Thursday, January 3, 2008

Social description as science

Descriptive research and writing in the social sciences is generally looked at with a degree of condescension. The complaint is that science should be explanatory, and descriptive work is both shallow and trivial. We can almost hear the doctoral supervisor responding to the candidate who has spent a year in primary research in the field and in tax offices in Indonesia, producing a finely detailed descriptive study of how the fiscal institutions actually work across levels and regions: "That's well and good, but what do you make of your findings? What patterns have you discovered? Why do the variations you've documented occur as they do? Where's your theory?"

The "shallow and trivial" criticism is unfounded and unjust. Our talented field researcher will have found an enormous and surprising range of variation among the institutions and practices he has studied. And these variations cannot be inferred from some general theory of fiscal institutions. They must be discovered and documented on the ground. Further, we can't come up with any useful theory of institutions in the absence of some rigorous, concrete, and particular descriptions of a variety of institutions. We need the complexity and texture of good, rigorous description to help produce genuinely explanatory theories. (Robert Klitgaard's treatment of corruption fits this description nicely; Controlling Corruption.)

So detailed descriptive research is important -- because the social world is unruly and varied, and there is no single rule or law that generates this diversity; and it is difficult, in that it requires extensive and disciplined efforts at observation and discovery. Moreover, descriptive research is theoretical in one important respect: deciding upon the features of the phenomena that are worth recording is itself the result of preliminary hunches about what is salient or significant. (Of course there is no such thing as pure description.)

At the same time, the critic is right in one important respect: having documented variation in practices and local implementation of the basic fiscal institutions, it is quite reasonable to expect the researcher to try to find some explanations of this variation. Our graduate student now needs to reconsider the manuscript and try to determine whether any of the variation and particularity makes sense from the point of view of known social mechanisms. Why did the Indonesian fiscal system evolve into the variegated structure it now consists of? And this is where social theory is most useful -- not as a grand explanatory scheme, but as many small bits of theory capturing some relevant features of behavior and institution-building in these particular circumstances. So, for example, our graduate student may notice that principal-agent problems are endemic in fiscal institutions. Given that taxes are being assessed and paid, all the participants have some motivation to subvert the process. So it may be that some observed variants can be explained as strategic efforts to solve principal-agent problems. Or as another example -- limited and unreliable forms of communication may exist in some parts of the country under study, and features of the fiscal system in these under-served regions may have been selected because they are less reliant on swift, accurate communication.

Maybe this gives a basis for assessing the role of descriptive inquiry in the social sciences.

  • Because social phenomena are heterogeneous and plastic, there is an important and enduring role for careful descriptive inquiry. The task of discovering and documenting the variety and diversity of social phenomena is both important and intellectually challenging.
  • Because social phenomena emerge from purposive human agency, there are an open-ended number of social mechanisms that are potentially relevant to the diversity that is discovered.
  • And because we are ultimately interested in explaining as much variation as we can, it is desirable to bring those theoretical widgets to bear on various elements of the diversity that is discovered in the descriptive research.

And, finally, it is unrealistic to imagine that either description or theorizing can be conducted solely independently. Instead, description requires theorizing and conceptualizing, and theorizing requires some accurate descriptions of the world to work with. As Kant wrote in a different context, "Concepts without percepts are empty, percepts without concepts are blind."

(As I imagine the hypothetical example above I think of Alfred Russel Wallace's fine and detailed descriptions of the flora and fauna of the Malay archipelago, and the role that this detailed natural history played in the formation of his own and Darwin's theories of natural selection. The purpose of the theory was to find some degree of order in the intricate diversity of the biological domain. But the biology of species had a major advantage over the sociology of institutions and practices: there was in fact only one governing mechanism, random variation and selection, so it was possible to encompass the full range of observed diversity under a single ecological theory. The case is different in the social world because there are multiple independent causes leading to social differentiation.)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Very helpful! Thanks