Friday, February 16, 2024

Arthur Stinchcombe on method in the social sciences

In my sophomore year at Johns Hopkins I took a course in social theory taught by Arthur Stinchcombe. It was one of those courses designed for first-year graduate students, but also open to advanced undergraduates and others “by permission.” We may have read an essay or two by Talcott Parsons, I don’t really recall, but I’m sure that we read a number of chapters from Robert Merton’s Social Theory and Social Structure, especially the famous chapter on “theories of the middle range.”

What I particularly remember from the class is the term-paper assignment. We had to pick some social phenomenon, propose at least three ways of accounting for it (I think it was three), and devise tests (two or three?) that would discriminate between them. The interesting thing is that he didn’t care whether we chose a real social phenomenon, something we could point to in the real world, or if we just made something up. That made-up something had to be plausible in our world, of course; the assignment wasn’t an invitation to speculate about dragons or little green men. Stinchcombe was interested in our ability to reason like a sociologist. That ability didn’t depend on whether or not some phenomenon was known to exist, but on the structure of objects and forces interacting in the phenomenon. How did we think about those things?

Anyhow, a year or two later Stinchcombe published something of a handbook, Constructing Social Theories (Harcourt, Brace & World 1968). It’s an excellent book. Here a bit from the introduction that I’ve entered into my notes: “... Abraham Flexner once commented, the greatness of a research enterprise depends on the use it makes of its mediocre men . . .” What does that imply about the conceptual structure of such an enterprise? That is, how must a discipline be structured so that people can cooperate in that manner. Humanities disciplines are not structured like that. Most articles and books have only a single author. What is it about the sciences that allows multiple authorship?

Here’s a paragraph that’s influenced me a great deal:

In my first year of graduate-school, I turned in a paper to Reinhard Bendix called “Rhetorical Opportunities in Some Theories of Social Change.” After some discussion of the substance of the paper, he made a comment that has shaped my attitude toward “theory.” He said, “you know, a little bit of theory goes a long way.” He went on to say I ought to decide what phenomenon I wanted to explain.

If a little bit of it goes a long way, then perhaps theory consists of big thoughts. Yet, if you know anything about the conversations between teachers and students, you know that there’s a bit of kindly irony in that statement. Too much theory chasing too few observations leads to a mess.

But it was the next paragraph that floored me. I would even say it had a considerable impact on the way I conduct my intellectual life, though not in a BIG THINK kind of way.

A second graduate-school conversation, with Philip Selznick, shaped my attitude toward what theory is for. He remarked that one felt satisfied that he understood something when he could summarize in a sentence the guts of a phenomenon. He gave the illustration that he felt satisfied when he realized that the achievement of the Bolshevik parties was “to turn a voluntary association into an administrative apparatus.” To use, as a criterion of judgment, the guts of a phenomenon—what is going on—is better than to use any logical or formal criterion.

There you have it, a single sentence, but the guts of a phenomenon. The one-liner has become part of my intellectual routine. Such sentences are very difficult to craft. The blue whale, a single sentence. The krill, a single sentence. A star, a quark, the universe, single sentences all. But very special sentences, no?

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