Thursday, 10 March 2016

Sociology and Lakatos

There was an interesting twitter exchange today between @profstevefuller and @mark_carrigan about sociology: Fuller stated that
"So-called 'public sociology' often looks like a kind of ventriloquism in which the sociologist is the dummy."
This questions not only the scientific content of sociology, but also its mission. I found myself , by coincidence, reading Lakatos's "The methodology of scientific research programmes" today, and found him make this statement (I leave out his discussion on Newton and Halley for brevity - but it is worth reading)
"all the research programmes I admire have one characteristic in common. They all predict novel facts, facts which had been either undreamt of, or have indeed been contradicted by previous or rival programmes. [...] Einstein's [research] programme [...] made the stunning  prediction that if one measures the distance between two stars in the night and if one measures the distance between them during the day (when they are visible during an eclipse of the sun), the two measurements will be different. Nobody had thought to make such an observation before Einstein's programme. Thus in a progressive research programme, theory leads to the discovery of hitherto unknown novel facts. In degenerating programmes, however, theories are fabricated only in order to accommodate known facts. Has, for instance, Marxism ever predicted a stunning novel fact successfully? Never! It has some famous unsuccessful predictions[...]"
I think the attack on Marxism is a broader assault on sociology doing what Fuller accuses it of. The ventriloquism is the process of making the theory (the sociologist's utterances) fit the facts (the agent's utterances).

The point about the prediction of novel facts is not, I think, about any kind of superiority of physics over sociology. It is about the demarcated roles of theory vs. experiment. From a cybernetic perspective it was quite simply expressed by Ashby: theories generate logical possibilities; experiments tell us how those logical possibilities are constrained in nature. The tension for any scientist is between explaining things, and identifying constraints or errors that are revealed through exploring the logical possibilities. It is, however, from the identification of error between theory and nature that science progresses. But errors exist at multiple and entangled levels: matter, bodies, discourse, ethics and so on.

The discovery of constraints ought to lead to theoretical refinement, which in turn ought to lead to new generative possibilities. It is this last bit which Marxism hasn't done properly: it refines its theories to fit the facts, but then doesn't re-run the implications of the adjusted theory. It simply tries to patch itself up. Lakatos puts it:
"Marxists explained all their failures: they explained the rising living standards of the working class by devising a theory of imperialism; they even explained why the first socialist revolution occurred in industrially backward Russia. They 'explained' Berlin 1953, Budapest, 1956, Prague 1968. They 'explained' the Russian-Chinese conflict. But their auxiliary hypotheses were all cooked up after the event to protect Marxian theory from the facts." 
What happens with this patched-up social theory is that it becomes so open to interpretation, the advantage of having a codified theory as an object to coordinate scientific engagement is completely lost. There is no agreement about theoretical categories, and no agreement about empirical procedures. Particularly without the latter, the discourse floats away - it has nothing to tether itself to: there is no shared object in the lifeworld around which scientists can have a constructive discussion.

The importance of any theory is its codified logical consistency which is the source of possibilities which may or may not actually exist. These are the source of new distinctions to be made about measurement (like Einstein's distance between stars), or the constraints that are discovered by a social theory not fitting lead to refinement which generates new possibilities amongst which might be some new insight into a "novel fact".

My favourite piece of predictive social science would probably be sniffed at by many sociologists: Winograd and Flores's "Understanding Computers and Cognition" of 1986. Not only is there a refutation of the prevailing view of technology at the time, but a clear and accurate prediction of where things would be 6 years later (and 6 years is a long time in technology!)

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