Dr Dr

by Kieran Healy on May 13, 2008

While at a conference in Germany over the weekend, I was initially quite chuffed by the greeting on my hotel-room TV:

But I quickly learned I am quite unable to compete on this front:

Somewhat more substantively, the conference, on norms and values, was attended by a bunch of interesting philosophers and political science types of a generally soft rat-choice disposition. As it happens, this week Aaron Swartz is writing about Jon Elster’s recent book, Explaining Social Behavior: More Nuts and Bolts for the Social Sciences. Aaron likes the book a lot. I haven’t read it, but now I’m curious to do so. Elster’s early work laid out an ambitious agenda for social science and its critical edge did a lot to kill off some styles of social explanation that were prevalent at the time. But then the prospects for achieving the more positive side of the research program seemed to recede in the face of efforts to achieve it, to the point where Elster became highly critical of work that might well have been inspired by Ulysses and the Sirens or Sour Grapes. The most recent book seems to be a comprehensive expression of late-Elsterian pessimism about the possibility of a general science of social explanation.



matt 05.13.08 at 8:42 pm

I’m a pretty big fan of most of Elster’s work but this book got quite a negative review on the NDPR a while ago:

I’ve not read the book so can’t say if the review is accurate or not.

Is there a link to the conference program you can give? It sounds interesting.


Kieran Healy 05.13.08 at 8:49 pm

Here’s the conference program (PDF). I think there’s going to be a volume of papers out of it.


schwa 05.13.08 at 8:56 pm

Bielefeld? You’re one of THEM!


matt 05.13.08 at 8:59 pm

Thanks for the link- it does look like a very interesting conference.


Aaron Swartz 05.13.08 at 9:12 pm

Matt, the NPDR review is really quite bizarre. Its criticisms are that the stuff Elster describes is “commonly known” (isn’t that what one expects from an introductory book?) and then goes on to make some technical philosophical criticisms that have very little to do with the content of the book. There are reasonable criticisms of the book (it’s weird and possibly boring — tom s. might have more to say on this front) but this guy just seems like he’s taking out his anger at Elster’s other work.

And just to show I’m not alone in liking the book, Nassim Nicholas Taleb (Fooled By Randomness, The Black Swan) liked it as well, saying “I read this book twice. The first time, I thought that it was excellent, the best compendium of ideas of social science by arguably the best thinker in the field. I took copious notes, etc. … Then I started reading it again, as the book tends to locate itself by my bedside and sneaks itself in my suitcase when I go on a trip. It is as if the book wanted me to read it. It is what literature does to you when it is at its best. So I realized why: it had another layer of depth –and the author distilled ideas from the works of Proust, La Rochefoucault, Tocqueville, Montaigne, people with the kind of insights that extend beyond the ideas, and that makes you feel that a reductionist academic treatment of the subject will necessary distort it [& somehow Elster managed to combine Montaigne and Kahneman-Tversky].”


magistra 05.13.08 at 9:22 pm

a bunch of interesting philosophers and political science types of a generally soft rat-choice disposition

Do philosophers prefer hard rats (to eat or simply to throw at opponents when short of pokers?)


Jaap Weel 05.13.08 at 9:25 pm

I believe that Prof em. Dr. Dr. h. c. mult. would mean that he is a retired (emeritus) full professor with a doctorate as well as multiple honorary doctorates.


Matt 05.13.08 at 10:42 pm

Thanks for your take, Aaron- I did think it was an odd review, and I do like Elster quite a lot in general so maybe I’ll give this book a read, too.


PeWi 05.13.08 at 11:01 pm

” Prof em. Dr. Dr. h. c. mult. would mean that he is a retired (emeritus) full professor with a doctorate as well as multiple honorary doctorates.”

quite, and it also means, that you have a job. He doesn’t….


Fr. 05.14.08 at 3:52 am

The NDPR piece is relatively detailed. I would expect an counter-argument to produce something at least as detailed. Of course one might simply refer to the book, which I do not have at the moment.

An interesting starting point could be institutions. The NDPR review claims that Elster goes counter decades of research on institutional constraints. However, the same review quotes Elster attributing more expl. power to choice than evolution and constraint. Does he actually delve into the latter in detail?


Ben Alpers 05.14.08 at 4:36 am

At least you didn’t try calling yourself a “Dr.” in Germany, Kieran. You could have been arrested!


Patrick S. O'Donnell 05.14.08 at 5:06 am

Aaron and Matt,

If you want to understand why Kincaid would write such a critical review of Elster’s book, see his Philosophical Foundations of the Social Sciences: Analyzing Controversies in Social Research (1996). There one learns the philosophical and scientific presuppositions and assumptions that are at the root of the differences between Kincaid and Elster. Although I tend to side with Elster myself, Kincaid makes some strong arguments in this book that need to be addressed by anyone committed to an Elster-like methodological individualism or rational choice theory, etc. This is a stark and useful example of the ongoing agency/structure dichotomy one often finds in the social sciences, one that will not admit of an easy resolution for all parties anytime soon given the very different (philosophical and scientific) starting points for the respective camps.

As I wrote over at Law and Letters in a comment to one of Belle Lettre’s posts:

Were I to conduct a (two semester) seminar on agency and structure (I’ll leave out culture here, for fear of hopelessly complicating matters, as well as the application of these grand subjects to specific topics) my ideal syllabus would require the following readings:

Elster, Jon. Explaining Social Behavior: More Nuts and Bolts for the Social Sciences (2007).

Hacking, Ian. The Social Construction of What? (1999).

Hausman, Daniel M. and Michael S. McPherson. Economic Analysis, Moral Philosophy, and Public Policy (2nd ed., 2006).

Kincaid, Harold. Philosophical Foundations of the Social Sciences: Analyzing Controversies in Social Research (1996).

Miller, Richard W. Fact and Method: Explanation, Confirmation and Reality in the Natural and Social Sciences (1987).

Rescher, Nicholas. Objectivity: The Obligations of Impersonal Reason (1997).

Shapiro, Ian, Rogers M. Smith, and Tarek E. Masoud, eds. Problems and Methods in the Study of Politics (2004).

I would also throw in some titles treating the use of analogies and metaphors in the social sciences and law.

Reading these works won’t resolve any longstanding debates or tendencies to privilege one side of the equation, but it should help one to write with some confidence and intelligence on such matters in a manner that might even turn out to be persuasive.


trane 05.14.08 at 7:26 am

From Kincaid’s review:

“A dominant view in current cognitive science is that explanations of individual mental processes cannot be given in purely individualist (internal) terms. These results present a strong prima facie case against the idea that social science can be done “by referring only to individuals.” Institutions, etc. are, to use the language of debates over reductionism, multiply realized in the behavior of individuals — there are many different ways to organize people into a profit seeking firm, for example. Explanations at the level of institutions seem often to identify causal processes not explained entirely in terms of individual behavior”

My first thought on reading this is that there is no reason that an individualist explanation should operate only with individual persons. An explanation of bargaining between collective actors would be an example.

But then, I am not sure if that is what Kincaid is getting at. Anyway, later in his review, he writes:

“The idea that human action must be explained in terms of the beliefs and desires of the agent is something that I would have thought empirical science had shown false long ago. There has been for some time a strong social science literature arguing that attitudes do little to explain behavior and the last twenty years of cognitive science has consistently argued that much behavior is not explained by folk psychological concepts of desire and belief. Many cognitive scientists believe that most behavior is not best explained in these terms. Much cognitive science is about things like navigation, clock-keeping, and microscale reward valuation that is regarded as implicit and not proposition-like even though it involves representation.”

Hm. I do not get how navigation, clock-keeping and micro-scale reward valuation are different from beliefs and desires. We hold beliefs about how other actors act based on their past actions, the values they have represented for us, our estimate of their valuation of various courses of action, and so forth. And we navigate on that.

There might be something there, but it would be great to see an example of how cognitive science of our day somehow dismisses Tocqueville in the manner indicated by Kincaid in his review. I am probably saying this because my favourite Elster text is the two chapters on Tocqueville in his Political Psychology.

P.S. Thanks for posting the papers from the conference, Kieran.


Doug 05.14.08 at 8:47 am

“We wish you a pleasant stay in Bielefeld.”

Who says there’s no such thing as German humor?


Nordic Mousse 05.14.08 at 4:22 pm

#3 and #14

Yes, ha ha, but actually, Bielefeld’s not a bad place, and it has more going for it than many people realise. For one thing, it’s home to many international companies (Gildemeister, Dr Oetker, Seidensticker, ADS Anker, Schüco etc); for another, it has a good university, a 13th century castle, plenty of cultural events, and also a reasonable soccer team which most Germans will at least hear of many times during the season

There are a lot worse places to be than Bielefeld…


M. Gordon 05.15.08 at 3:52 pm

Wow, I had no idea Crooked Timber was so influential.


engels 05.16.08 at 12:44 am

I believe that Prof em. Dr. Dr. h. c. mult. would mean that he is a retired (emeritus) full professor with a doctorate as well as multiple honorary doctorates.

Or that he has a speech impediment…


NPTO 05.16.08 at 8:17 pm

I’m a big Elster fan, and my impression after reading Alchemies of the Mind was similar to Taleb’s impressions on the new one. Now, I thought this book was just an expansion of the old Nuts and Bolts, is it very different?

Comments on this entry are closed.