Madness Is Not In the Methods – It’s In the Theory

By Graham Peterson

When I was an undergraduate studying economics, my then advisor, Deirdre McCloskey, would tell me bench science is what mattered.  Her point, that I stand behind, is that social scientists ought to model themselves after engineers, empirical physicists, or field biologists – not philosophers, literary theorists, or pure mathematicians.

So as I read what I eventually discovered was called “methodology,” I literally got the picture in my head of a scientist with method A, at a bench placing an object on one side to measure it with a yard stick, versus method B, placing it in a tub of water to measure its volume.  Maybe in constructing his theory, he would go get a Vis-à-Vis dry erase marker and from first principles, draw what the object should look like on an 8.5×11 transparency, then hold that transparency up in front of the object on his bench with one eye closed to see how close the lines fit.*  In any event, methodology, when I was studying economics, seemed to connote actually doing something.

In contrast, when I’ve been involved in discussions about methods and methodology in sociology, they are rarely about a statistical procedure, or about how to interview ethnographic subjects without them bullshitting you –  but rather just about a way of thinking.  That’s fine.  We need theory.  And I am even on board somewhat with the idea that frameworks of thought themselves act, by selecting within that framework, what the beholder of such a framework will allow herself to, or be prone to, see.

So fine, thinking is in itself doing.  But let’s not pretend that it’s not a philosophical point.  “Methodology” is not a fancy word for “different schools of thought.”  I realize there are very technical phrases and a whole corpus of social theory lain out, arguing for one epistemology or ontology or another.  Honestly, after about three years of studying such things with some determination, I still have only a very vague sense of what the difference between epistemology and ontology is – and I have quite less interest in learning it in order to dress up my ideas about human behavior and impress my colleagues.

And as for the usual alternative put forth, I’m even less impressed by the mathematical economist’s (or mathematical sociologist’s or just mathematician’s) sense that by doing mathematics he is going above and beyond the mere talking of other theorists.  Verbal and mathematical theorists both end up on runaway trains with obtuse vocabularies that no one can penetrate except their coauthors or reviewers (who are on other days co-authoring).  The social relevance of a theory is a linear and increasing function of the number of people who can read it.

Obtuseness flies in the face of, for math-o’s, claims to parsimony, clarity, and cleanliness – and for the word-processor-o’s, so too the opposite claims of illuminating complexity, enlightening duality, and real-world grittiness.  Both reduce empirical complexity with metaphor; both make qualitative logical statements; both fail their goals in extremum.

If we’re going to talk about methods, let’s keep a nice straightforward definition of what a method is: measuring, counting, recording, estimating, translating, interviewing, surveying, observing.  To be sure there are different ways to go about theorizing.  And we could call these methods of doing theory.  But they don’t deserve the word.

Theory is theory.  It is a simulation, an interpretation, an a priori derivation, a categorization – the work with the Vis-à-Vis pen before holding the transparency up to check the empirical error.  It’s just thinking.  Systematically, sure, but just thinking.  Watching people argue over who has put themselves through greater pains—err rigor—in their thinking, is a lot like watching two Iowans argue over the kids on Judge Judy: “Math is hard!”  “Well, thinkin’ don’t pay the rent, honey!”

There are already enough dead ends with David Bowie in strange makeup in the labyrinth of theory, without confusing theory for empirical methods.  To those favoring the primacy of thought and culture and so forth in action: we admit it.  We surrender.  All social science is merely story telling.  But the goal is to tell better stories, and the only way to do that is to discipline our stories with empirical methods.  If one wants to be a philosopher or mathematician or novelist, one ought to be honest and get a degree in it and call oneself one professionally.  Or there’s always bloggin’.

*Credit is due to Peter McMahan, Maria’s Packaged Goods & Community Bar, and Wild Turkey 101 for the transparency metaphor.


One thought on “Madness Is Not In the Methods – It’s In the Theory”

  1. Some trouble with the comments; working out bugs. Terry Clark writes:

    Yes these are frustrations to us all. There is no One right answer, as there are many tastes and many problems. But look maybe for samplers at Hubert Blalock Theory Construction for the focus on linking an empirical theory with the more general theory and how to test it with raw data. maybe chs 2-4 or so? the approach from Hans Zetterberg On Theory and … book, stressing propositions thru path analysis in say Dudley Duncan, led Robert Hauser et al to many papers that would refute Bourdieu’s social mobility and heirs ideas. But it was too simple for others who wanted interactions with contexts and more, like R. Boudon in his Wiley book on stratification models. These folks write and think in ways that are closer to econometricians like Jim Heckman, who are far from many economic theorists. The idea of boxes and arrows that Blalock codifies from econ and sociology can help a lot. For all methods and types of theorizing.

    Terry Clark, Sociology, U of Chicago


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