Falsifiability, Latour-style

It’s Fall, and for academics, Fall is grant and fellowship season. In Sociology, the NSF is one of the biggest funders, especially the prestigious pre-dissertation Graduate Research Fellowship, and the equally prestigious Dissertation Improvement Grant. The NSF is a sometimes frustrating experience, especially for qualitative and historical researchers who feel like their “style” is disfavored by the structure of the proposals.* In particular, the NSF has a requirement that researchers address “falsifiability” – in other words, how might you be wrong? For qualitative and historical researchers, this formulation can be a bit alienating – if you are doing a project with a significant inductive component, it’s not easy to think in terms of how the data might disprove your theory.

I propose a slight reframing of these discussions for “non-canonical” researchers.** Latour famously defined reality as “that which resists.” Or, more specifically, “that which cannot be changed at will.” In some sense, the NSF is (reasonably) defining “science” as investigation which has the potential to be wrong, which offers the possibility that reality will resist. To do science is to be open to unexpected resistances.*** Reframed this way, instead of asking, “how is this falsifiable?” we can ask, “where might reality intrude unexpectedly in your story? What are you doing to seek out possible resistance to your claims?”

This formulation abandons some of the implicit, and outdated, philosophy of science that encircle the term “falsifiability” while still maintaining a very reasonable standard that scientific work must have the potential of being resisted, and must be open to that resistance.

* For some interesting debates on the subject, see the NSF report on getting funded to do qualitative research, Howard Beckers’ excellent response “How to Find Out How to Do Qualitative Research”, both of which are discussed on Scatterplot here.
** A term I borrow from Luker’s excellent methods book, Salsa Dancing into the Social Sciences to describe (generally) qualitative and historical research that is more interpretive, meaning, context and history oriented.
*** A bit tangentially, but I wonder if this formulation might also help modern science studies scholars in their sometimes difficult quest to distinguish “tobacco science” from public health, or climate change skeptics from legitimate climatology (see, for example, Agnotology).


1 Comment

  1. Maria

     /  October 26, 2011

    I like your use of Latour to think about alternative ways of showing that we as scholars are open to reality. And beyond the NSF, addressing the question of how we open our studies to reasonable alternative explanations can only make our work stronger and more convincing.

    But, just a note, I’m not sure how important the falsifiability portion of NSF applications really are, at least at the graduate level. As a recipient of both the fellowship and the dis. research grant, I know that I didn’t attend to it in my fellowship application and only inadvertently may have done so in my grant application. I really do believe that NSF has become more open to inductive and qualitative work.

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