We can provide an alternative social ontology—a better grounding for sociological research. The social sciences could have begun with a greater degree of agnosticism about the orderliness of social phenomena. We could have started with the observations that—
- Social phenomena are created by human beings (deliberately, intentionally, or unknowingly)
- Human beings behave as a result of their socially constructed beliefs, values, goals, attitudes, modes of reasoning, emotions, …
- There is a wide range of variation that is visible among social arrangements and institutions, across cultures, across space, and across time (long duration and short duration)
- Social institutions, organizations, and structures have a degree of observable stability across cohorts and generations of the human beings who make them up
- There are social causes, and they are ordinary, observable, and mundane. They are variants of the agent-structure nexus.
These initial ontological observations would have led us to some framing expectations about the social and about the likely results of social science inquiry:
- contingency of social outcomes
- Variation of social trajectory
- Plasticity of social institutions
- Heterogeneity among instances of a “type” of social thing
- No “laws of motion” for development or modernization
And we might have set several research objectives for the social sciences:
- To study in some detail how various institutions work in different social settings (empirical, fact-driven observation and analysis)
- To study human behavior, motivation, and action – again, with sensibility to variation, without the assumption that there is one ultimate human nature or governing mode of behavior.
- To be as aware of variation and plasticity as we are attentive to the discovery of social regularities
- To discover and theorize some of the causal mechanisms that can be observed within social processes
- To identify weak regularities of behavior and institution through observation
- To theorize these regularities in terms of agent-structure dynamics; aggregation of features of decision-making; unintended consequences. For example, free rider phenomena (economists) and self-regulating commons (common-property resource institutions)
We then might have arrived at a different conception of what a “finished” social science might involve: not a deductive theory with a few high-level generalizations and laws, but rather an “agent-based simulation” that embodies as many of the characteristics and varieties of behavior as possible into the simulation, and then projects different possible scenarios. The ideal might have been “sim-society” rather than deductive-nomological theory.