Saturday, September 19, 2009

"It became apparent that the "modern" worldview, which explained the world in terms of 'states and failed states' and which was shared by both the US and the Soviet Union during the Cold War, no longer sufficed to explain what is truly going on in the world today and why. However, the objective truth of the modern world was not replaced by a new objective truth.

Now we are left with post-modernist "accounts," subjective opinions of self-appointed experts, because we often lack hard data about the nature or severity the problems we face. Policy makers and states now use the "precautionary principle," (thanks to the Bush administration) which presupposes that you don't have to wait for conclusive hard evidence to act against a perceived threat. The way "experts" frame the problems, or "questions" at hand, determines our response to these problems. The academic gave the example of HIV/AIDS. Is it a developmental problem or a security problem? The answer we give to this question will determine which actors will tackle it, what they will do to solve it, and what resources will be spent on it. We can think of many other examples. Take terrorism or climate change.

Although we often don't have hard evidence and easy answers, it is still important to try to understand the actors we are dealing with. For example, the West perceives China as a rising power, a competitive force so competitive precisely because it does not respect the rules. But it is difficult for Westerners to convince China that complying with international labor and environmental standards, reining in on corruption and crime, and refusing to deal with the likes of Hassan al-Bashir will be good for the Chinese in the long-term. China needs high economic growth in the short-term to maintain social peace." From my article,
Leading Uneasy Lives, 17 January 2009.

"Also in 2001, Bent Flyvbjerg in his book Making Social Science Matter identified a way out of the Science Wars by arguing that (1) social science is phronesis, whereas natural science is episteme, in the classical Greek meaning of the terms; (2) phronesis is well suited for the reflexive analysis and discussion of values and interests, which any society needs to thrive, whereas episteme is good for the development of predictive theory, and; (3) a well-functioning society needs both phronesis and episteme in balance, and one cannot substitute for the other." From the Wikipedia entry, Science Wars.

"[Sociology is ] ... the science whose object is to interpret the meaning of social action and thereby give a causal explanation of the way in which the action proceeds and theeffects which it produces. By 'action' in this definition is meant the human behaviour when and to the extent that the agent or agents see it assubjectively meaningful ... the meaning to which we refer may be either (a) the meaning actually intended either by an individual agent on a particular historical occasion or by a number of agents on an approximate average in a given set of cases, or (b) the meaning attributed to the agent or agents, as types, in a pure type constructed in the abstract. In neither case is the 'meaning' to be thought of as somehow objectively 'correct' or 'true' by some metaphysical criterion. This is the difference between the empirical sciences of action, such as sociology and history, and any kind of prioridiscipline, such as jurisprudence, logic, ethics, or aesthetics whose aim is to extract from their subject-matter 'correct' or 'valid' meaning." Max Weber The Nature of Social Action 1922, from the Wikipedia entryAntipositivism.

A few thoughts on social sciences

When I studied economics in university I considered subjects like sociology, anthropology, cultural studies, psychology and even politics "soft." They didn't give definite answers, there was little way of "falsifying" them. Because they couldn't be tested, it was hard to tell their value. But then I realized, as with many things, social reality isn't something that could be understood easily.

Once a senior colleague explained me the three ways of approaching social reality (please correct me if I'm missing something). Durkheim believed that the society was like an organism; interdependent actors and institutions performed different, but complementary functions in it. The characteristics and health of a society could be studied objectively. Marx argued that the power struggle between distinct groups gave rise to social action and conflict. Weber thought that there was no objective social reality, neither the meaning an outsider gives to an action nor the insider's intention in performing that action could be taken as its objective meaning.

We unconsciously draw from all three approaches while trying to make sense of social reality. However, I find Weber's insights particularly useful. The outsider should shed her preconceived opinions and try to understand the context, imagine. The insider should shed her interests in that particular context and try to judge her actions against more objective benchmarks.

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