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Anti-naturalism – the truth about social science? March 20, 2009

Posted by Sverre in : Methods in political science , trackback

Discussing the philosophy of science of the social sciences is always interesting, at least for those of us that are academically nerdy enough. LFC, the author of Howl at Pluto has highlighted the article “Concept Formation in Political Science: An Anti-Naturalist Critique of Qualitative Methodology” by Mark Bevir and Asaf Kedar in which the authors go against the naturalist focus on causal relationships in the social sciences. LFC’s analysis of their work is summed up in the following paragraph:

This all points to a more basic issue: Is there only one correct, philosophically defensible way to do social science? Some scholars believe that only an approach aimed at causal explanation is valid. B&K take the opposite side but adhere to an equivalent exclusiveness. The implication of their position seems quite clear: only one kind of social science will pass muster.

If I interpret LFC correctly, we both agree that both major philosophical ideas of social science has their merit and have contributed to social science as a whole. His post made me interested in reading the entire piece, which in a way surprised me and made me think even if I for the most part disagree with it.

On page 25, Bevir and Kedar state their mission as:

Before we turn to Sartori and Collier, however, we wish to reiterate that our critique of them is a philosophical one. Our critique attempts to unearth the philosophical assumptions in their methodology, showing them to be naturalistic and hence, given the foregoing arguments, inappropriate for political analysis. We seek thereby to shift the debate from the practical advantages of methodological strategies to their underlying philosophical assumptions. Given our philosophical agenda, there is no need for us to examine the soundness or quality of the substantive outcomes of Collier and Sartori’s approaches to concept formation. Rather, our critical task will have been fulfilled once we manage to demonstrate that those scholars’ methodologies are marked by a discredited naturalism.

They appear to be going on a crusade against current qualitative methodology on the grounds that it has accepted too much of the philosophy of science of naturalism and has thus undermined its own philosophical foundation. In their view, this makes current social science irrelevant.

In my opinion – and this is in large part what makes social science interesting – the acceptance of naturalist methodology, if not a strict naturalist philosophy of science, is a pragmatic way of accepting something less than complete knowledge as something that might still be useful. For me, the essence of social science is the ability to combine philosophical ideals and humanist concepts of understanding and intentionality with naturalistic conceptions of empiricism and causation to create better, if not complete, understanding of phenomena.

It appears to me that it is such perversions of the search for ultimate enlightenment that Bevir and Kedar are crusading against. And this is where I think they are moving beyond the realm of social science altogether.

The line they try to draw between themselves and the ‘naturalists’ (which is really more of a great gulf than a line) depends in larte part on the latter’s inattentiveness to the “holistic nature of meaning”. This concept – rather elusively defined in their article – appears to imply that intentionality is the only relevant aspect of human action, that study of outcomes is unimportant for understanding. They are opposed to social scientists reducing “meaning” to a variable in a larger picture. In their words (p. 30):

This atomization of concepts forecloses the possibility of holistic explanations that would open out on to the whole web of beliefs of social actors. Here too we thus find the naturalist elision of meaningfulness.

…and thus we get to their conclusion, and the essence of their work. I’m not familiar enough with Sartori and Collier to assess whether or not their analysis of these two authors make sense, so I stick with the general conclusions:

We began this essay by showing that there has arisen a widespread agreement (among philosophers if not in the unreflective practice of many social scientists) that anti-naturalist premises are the most appropriate for social science, where anti-naturalism highlights the meaningful and contingent nature of social life, the situatedness of the scholar, and so the dialogical nature of social science.

It still appears to me like what they are trying to do is discard social science as a whole, which is pragmatic by nature, and return to the realm of philosophy.

Still, their thoughts are interesting to read and discuss. I thank LFC for giving me (yet another) interesting few hours of distraction from my thesis work that will surely make me a better and more reflected social scientist, but not necessarily one with good grades to show for it.


1. LFC - March 20, 2009

I think the passage you have quoted from p.25 (PDF version) of the article is, indeed, very revealing. To write, as Bevir and Kedar do, that they do not have to examine the “substantive outcomes” of Collier and Sartori’s approaches once they have shown their philosophical assumptions to be wrong is, in a way, quite astounding.
I don’t think, however, that I’d say that B&K “want to discard social science as a whole.” Rather, they want to claim that there is only one philosophically justifiable way of doing social science which would, in effect, restrict social science to a particular kind of interpretive/ethnographic work, which means, as far as I can tell, Geertzian style cultural anthropology, a certain kind of historical analysis (e.g. EP Thompson, William Sewell, G. Stedman Jones — see their cites to authors they like), plus a lot of post-structuralist (Foucauldian, Bakhtinian etc.) work, and related strands. There is value in some of this, to be sure, and Geertz’s
‘The Interpretation of Cultures’ has much to recommend it, but for most people it’s too narrow a definition to say “that’s it, nothing else is justifiable.”
Bevir and Kedar must know that: 1)most political scientists are not going to read their article; and 2)those who do read it and don’t already agree with them are probably not going to have their minds changed. But there has been a lot of interest lately, in American polisci especially, in qualitative methods (see the APSA organized section on qual. methods and its newsletter), and the B/K article should be read as an intervention in this ongoing discussion.
I’m glad you found my post and the article interesting, and thanks for your reflections.

2. sverrebm - March 20, 2009

I agree with you that it’s not their aim to discard social science, but I do think that would be the result if one were to adapt their thoughts completely. They’re not only attacking quantitative research, but also the grounds on which qualitative research is done by most social scientists.

If we were all to implement their thoughts, there would be little left to distinguish social science from philosophy and history, and it would cease to be a different branch of science.

It appears from what they write that it is the current development of quantitative analysis that makes them react. It’s not the pure naturalists they’re really attacking, but those social scientists that believe themselves not to be naturalists and apply their way of thinking to corrupting qualitative practice.