Thursday, March 18, 2010

Culture And Social Science

Michael Keating says it all:

The social sciences face four enduring problems in understanding and explaining behavior.  First is how to account for both continuities and change over time within societies.  Second is to explain the connection between micro-level changes and the larger, macro level.  Third, and related, is how to explain the connection between individual decisions and the aggregate behavior of a society as a whole.  Fourth is the relationship between the hard facts of the social world and the way in which these are interpreted by people.

Cultural explanations of social phenomena go directly to the collective level, they are essentially social and in many respects (but not quite all) they represent a challenge to methodological individualism.  They also seek to bridge external explanation, by reference to a social world, and internalist explanations, which rely on individual interpretation and decision.  Yet if culture allows us to identify and explain differences in behavior among groups -- be these nations, classes, genders or localities -- it is an extremely elusive and slippery idea, prone to all manner of abuse

[Culture] can help to understand and explain social and political institutions and behavior, but only if it is understood in a sophisticated way.  Although there are numerous difficulties in operationalizing and measuring it, these are not totally insurmountable. . . . insight into the complexity of culture can be gained through triangulation and combining different methods.  Thus surveys can tell us a lot about popular attitudes, while ethnographic work may be needed to explore their meaning.


  1. Who is Michael Keating?

  2. He is a political scientist at the University of Aberdeen, in Scotland. He has a Wikipedia page if you desire more information.

    The quotes come from Approaches and Methodologies in the Social Sciences, a wonderful social science research primer that Keating co-edited with Donatella Della Porta.