domingo, 1 de julio de 2007

Peter Hall: The Dilemmas of Contemporary Social Science

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"For two hundred years, social science has provided the lens through which people view society and the visions animating most demands for political reform – at least since Adam Smith’s efforts to unleash the ‘invisible hand’ of the market without destroying the moral sentiments of society. However, the perspectives of social science shift, as each new generation questions its predecessors, with import for politics as well as the academy. From time to time, therefore, we should reflect on them. In this essay I do so from the perspective of political science, mainly about American scholarship and with no pretense to comprehensiveness, but with a focus on the disciplinary intersections where so many have found Archimedean points. Intellectual developments in any one field are often ‘progressive’ in the scientific sense of that term. But something can be lost as well as gained in the course of them, and there is reason for concern about the fate of social science over the past twenty-five years. What has been lost becomes clear only if we revisit the path taken.


What Has Been Lost?

Before turning to the costs of these disciplinary shifts, we should celebrate the gains. The intellectual quilt that history sews today is more richly-colored and intricately-patterned than some of the blankets of yesteryear. Translating the declining deference of the 1960s across time, historians now notice entire groups of people invisible to the high and low histories of previous eras. The same might be said of literary studies. After three decades of immersion in a post-modern bath, we see better how words become things and how much of what is taken for granted is socially constructed—the artifact, whether artful or not, of the efforts of the privileged to retain power and of the rest to go along so as to get along. Beside the studies of domestic pets in nineteenth century France are studies of the enforced domesticity of women that press us to reexamine our own world.

The new institutionalism has also been a salutary endeavor. With a new focus on strategic interaction, economics freed itself from the grip of marginalism. Few concepts have ever illuminated more corners of the political economy than the contention that institutions can facilitate the formation of credible commitments. An emphasis on institutional practices revealed new dimensions of national polities and released political science from hydraulic images of politics as flotsam and jetsam responding mainly to waves of socioeconomic pressure.

Why might one be dissatisfied in the wake of these disciplinary twists and turns? At a minimum, there are signs that the main seams of ore in these research programs may have been exhausted. Of cultural studies one can ask: does anything remain to be deconstructed? What are the new insights yet to be gained? The post-modernist lens provided new ways of seeing the world, but it has now been finely ground. What will we learn from another study of gender relations at the turn of the last century?

Similar questions should be asked of cultural history, if only to inspire reflection on its future directions. The social and political histories of a previous era sought explanations for outcomes of social importance, whether devolving over long periods of time, such as changing familial relations, or seemingly sudden, such as the outbreak of the First World War. One could judge those histories, not only by elements in their craftsmanship, analogous to those distinguishing a Manet from a Valadon, but by how convincing their explanations were. By what terms should we judge cultural history today? In some studies, it can be difficult to find outcomes analogous to those historians once tackled and, therefore, to know what is at stake. Is cultural history an explanatory enterprise? If so, how do its explanations measure up against those that look beyond culture? Of course, history need not be explanatory just because other social scientists are interested in explanation. By revealing other worlds, it widens the scope of our imagination. But, if history is not to be explanatory, why not? What will keep it from becoming an antiquarian enterprise of interest only to small numbers of enthusiasts?

My own discipline confronts equally challenging issues. Having discovered the hammer of credible commitments, is it useful for political science to go on banging it against ever more pegs? This literature has an increasingly formulaic quality. Of course, as Lakatos advises, scientific research programs must hold onto a core heuristic. But is this research program still progressive or degenerating around the edges? Its Achilles heel remains the assumption that people’s fundamental preferences are constant over time and so general that they can be defined as the desire for power or material gain. If preferences are that simple, such analyses can tell us much about the corresponding ‘strategic preferences’ and behavior of actors. But are the preferences of human beings not multifaceted, evolving, and conditioned by a wide range of factors? When someone decides to vote, is her preference influenced by her identity as a consumer, a Baptist, a shop clerk, an environmentalist or a mother? After three decades of rational choice analysis, the terrain between fundamental and strategic preferences remains terra incognita.

Inventive scholars are making efforts to resolve such dilemmas. Some have turned to a behavioral economics that uses experiments based on small groups or surveys to develop more realistic views of the strategies individuals deploy. This is a step forward, even if it is not yet clear what to make of experiments showing that students concentrating in economics adopt strategies different from those pursued by students majoring in sociology.

In order to explore the plasticity of institutions, historical institutionalists are building bridges to coalitional analysis. They find that institutions in one sphere of the polity shape the interests actors have in institutional reform in other spheres. This is a step beyond William Riker’s conception of institutions as ‘congealed preferences’ but the marriage between institutional and coalitional analysis is far from consummated. We keep bumping up against the observation that men make their own history but not just as they please" (...).

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