Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Social Facts, Social Problems, and Social Science (part 2)

"The problem from the beginning was not Moynihan’s publication of what were actually well-established facts, but rather his distorted interpretation of these facts. ... If Moynihan’s critics were unusually vociferous, this was because they understood what was at stake." (Stephen Steinberg)

Brayden King's post at OrgTheory is a great illustration of the constitutive tension between social facts and social problems in social science that I was talking about on Monday. Here the question is whether "cultural factors", which are a subset of the totality of social facts, ought to be invoked in our explanation of poverty, which is one of the classic social problems.

Brayden takes an explicitly pro-science position, going so far as to call Steinberg "anti-science":

The main problem I have with Steinberg’s argument, as a complete outsider to the field, is that he seems to be saying that we should reject all cultural mechanisms that might explain variance in poverty, regardless of their actual explanatory power. This dogmatic stance seems very anti-science and anti-scholarly inquiry. Rejecting explanatory mechanisms without empirical evidence is a sure way to stultify the progress of knowledge about our social world.

I am more inclined to grant Steinberg's point, even in the somewhat sharpened version that Brayden offers. In the case of Moynihan's report, in fact, Steinberg, it seems to me, is challenging precisely the explanatory power of cultural factors: "Moynihan made the fatal error of inverting cause and effect." But even in the case where an "empirical" argument could be made that a group's culture explains why it is poor it will, it seems to me, be difficult to decide whether to stop the analysis before explaining that group's culture.

That, again, is the constitutive issue of social science. Once we have discovered a set of social facts that have sufficient explanatory relevance and that we have sufficient "empirical evidence" for, we must ask whether those facts are also relevant to the solution of an interesting social problem. As Small et al.'s paper and Steinberg's response show, social scientists simply don't confine themselves to Brayden's rules of critique. Sometimes social scientists do disregard the "science" of their work and criticize each other based on the more or less obvious political implications of what they are saying. Sometimes they grant the "empirical basis" for the sake of argument. The reason is that there may be some larger fact that sufficiently explains the "factors" in question, and social scientists might see it as their duty to discover that larger fact before legitimizing well-established myths about the factors.

One way to look at this debate is through the implicit principle that any factual explanation must identify that which must be changed to fix the problem. (This principle can be seen in Steinberg's commentary here, for example: "it is not their culture that needs to be changed, but rather a political economy that fails to provide jobs that pay a living wage to millions of the nation’s poor, along with a system of occupational apartheid that has excluded a whole people from entire job sectors throughout American history.") If it would be inappropriate—or even just unrealistic—to "fix" the culture of the poor, then it is irrelevant to study it. Otherwise, the sociologist is merely explaining why society "has to be" the way it actually is. Some social scientists appear to be content to produce such explanations. Fortunately, the field of sociology as a whole remains critical of them.


Presskorn said...

Question: Are you asserting the last paragraph or merely suggesting a way to look at the debate?... It seems a productive way to look at the debate, but, as it were, nevertheless a poor assertion...

Thomas said...

Both, I think. But you've got me worried.

You think it is a poor principle?

Presskorn said...

I agree with your overall point; namely, that social science ought to be (and in fact is) guided, at least partially, by something like what Habermas called an ”emancipatory” erkentnisinteresse. I also agree with the specific premise that the chain of causality usually goes from economics to culture and not vice versa.

Furthermore I agree with your principle as a way of looking at the debate, in so far as it would allow us to identify forms of explanation, which are possibly “conservative”. Which would then allow us to investigate the specific content of such a political motive/agenda.

But I think you’re overstating your case, if you’re asserting [this I what I clumsily called ‘assertion’ in the previous comment] that forms of explanation, which don’t not “fix problem”, ought to be excluded. Excluded ‘a priori’? On what grounds? Some sort of quasi-transcendental principle? And wouldn’t the stipulation of such a principle conflate theoretical and practical reason?

Imagine a community in some sort of miserable state. Imagine furthermore that the misery can be explained primarily by economic factors, but that no economic solution is in sight in any foreseeable future. Imagine also that some sort of cultural engineering might however produce limited results in “fixing the problem”. In fact, you need not imagine; just think of Africa. In this case, should we prefer the cultural explanation to the economic, even if the economic explanation is more explanatorily potent? Really? I can hardly imagine anyone who would want to hold this position.

The true problem, in my opinion, is forms of explanation, which are both conservatively biased and explanatorily impotent. Two examples of such poor forms of explanations from social science that spring to my mind are neoclassical economics and the Evans-Pritchard hypothesis of Azande witchcraft.

Incidentally but interestingly, they both concern the modernist theme of rationality. Neoclassical economics overestimate the rationality of economic actors and Evans-Pritchard underestimate the rationality of the Azande.

Thomas said...

I really do think it is distasteful for Western social scientists to pontificate about African cultures while treating their economic problems as though "no solution is in sight in the foreseeable future". I suppose handing out condoms is "some sort of cultural engineering"? Or sending Bono and Angelina Jolie down there?

Presskorn said...

I am not sure that the Pope's stance on condoms solves anything. But you're right about Bono and Angelina... And you're right more generally too, it is in some respects distasteful.

And I should left it out; especially since it plays no role what so ever in my argument.

But if you want to shift continents, I also think it's right to explain some aspects of Western societies by means of, say, Althusser's structural marxism, even though no revolution is "in sight in the foreseeable future".

Jonathan said...

A sociologist cannot study the culture of the poor, because that implies that the poor are poor because of their inadequate culture. But a cultural anthropologist could study this culture, because it is valuable in and of itself as culture. So the shift from a less "statist" view (as proposed in the post after this) would also allow a study oriented toward a more humanistic view.

We could also study the cultural argument as made from within the culture, by Black Muslims or by Bill Cosby, for example. To say that cultural arguments about poverty should be ruled out of school, because they are used to explain why people are poor, seems inadequate to me. Or maybe it's because I've been watching a lot of blaxploitation movies lately. I'm very interested in the way these movies frame the relations between poverty, power, militancy, crime, and culture. The relations between these four or five elements flow in all directions at once.

Thomas said...

Yes, I think we should study culture as culture, not as an "explanation" for social phenomena (whether problematic or not). Culture is who we are, not why, and we should respect that.

Whether cultural anthropology is the right approach will depend on our approach to cultural anthropology itself. Much of it is pseudo-science in my opinion (and, like sociology, also crypto-politics).

Good anthropology, like Nabokov's "serious psychology", is just careful humanistic scholarship. The study of the way cultural activity rewrites our subjectivity—kicks our asses. Mayhewianism, in short.