Thursday, February 25, 2010


Donatella Porta and Michael Keating say it all:

 The purposes of social science research are often contested.  For some, the aim is explanation of social behavior, on the assumption that it has causes that are knowable and measurable.  Few people now think that social science works like Newtonian mechanics, with fixed mechanisms that are predictable.  Some social scientists, however, do aim to approximate this; if they do not always succeed, it is because there is missing information which, in principle, could be supplied.  Other scholars prefer the analogy of biology, with social behavior evolving over time in response to learning and adaptation.  Some of the work in historical institutionalism is informed by this idea.  Yet some social scientists disclaim the idea of explanations and causation altogether, seeking rather to understand the motivations and calculations of actors who are not pre-determined in their behavior.  This breaks altogether with the natural science analogy and is closer to the approach and methodology of historians.  Expressed in modern social science as the choice between agency and structural explanations, this dilemma corresponds in many ways to the old philosophical debate as to how far human beings are possessed of free will.

Epistemological debates often pit positivists or realists, who believe in the concrete reality of social phenomena, against constructivists or interpretivists, who emphasize human perception and interpretation. 

Methodological debates are often framed as a confrontation between the quantitative methodologies used by positivists and the qualitative ones used by constructivists and interpretivists.

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