History, Sociology, Science(!), and a Personal Note

First, a quote from an article by historian Isaiah Berlin from this 1960 essay, “History and Theory: The Concept of Scientific History”

For one of the central differences between such genuine attempts to apply scientific method to human affairs as are embodied in, say, economics or social psychology or sociology, and the analogous attempt to apply it in history proper, is this: that scientific procedure is directed in the first place to the construction of an ideal model, with which the portion of the real world to be analysed must, as it were, be matched, so that it can be described and analysed in the terms of its deviation from the model. But to construct a useful model will only be feasible when it is possible to abstract a sufficient number of sufficiently stable similarities from the things, facts, events, of which the real world – the flow of experience – is composed. Only where such recurrences in the real world are frequent enough, and similar enough to be classifiable as so many deviations from the self-same model, will the idealized model that is compounded of them – the electron, the gene, the economic man – do its job of making it possible for us to extrapolate from the known to the unknown.

I really like this conception of science, models and the connection to the social sciences. I would add a slight corollary – very few of the things social scientists (even economists) care about exhibit the kind of stability and repetition you need to make a lot of generalizations very useful as anything more than heuristics, and the models that seem the most general and applicable (“the economic man”) may do as much harm as good if taken to be too literal or true (compare with the previous post on economics). My tendency is to view knowledge as hard. As a good friend of mine likes to quote, “Prediction is very difficult, especially if it’s about the future.”*

Second, on a personal note, I have decided to take my prelim exam (in Economic Sociology and Organizations) this fall, which means my summer will be devoted to reading classic and contemporary works in that field and little else. As such, this blog may swing away from observations about politics and towards interesting tidbits I find in that literature, or perhaps even summaries of the works I find most interesting. I apologize in advance to anyone hoping for more politics and less sociology and economics. It also means my posting may get a bit more erratic. I hope I can make the material as interesting as possible, while still being generally useful for myself (as is the purpose of a commonplace book). Thanks for reading.

* Attributed to Niels Bohr, a quantum physicist.


1 Comment

  1. Isaac Asimov’s series “Foundation and Empire” ( sci-fi ) was based on the scientific model of predictability as a premise based on the necessity for secrecy ! The old observer affecting the experiment principle.
    Errata is a necessity of discovery. Have fun. ( ‘Career’ is a bit of a ‘bon mot’. )

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