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.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

"And the great fleas themselves, in turn, have greater fleas to go on..."

This was just too good not to post more or less on its own:



Oddly, I feel satisfied with my place in the scheme of things. I don't think my field is just applied psychology but, hey, who wants to have an inter-disciplinary slap fight first thing in the morning?

Given the things I see written about us,* I'm just happy to see XKCD classing us as a science, you know?


* For example, I recently noticed a sociologist critiquing a textbook because it "...had a heavy focus on sociology as a science, which painted a very unidimensional picture of the discipline." Perhaps I'm in the minority,** but the whole reason I did sociology rather than, say, literary theory is that I want to study human society scientifically. That's kinda the whole point of the field.***

** Also, I'm a cranky bastard. I have no grudge against the "offending" sociologist and rather think she's promising... insofar as a moron like me can say that, anyway.

*** I'm suddenly reminded of a story from a conference I attended in my subject area. We'll call that area "wanking" for simplicity's sake. Anyway, I was talking to this guy who was attending for the first time and he said, "This wanking conference is great but all of the papers keep talking about wanking." And that's odd... why?

Labels: , , , ,

14 Comments:

Blogger Anomie said...

Re: sociology as a science - you're certainly not in the minority, but there is definitely a notable subset of sociologists who don't put much stock in the idea of treating sociology as a science. Especially a hard science with real, generalizable results. Such people usually do qualitative work. But their existence shouldn't be ignored.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008 12:27:00 PM  
Blogger Drek said...

Oh, I don't think there's anything wrong with acknowledging that such positions exist. Nor do I think that we should hide that fact from students. I do think, however, that we're under no obligation to lend anti-scientific positions any real credence. I imagine that medical schools acknowledge the existence of homeopathic placebos, but they don't seem compelled to teach about them. Likewise, there are some folks in biology who are adherents of such nonsense as intelligent design, but I doubt many biology programs regard that as sufficient reason to teach it. If sociology is the scientific study of society then shouldn't we actually do what we set out to do? You know... science?

As for qualitative research, I acknowledge the correlation, but there's nothing about qualitative work that is necessarily anti-scientific. Rigorous scientific qual does exist and I hate to see it lumped in with its poor relatives. I may be a quantoid but, really, without scientific qualitative work, I wouldn't get very far.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008 6:34:00 PM  
Blogger Anomie said...

Oh, I hadn't intended to make it sound like all qualitative scholars disassociate sociology from science; rather, i think all those who do so are doing qualitative work. At least, I have a hard time imagining a quantitative sociologist not aiming for scientific inquiry.

I guess I just don't see those who disagree with sociology's unilateral pairing with science as a small, marginalized group because I know too many of such people. Maybe it's my location or something. I actually hadn't realized that they were considered marginal in their viewpoints. They still consider their work to be the study of people (not all those definitions you linked to included the word 'scientific'), and even consider their work systematic.

I just figured that the disagreement was more akin to that which is currently taking place in history, and to some extent anthropology, regarding whether what they do is more humanities or literary, but with a systematic and studious leaning.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008 6:49:00 PM  
Blogger Drek said...

I guess I just don't see those who disagree with sociology's unilateral pairing with science as a small, marginalized group because I know too many of such people. Maybe it's my location or something. I actually hadn't realized that they were considered marginal in their viewpoints.

They're not necessarily marginal in terms of the discipline at large but I wouldn't say the non-scientific perspective is fully embraced by any means. That said, perhaps I can ask you to explain what you mean by non-scientific sociology, since you know so many practitioners? I want to make sure we're talking about the same thing.

And yeah, I realize that not all the definitions included "scientific" but we are considered a social science.

I just figured that the disagreement was more akin to that which is currently taking place in history, and to some extent anthropology, regarding whether what they do is more humanities or literary, but with a systematic and studious leaning.

I suspect that tensions run high in history over that point and, in truth, I think that this issue (whether or not we should strive to be scientific) may be the defining one for our discipline for the next hundred years or more. We were founded on the idea that science could address the human condition and I know which side of the issue I'm on. Others are welcome to their opinions, but I most assuredly have mine.

And, as folks may have noticed, am perhaps unwisely willing to mention them.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008 7:02:00 PM  
Blogger Anomie said...

I am defining scientific as deductive, objective-as-possible, priding in a Cartesian separation between subject and object, generalizable findings through the uncovering of basic facts of social life, which are derived from measurable evidence (found through empirical means), with such things as validity and reliability as the guiding posts of good results.

As opposed to a more inductive, insider's perspective, deep investigation of the non-empirical sort. The subject becomes the object in an attempt to learn and convey the experience, but even then, only through the lens of the researcher. There are still rules and guidelines for such work, but the focus and standards are different.

Beyond that, I'll have to wait until I unpack my old class notes, cuz this actually isn't my strength. I am more of a science person myself, but I like having both frameworks in sociology.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008 7:18:00 PM  
Anonymous Dan Hirschman said...

I recently had a good discussion with a soon-to-be-adviser here at Michigan about the quant/qual divide. I argued, and she agreed, that the quant/qual divide is somewhat falling by the wayside and is being replaced by the similar, but not quite overlapping, scientism/not scientism. I tend to fall in the "not science" camp, but it partly depends on what the consequences of calling something a science are. I spend a lot of time thinking about economics as a discipline, and there is no social science discipline that takes the science part more seriously, with sometimes disastrous consequences.

So, Drek, when you say you think of Sociology as a science (of society) what do you mean by that? What are the consequences of accepting Sociology as a science? What are the consequences of rejecting it as such?

Wednesday, June 11, 2008 8:18:00 PM  
Blogger Drek said...

As I continue thinking about this conversation I regret that I may have given the impression that we (and by "we" I particularly mean "I") may be passing judgment on whether someone's work is or is not sociology. We're just a bunch of punk grad students and it isn't really our place to do that, nor do any of us I think intend to. Perhaps if and when we are tenured faculty it will be time to dabble in such things but, for the moment, I just want it clear that I think we all regard this as a philosophical discussion.

In response to both Anomie and Dan I think I want to observe that a lot of different disciplines or, indeed, professions are engaged in the study of people. Journalism, law, art, literature and politics are all, arguably, engaged in the study of people. They also all strive to disseminate their findings to others. Where I think sociology has an opportunity to make a unique contribution is by trying to go about this study scientifically. This does mean that we need to be rigorous, systematic, and open ourselves to all the other checks and balances of the scientific process, but it also means something more fundamental.

As a science, our job is to try and figure out the basic rules that govern the operation of human societies. We aren't chroniclers or story-tellers- we have other fields that are much better suited to that than we are. Our focus should not be on recording and expressing every detail of the "lived experiences" of diverse groups for no better reason than that they are, in one way or another, different. Instead, I see us as discovering and understanding how we are all alike, how we all are responsive to similar processes, similar rules, and how we can use those similarities to improve life for our entire species. This is not to say that exploring that infinite diversity is dumb or unimportant- it is neither- but developing the higher-level theory and understanding of how all human societies work puts us in a much better position to understand those individual ones. Indeed, by grasping how all societies are alike, we can better appreciate the ways in which they are distinct.

What is lost if we don't strive to be scientific? Just our best chance to really explain how we work rather than to describe it. If we are underdeveloped as a science it, as Paul Krugman suggests, probably just reflects the difficulty of our task rather than implies that we should give up on the entire project. That something is hard, however, doesn't mean that we should give up.

Thursday, June 12, 2008 9:54:00 AM  
Blogger Anomie said...

1. In regards to "passing judgment," i think that any establish scholar would merely read our thread and be amused at how cute it is that we n00bs think we are figuring things out. In fact, in a few years, even we will find our words to be naive and idealistic. But isn't it our job to figure out the lay of the land so that we can decide where to set up shop after we graduate?

2.I think you've touched on a key difference between the science/not science folks: generalizability. Everything else is secondary and exists on both sides (for simplification, I'll call this a dichotomy though of course it isn't).

You speak as though you believe in a set of global rules of humanity --a guidebook of action and interaction that transcends time, space, and culture. I have no such faith. Maybe I'm not on the science side, after all....

I think that there is a middle-ground between descriptive work and evaluative or interpretive. You make it sound like work which doesn't make claims to generalizability (as most qualitative work is) is not trying for anything above description. Is that what you think? Or am I misinterpreting? Where do you think qualitative work falls in regard to science, since you define science largely in terms of discovering generalizable laws?

Thursday, June 12, 2008 12:47:00 PM  
Blogger Drek said...

But isn't it our job to figure out the lay of the land so that we can decide where to set up shop after we graduate?

That's true but a conversation among unrelated grad students is probably not going to serve that purpose particularly well.

I have no such faith. Maybe I'm not on the science side, after all....

I'm actually sorry to hear that but suspect from what you write that you aren't really a post-modern solipsist. At the very least we can probably agree that higher-order rules and processes operate over long swathes of history (e.g. agricultural era, industrial era, etc.). It seems probable that even if there are no bedrock processes common to all human civilizations and eras (which is a pretty strong assertion when you think about it) there are common processes within particular eras. Thus, what we discover may not always be applicable but, rather, may be so "only" for a few hundred years.

But all that said, yeah, I think there are a number of processes (e.g. power-dependence theory) that likely transcend historical contingency.

You make it sound like work which doesn't make claims to generalizability (as most qualitative work is) is not trying for anything above description. Is that what you think? Or am I misinterpreting? Where do you think qualitative work falls in regard to science, since you define science largely in terms of discovering generalizable laws?

In my view (and I've dealt with this before) qualitative work and quantitative work are symbiotic. Qualitative work provides detail and is ideal for theory generation but is quite poor at validating theory. Quantitative work, on the other hand, excels at theory testing but is not terribly well-suited to theory generation. To the extent that qualitative work is done with the intent of helping to build testable, generalizable theory I think it's very useful. Additionally, good qualitative work can sometimes point out flaws in existing theory that we might not see otherwise. But qualitative work that isn't oriented towards those goals is not particularly interesting. Likewise, there's a world of difference on the quantitative side between theory testing, high-level description, and flat out data dredging. Trawling datasets for findings may seem technical, but it doesn't really get us anywhere.

Is there a middle ground between "description" and "interpretation"? Perhaps, but compromise isn't the best answer in all circumstances.

Thursday, June 12, 2008 3:15:00 PM  
Anonymous Dan Hirschman said...

A few short thoughts on what should probably be a years-long conversation:
On the role of qualitative research, I highly recommend George Steinmetz's piece Odious Comparisons on the logic of small-N Research. His epistemological move to something called critical realism I find to be very refreshing if not 100% convincing. It's a way to embrace qual work, and thinking about unobservables, without dipping too deep into post-modernism.

I wonder if there's a way we can talk and think about sociology as a rigorous, empirical and theoretical enterprise without trying to emulate the natural sciences. That attempted (and always failed) emulation is my fear, as it has significant consequences (tending to forget the historical specificity of your findings, etc.). I don't want sociology to be like physics - I don't think it can or should be - but I don't want to reject rigor. The question for me is what a rigorous, empirical social science really looks like, and I don't think we can answer that as long as we keep wanting it to look like a natural science. (Obviously, lots of folks have tried to answer this problem in sophisticated ways, and I only bits of a few of them, but plenty of physics-like thinking persists in annoying ways. For example, look at Abbott's lampooning of the "General Linear Reality" model many sociologists work with.)

And before I finish, I want to offer a very brief defense of post-modernism and related ideas (e.g. post-structuralism). While there are obvious tendencies to excess, some of the ideas that have come out of those traditions have been incredibly productive. For example, the performativity literature in econ soc (MacKenzie and Callon foremost) draws heavily on the science studies of Latour and others which in turn owes a big debt to the models of power and knowledge in Foucault. I think MacKenzeie and Millo (2003) is very much a rigorous, empirical, systematic approach to a very tricky problem of the interaction of models of reality (in this case, a model for options-pricing) and the workings of that system (the options market).

Thursday, June 12, 2008 7:50:00 PM  
Blogger Dan said...

Oh, also, philosopher of social science Daniel little has a good post today on related topics here.

Thursday, June 12, 2008 8:48:00 PM  
Blogger Anomie said...

No, I consider myself a symbolic interactionist. However, I made the same statements to a friend and his response was "You may as well be writing, 'Pomo pomo pomo pomo'."

'Course, he is a pomo. But not a solipsist. I don't think, anyway...

I agree on the qualitative/quantitative pairing. In fact, I made a very similar argument in my dissertation defense, since I am doing mixed methods for those very reasons.

Friday, June 13, 2008 8:05:00 AM  
Blogger Drek said...

Dan: You're right, this is a debate that can really roll on indefinitely. That said, I wouldn't dismiss the natural science model too quickly if I were you. Certainly a physics model is not really suitable for us (as I've humorously observed) but biology has a lot in common with us. While they are certainly dealing with a lot of reliable, consistent rules, there's also a considerable amount of historical contingency involved. Evolution is not, after all, deterministic but rather resembles a sort of genomic random walk. That seems to me to be a pretty good analogy for what we grapple with.

Anomie: I suspect you mean your proposal defense, since you refer to your project in the future tense but no biggee. I'm pleased to hear that we have some agreement in here although, as with many things, there's considerable room for argument.

Friday, June 13, 2008 9:23:00 AM  
Blogger Anomie said...

Haha, yeah....my PROPOSAL defense. A bit of wishful thinking escaping in my words, methinks :$ .

And I think sociology would be boring and stunted if we all agreed on everything.

Thanks for the links, Dan!

Friday, June 13, 2008 9:28:00 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home

Site Meter