back window, he selected reverse and gradually extracted the auto from the carport, taking care not to scrape off his side-view mirror on the structure. Once the front of the car was clear of the carport supports, he turned the wheel sharply in a clockwise direction, curving the backend of the vehicle towards his neighbor's old truck and pointing the front of his own vehicle towards the street. When his rear bumper was a few inches from his neighbor's car he stopped, placed the vehicle in drive, and eased forward.


I could go on with that for pages, folks, since we'll all note that I've given you a fairly detailed, very accurate description that doesn't even have me out of my driveway yet. Alternatively, I could simply give you the simple underlying cause and description of what was going on.

Drek needed various foodstuffs, and drove to the grocery store (aka "the Ghetto-Fry's") for them.


Sure, the second explanation doesn't provide as much detail, but it does neatly explain what happened and why. Leave the psychotic attention to historical detail to folks who are better at it than we are: the historians. We're scientists, our job is a little different.

So forgive me if I'm less enthusiastic about historical arguments than some. Again, I think historical circumstances will always play a part in sociology, but let's not go overboard about it, okay?

1 Comments:

Blogger Brayden said...

Sure, your description of shopping is parsimonious but it lacks abstractness. To be appropriately sociological you would need to rephrase it: "Drek satisfied material needs by acquiring resources at the most geographically proximate grocery store."

I'm sure you could say something here too about homophily, but I'm no expert on such things.....

Monday, September 20, 2004 10:20:00 AM  

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