In Which Italo Calvino Discourses on the Fundamental Cleavage of the Social Sciences

by Henry on September 17, 2009

Fabio Rojas at Orgtheory.

In general, there seem to be to two mindsets in the social sciences. The first I call “precision modeling.” The attitude might be summarized this way:


Social science should focus on simple & clearly defined concepts. Real science is when you formalize these simple concepts into models. The height of empirical research is clear identification of cause and effect mechanisms implied by such models.

The second attitude I call “thick accounts.” Here’s my summary:

Social science should be built around a tool box of flexible concepts. These flexible concepts can be juxtaposed, elaborated and rephrased. The height of empirical research is when researchers can use this tool box to interpret an otherwise opaque complex social domain. … these people can’t stand tool-centric theories that can’t accommodate meaning and eliminate complexity.

I’ve always thought that the loveliest expression of this dualism is set out in Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities (I’m relying here on William Weaver’s grave and lovely translation).

Kublai Khan seeks to understand his empire as a chessboard:

Contemplating these essential landscapes, Kublai reflected on the invisible order that sustains cities, on the rules that decreed how they rise, take shape and prosper, adapting themselves to the seasons, and then how they sadden and fall in ruins. At times he thought he was on the verge of discovering a coherent, harmonious system underlying the infinite deformities and discords, but no model could stand up to comparison with the game of chess. … Now Kublai Khan no longer had to send Marco Polo on distant expeditions; he kept him playing endless games of chess. Knowledge of the empire was hidden in the pattern drawn by the angular shifts of the knight, by the diagonal passages opened by the bishop’s incursions, by the lumbering, cautious tread of the king and the humble pawn … By disembodying his conquests to reduce them to the essential, Kublai had arrived at the extreme operation: the definitive conquest, of which the empire’s multiform treasures were only illusory envelopes; it was reduced to a square of planed wood.

But Marco Polo, it turns out, understands the chessboard in a very different way.

Then Marco Polo spoke: “Your chessboard, sire, is inlaid with two woods, ebony and maple. The square on which your enlightened gaze is fixed was cut from the ring of a trunk that grew in a year of drought: you see how its fibers are arranged? Here a barely hinted knot can be made out: a bud tried to burgeon on a premature spring day, but the night’s frost forced it to desist. … Here is a thicker pore: perhaps it was once a larvum’s nest; not a woodworm, because, once born, it would have begun to dig, but a caterpillar that gnawed the leaves and was the cause of the tree’s being chosen for chopping down … This edge was scored by the woodcarver with his gouge so that it would adhere to the next square, more protruding …

If I were ever to write a methodological essay on the social sciences it would start with this dialogue – it’s the loveliest and pithiest summation of this ceaseless argument that I’ve ever read.

{ 30 comments }

1

anxiousmodernman 09.17.09 at 3:29 am

Ah… do I really need to pick a side? Must we be partisans?

(If we must, then I confess that I’m thick-headed)

2

banned commenter 09.17.09 at 4:35 am

BBUT CALVIMNO SPECIFICALLY DID NOT OFFER A THIX0RR ACCUONT OFANYHTING!!!!!!!11~~~ he 2was a conceptu4list: he rceated 4 Clean moedl of a thiXOr acxc0uNt as with georgwe scialabba, a deFense 0f t3h ideaao f ;literature si not litarTuRe!!!!!!!!!!!!!!~~~~~ calvino, lidk broges, 7ick kafka, si a wroitar fro model makarS, not fro writerS~~~~~~ as mann sa1d of kqfka: “almosttoo p4refct” sorryy fdor the int3rruption, but you’er on my turf~~
[turned into leet HaXor speak via “The Dialectizer”:http://rinkworks.com/dialect/ ]

3

rm 09.17.09 at 5:01 am

Calvino, like Borges, like Kafka, is a writer for model makers, not for writers

Uh . . . do we really need to pick a side? Must we be partisans?

That is, it seems to me Calvino and Borges and Kafka are model-making conceptual meta-writers just like you say, but that doesn’t mean they are also not grand stylists, and great style, great sentence-craft, is one of the things we like in writers. Both-and, not either/or, you know.

I am not a social scientist, but as a humanities person I prefer my social science thick and layered, not just because that’s the way it makes sense to me but because I firmly believe a lot of valuable inquiry is not reducible to measurable observation; you can’t escape interpretation, so deal with it honestly.

4

nickhayw 09.17.09 at 7:24 am

I love that book.

Certainly strikes me as a ‘thick account’ of the world, I mean each little city vignette is based around a particular concept, often folksy (‘you want what you can’t have’, ‘the history is written here in the streets’, ‘nostalgia is a bitch’ are three that come to mind). The cities become fictional-physical manifestations of these concepts, and to my mind then serve as tools for a broader understanding of the world. Maybe they’re not as ‘active’ as a social scientist’s tools are, I don’t know. The similarities between his cities and the real world have only ever struck me after-the-event, mulling things over.

Maybe the point of Invisible Cities is that we’re not even supposed to try and reconcile the two? (echoing the ‘must we be partisan’ sentiments above). I’m outside the empirical social sciences but mixed method research, qual vs. quant / modelling vs. thick accounts, from what I understand of it, sounds like a step in the right direction.

5

Hidari 09.17.09 at 10:24 am

This is also known as the Rigour or Relevance debate. Simply put, in the social sciences you can have mathematical modelling which produces rigorous, powerful models of abstract quantitative data, or you can have ‘thick’ (in Geertzian terms) description which produces mainly qualitative, specific, non-mathematical data. The problem is, the more ‘rigorous’ (i.e.mathematical, abstract) your description, the less relevant it is to real world situations. Conversely, the more relevant your data, the less abstract and mathemetical it tends to be (this is similar to, although not identical to, the debate between Rationalism and Empiricism in the social sciences (or any science)).

The reductio ad absurdum of this situation is in neo-classical economics, which excels in producing incredibly powerful mathematical models of abstract representations of economies, which, unfortunately, bear almost no relevance to real world situations whatsoever.

6

alex 09.17.09 at 10:27 am

… or Marxism, of course.

I’ll get my coat.

7

Hidari 09.17.09 at 10:28 am

‘I’m outside the empirical social sciences but mixed method research, qual vs. quant / modelling vs. thick accounts, from what I understand of it, sounds like a step in the right direction.’

A colleague of mine wrote about this. In the abstract, this is indeed the correct response. However what usually happens in practice, he argued, is that it is assumed (or at least taken for granted) that the quantitative data is the ‘true’ data, and what happens is the qualitative data is then ‘cherry picked’ to back up the stats (which, to repeat, are presumed to be ‘objective’ and ‘correct’). Conversely, qualitative data which challenges the quantitative data is ignored.

So, while, in theory, the equivalence of qualitative and quantitative data is proclaimed, in practice the superiority of quantitative data is assumed.

8

nickhayw 09.17.09 at 11:04 am

For sure. I have a friend doing some mixed method research for a thesis, and the impression I get is that the insights gained from her qualitative data are on par with if not greater than the insights gained from her quantitative data. As she likes to say (and I’m sure she’s not the only one), surveys only tell you how people fill out surveys. Her interviews, on the other hand, have been eye-opening.

But the way (I think) she’ll end up writing the thesis, the quantitative stuff will occupy the foreground, while the interviews etc. are reduced to window dressing – because that’s more or less what the discipline demands.

9

Gareth Rees 09.17.09 at 11:05 am

This edge was scored by the woodcarver with his gouge so that it would adhere to the next square, more protruding

Surely even in Kublai’s day that wasn’t how you made a chessboard?

10

nickhayw 09.17.09 at 11:10 am

As an aside – apologies for not including this in the last post – I wonder if there isn’t a similar cleavage in philosophy? The philosophy of an ‘analytic’ bogeyman like, say, Carnap, would seem incommensurable with the philosophy of an equivalent ‘continental’ bogeyman, say Derrida. The first tending towards precision and logical formalism, the second towards an acceptance of the ‘thickness’ of language and philosophical concepts. Or maybe I’m not being fair to either. But there seems to be something more fundamental at stake here.

11

alex 09.17.09 at 11:15 am

Alas, you will never, ever persuade some people that counting things is a really bad way of trying to figure out what they mean. All quantitative work has qualitative biases underlying it, but trying getting a numbers persons to accept that…

12

Hidari 09.17.09 at 11:48 am

‘As an aside – apologies for not including this in the last post – I wonder if there isn’t a similar cleavage in philosophy? The philosophy of an ‘analytic’ bogeyman like, say, Carnap, would seem incommensurable with the philosophy of an equivalent ‘continental’ bogeyman, say Derrida.’

Some genius (and I’m not being ironic here) observed in passing at the Wikipedia that the key difference between Continental and Anglo-Saxon philosophy is that continental philosophy overwhelmingly stresses context (i.e. the idea that context free interpretation is impossible) whereas Anglo-Saxon philosophy generally speaking aims to provide a context free interpretation of truth, mathematics, or whatever.* It strikes me that this is a very profound observation.

*The major exceptions are American pragmatism and that stream of philosophy that flows from the later Wittgenstein. And of course ‘Continental’ doesn’t actually mean ‘born on the Continent’: in this view, the early Wittgenstein, the Vienna school and Frege, for example, are honorary ‘Anglo-Saxons’.

13

Joe S. 09.17.09 at 12:10 pm

Why don’t we just readmit “social science” to the humanities, and leave the “science” moniker to the natural scientists?

Anything else is trying to have it both ways: the prestige of natural science through meaningless precision modeling AND the explanatory power of thick accounts. The efforts of social science to get natural-science prestige aren’t really working. True, the economists model like crazy, and they are prestigious. But their prestige is not derived from the models. It comes, instead, from the ginormous funding of business schools and economics departments. The actual output of these departments — meh. The natural scientists are not impressed. And why should they be?

14

chris y 09.17.09 at 12:48 pm

Alas, you will never, ever persuade some people that counting things is a really bad way of trying to figure out what they mean.

See Pratchett, ‘Thief of Time’ passim. Surely the problem is that human societies do not scale self similarly. At small scales, where the impact of individual actions and relationships is critical, the qualitative approach is the only one which is descriptively useful, whereas at larger scales, dealing with substantial communites as a whole, quantitative approaches give answers which may or may not be useful, but qualitative approaches would require impossible complexity.

The trouble is, you can make policy at the macro level, but in practice you have to implement it at the micro, unless you’re called Djugashvili.

15

Hidari 09.17.09 at 12:54 pm

‘Surely the problem is that human societies do not scale self similarly. At small scales, where the impact of individual actions and relationships is critical, the qualitative approach is the only one which is descriptively useful, whereas at larger scales, dealing with substantial communites as a whole, quantitative approaches give answers which may or may not be useful, but qualitative approaches would require impossible complexity.’

Yes, but as I noted earlier this is when the original problem restates itself in a slightly different form, as our old friend the debate between Rationalism and Empiricism. Does one begin with a model of (whatever it is you are trying to model) which is deduced from a priori logical assumptions, which is then tested by the data, or do you begin with a model inferred from raw empirical data, which you then attempt to translate into the language of theory? The pitfall if the latter approach is used is that you might end up with a huge mass of uninterpretable data. The pitfall if the former approach is used is that you might find it difficult or impossible to test the model, as it is far too abstract or abstruse to really ‘touch base’ with reality at any point (which is why neo-classical economists have more or less given up testing their models, or at least did until incredibly recently).

16

Steve LaBonne 09.17.09 at 1:17 pm

As a biologist looking in on these debates from the outside, I find interesting parallels to debates that have happened in biology. Specifically, I remember that before the true molecular mechanisms of embryonic development began to be uncovered, theoretical biologists had elegant models of the “reaction-diffusion” and other varieties to explain, for example, the development of segmentation in insect embryos. Reality turned out to by contrast to be quite complicated, messy and kludge-y, really not surprising given how evolution works. Going back further, Francis Crick had a neat, elegant proposal for how the genetic code (the relation between nucleic acid base sequences and the protein amino acid sequences they encode) “should” work (the famous “comma-free code”); again, reality, uncovered by years of laborious experimentation, turned out to be far less elegant. As one of my professors wisecracked, “Crick was being more clever than God.”

I don’t see why human social behavior should be expected to be any less complex, and any less historically conditioned (by both evolutionary and cultural history in the case of human behavior), than molecular biology, or any more successfully modeled by oversimplified quantitative models of the kind physicists employ. There’s a well-known joke about physicists that I’ve always enjoyed, in which a physicist is called in by a dairy farmer to help solve a problem with his cows’ milk production. The physicist’s report begins, “Let us model a cow as a perfect sphere…”

17

Hidari 09.17.09 at 1:26 pm

‘I don’t see why human social behavior should be expected to be any less complex, and any less historically conditioned (by both evolutionary and cultural history in the case of human behavior), than molecular biology, or any more successfully modeled by oversimplified quantitative models of the kind physicists employ.’

And again, you’re not the first person to have noticed this. Assuming that one accepts that the ‘hard sciences’ are physics, chemistry and biology, it’s still bizarre that, when attempting to make their (‘soft’) science more ‘scientific’ , scholars in the social sciences almost invariably choose to model their science (or attempt to model it) on physics rather than biology (a rather more obvious choice one might think). I think it was Mary Midgely who first pointed this out.

The reason, presumably, is that the objects in physics are more amenable to abstract mathematical modelling than those of biology.

18

alex 09.17.09 at 2:26 pm

One day physicists will discover[/admit] that their objects of study are as kludged-up as those of biologists, and then where will we be?

19

Steve LaBonne 09.17.09 at 3:15 pm

One day physicists will discover[/admit] that their objects of study are as kludged-up as those of biologists, and then where will we be?

Isn’t physics almost by definition the study of objects that AREN’T like that? If it gets too hairy it becomes chemistry. (Tongue inserted only partway into cheek.)

20

pedro 09.17.09 at 3:19 pm

Wonderful post, Henry.

21

Hidari 09.17.09 at 4:40 pm

It’s at least interesting that if you move along to the CT post ‘Bookblogging:Micro-based macro-introduction’, especially comment 15 onwards, you will see almost precisely the same issues as were raised in this thread being raised again. These issues arise in all the social sciences, but they seem to be particularly crippling in the case of economics.

22

Matt L 09.17.09 at 7:15 pm

Great post! But Jack Hexter reduced this debate to an even more concise formulation:
Social Science is divided up into lumpers and splitters.

23

jeremy hunsinger 09.17.09 at 7:24 pm

isn’t that just modernity… Lumpers and Splitters…. analysis proceeds through either people who group things or people that divide things.

24

alex 09.17.09 at 7:31 pm

There are two kinds of people: those that think that there are two kinds of people, and…

25

Steve LaBonne 09.17.09 at 7:35 pm

There are 10 kinds of people: those who understand binary numbers and those who don’t.

26

Glen Tomkins 09.17.09 at 10:22 pm

Evidence-based medicine

We have such a dichotomy in medicine as well.

There’s this upstart school of thought that calls itself “evidence-based medicine”, which sounds like something pretty hard to be against (I mean, what’s the alternative, “faith-based medicine”, “intuition-based medicine”, “wild hunch-based medicine”, “sheer ego-based medicine”, “I’ve-been-a-doctor-longer-than-you-so-shut-up-based medicine”? Lord knows, we see all of these schools of thought in action.), except that they’re really talking about quantitative evidence only.

The problem is that medicine is still mostly an observational science. There’s a thin veneer of potentially quantitative evidence-based therapeutics riding on top of a base made up of unquantifiable pattern recognition. To get a science of medicine, first you have to divide off that bit of human misery that we treat from the rest of human misery (I mean, I can do something for you if you come to me with the pain of a blocked coronary artery, but I have nothing to offer for the pain of a broken heart.), then we had to subsivide our turf into its separate syndromes and diseases, and then place these disorders in their proper classification within the universe of medically-treatable human misery. Once you have your ordered list of disorders, then you carefully observe the natural history of all of these disorders. Individual providers confronted with individual patients presenting with an array of signs and symptoms then have to sort out which disorder/s, if any, are present, or whether this patient has a case of non-medical human misery. Only after we get through all of this process, which is all gestalt and pattern recognition and not quantitative at all, do we get to treatment, where quantitative methods finally are of use in distinguishing what works from what doesn’t.

Okay, but look, you say, isn’t all that preliminary stuff prior to treatment, at least for medicine in general, already done and settled? Of course, there will always be the non-quantitative problem of recognizing which disorder/s best fit the pattern of symptoms and signs presented by the individual patient, there’s always a seat-of-the pants basis to diagnosis, but you would think that at the general level, that list of disorders and their natural histories would be a settled matter, and all the action that’s left would be at that thin veneer of therapeutics where quantitative methods reign.

Sadly for those who would prefer that life be simple, that’s not how it works. Every new treatment, and even every new lab test or imaging modality, rejiggers the natural course of disease so that we have to start observing all over again to re-establish a new natural history. We start doing screening for prostate cancer because now we have a new lab, an assay for PSA, and we don’t know what to do with all of the early prostate cancer we discover because all we know is the natural history of clinically-discovered prostate cancer. There’s no guarantee whatsoever that screening-discovered prostate cancer is at all as dangerous or rapidly progressive as the clinically discovered prostate cancer we already know about, and some reason to believe the opposite. But until we’ve had a chance to observe the new entity, the idea of just assuming that it is probably slow-growing and doesn’t need to be treated as aggressively as clinically-discovered prostate cancer could obviously condemn patients to possibly preventable deaths unless it is treated aggressively. It won’t be ethical to bring out our quantitative methods and do a randomized control trial until and unless old-fashioned clinical experience accumulates which suggests that it really is a toss-up whether or not screening-discovered prostate cancer benefits from immediate aggressive treatment. By the time that study is done and reported, the folks actually treating patients with prostate cancer will have already moved on to not treating aggressively, based on non-evidence-based clinical experience.

So, by all means quantify what you can, and what you can establish by such means is of outsized importance precisely because of the rarity of such anchoring points of solidity. But quantitative methods just won’t often get you far from your base of “I’ve-seen-this-based medicine”.

27

Jeff 09.18.09 at 2:54 pm

I struggled with this tension in political science, and the dialectic (so to speak) between the two approaches is often what makes for wonderful scholarship, interesting things to think, teach, and argue about — at least for those who appreciate the virtues of both sides.

28

roac 09.18.09 at 4:16 pm

I just noticed “perhaps it was once a larvum’s nest.” Huh? Did the estimable William Weaver really write “larvum”? Larva is of course feminine in Latin, and hence singular in both Latin and English; the plural is larvae. “Larvum” would appear to be a back formation based on the assumption that “larva” is plural.

(In double-checking this in OED, I was interested to learn that it was Linnaeus who applied the word to the grub of an insect; the underlying metaphor is that the grub is a ghost or appearance of the “imago,” the adult “true form” of the insect.)

29

Henry 09.18.09 at 5:32 pm

It is indeed ‘larvum.’ I mislaid my copy of the original Calvino sometime between when I left Italy and today, so I can’t check, but suspect that it is in the original (the translation is anything but careless). Lovely to know the relationship between the English term and its Latin original – I have often wondered how ‘larva’ was adopted given the apparent incongruity of its original meaning, but never been quite exercised enough to actually look it up.

30

sg 09.22.09 at 9:16 pm

I think this tension is misplaced. Except in the most reductive circumstances (the two body problem, etc.) numbers people understand that their numbers are just there to help explain the real story, which is guided by the qualitative models people use.

I’ve worked with a lot of numbers people and never met any [except physicists, who don’t count] who believed that their work was doing anything except helping to inform a bigger theory.

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