Making Social Science Matter by Bent Flyvbjerg
Cambridge University Press, Cambridge and New York, 2001
|Date accepted online:
|Published in print:
||Volume 13, Issue 2, Pages 288-294
Bent Flyvbjerg's Making Social Science Matter is a plea to reform social inquiry. Too often, Flyvbjerg laments, contemporary social scientists focus on internally generated problems or technical refinements instead of pursuing research that addresses pressing social concerns. Moreover, he claims, as a result of misguided efforts to mimic natural science, social inquiry has become a largely barren enterprise. The search for universal laws and theories of social life has come up empty, and the predictive power that the approach generates is very meager, if not wholly nonexistent. Thus social science, as currently practiced, is either irrelevant or impotent and frequently both. As Flyvbjerg documents in his opening chapter, this has made social science a subject of ridicule, and the very existence of university social science departments is threatened. With its status as a genuine science in question, and lacking clear useful application, social science becomes an attractive target for budget cuts.
The first step toward reform, Flyvbjerg says, is to abandon the pursuit of general theories in social science. Attempts to produce such theories will always fail, he argues, because social practices are the product of context-dependent tacit skills that cannot be reduced to rule-governed principles, much less general laws of human behavior. In perhaps the book's most intriguing chapter, Flyvbjerg builds his case for this claim by drawing upon the phenomenology of learning studies of Hubert and Stuart Dreyfus. The Dreyfuses' work explores nature and development of human skills. When learning a skill - playing chess, riding a bike, driving a car - new students typically rely upon a rigid set of context-independent rules to govern their actions (e.g., if your opponent moves his knight in his opening move, then reply with the same move; if you wish to stop your bicycle, always hit the rear brake before the front brake; if the car's speed exceeds 15 miles per hour, shift to second gear.) But as students progress from beginning to advanced skills, the Dreyfuses find, behavior becomes ever more intuitive and context-dependent rather than rule-governed. Upon reaching the expert level, actors develop a kind of synchronic, holistic know-how. This know-how is grounded in a complex array of tacit skills, resulting from the accumulation of numerous practical experiences that enable effective response to myriad situations. Such skills produce flowing, effortless, and frequently un-self-conscious execution of skillsthe sort of mastery that characterizes a musical virtuoso or professional athlete, but also ordinary experienced automobile drivers, cyclists, and typists.
But experts, Flyvbjerg notes, typically have great difficulty when asked to express their skills as formalized knowledge. The rules of thumb, maxims, or theories they offer typically fail to capture the subtlety of their skills. (I recently experienced this difficulty when trying to teach a friend how to drive a stick-shift automobile.) In fact, Flyvbjerg asserts, it is impossible to a produce comprehensive and accurate expression of the rules that govern an expert's behavior for the simple reason that experts do not use rules. Instead, they "recognize thousands of cases directly, holistically, and intuitively on the basis of their experience" (20). This has profound implications for social inquiry, Flyvbjerg claims, especially because ordinary persons are virtuosos when it comes to everyday activities and normal social interaction. Even apparently simple tasks - ending a conversation, buying a magazine, asking for directions - are, in fact, dependent upon highly nuanced, context-sensitive tacit skills. The complexity becomes readily apparent, I think, when we consider the case of Asperger's syndrome, a mild form of autism. Those suffering from this disorder, despite otherwise normal intelligence, display an inability to master the know-how that governs everyday social encounters. Instead, to get by they have to memorize a host of explicit rules - 'don't tell strangers they're overweight,' 'smile when someone smiles at you,' 'avoid prolonged eye contact with other people' - and thus remain social novices their whole lives. However, because most people are social experts, attempts to uncover the rules that govern human practices, except perhaps in case of novice actors, are misconceived.
But if social practices cannot be re-presented as the result of relatively clear and consistent social rules, much less as the product of means-end rationality or general laws of human behavior, then it is unclear in what sense social inquiry can strive to be scientific or even useful. In the second section of his book, Flyvbjerg's proposes that Aristotle's concept of phronesis, which may be translated as "practical reasoning," provides a possible answer. Phronesis is best understood by contrasting it with two other forms of knowledge Aristotle identified, episteme and techne. Episteme concerns knowledge that is universal, invariable, and context-independent; its modern-day ideal is natural science. Techne, the type of knowledge that governs arts and crafts, is pragmatic, context-dependent, and aimed at the production of useful things. Phronesis is action-oriented pragmatic knowledge that concerns, as Aristotle says, "things that are good or bad for man" (57). Thus, it is an explicitly ethical form of knowledge. But the concrete, practical ethical knowledge it produces cannot be formalized into general rules; rather, phronesis is always grounded in experience of particular cases.
Flyvbjerg suggests that phronesis is an attractive model for investigating a social world governed largely by tacit skills rather than general rules or laws. Unfortunately, Flyvbjerg notes, in our day this approach has been crowded out by episteme and techne. Phronetic social science requires its practitioners to "get close to the people and the phenomena they study," to "focus on the minutiae and practices that make up the basic concerns of life," to "make extensive use of case studies in context" (63). Phronesis is also dialogical; it develops through give-and-take discussion between the social investigators and their subjects rather than merely through the observations of the investigators. Finally, phronesis melds inquiry with value reflection and a program for political action, and may be described as attending to three questions: (1) Where are we going? (2) Is this desirable? and (3) What should be done? (60) Thus, phronesis is a kind of critical theory that aims at emancipation as well explanation.
But Flyvbjerg argues that phronesis so construed, though an immense improvement over social inquiry modeled on episteme, is incomplete. A fourth question must be added: Who gains and who loses? That is, to tap its full critical potential, phronesis must address power, which is absent from Aristotle's account. To remedy this shortcoming, Flyvbjerg turns to Foucault's analysis of power, which, with its emphasis on power as instantiated in everyday local practices, is a natural ally of phronesis. Flyvbjerg says phronetic social scientists must train their inquiry on "a dense net of omnipresent relations," though he adds that they must not ignore power embedded in institutions or exercised from society's "command centers" (131).
In the penultimate chapter, Flyvbjerg provides his own analysis of an urban renovation project in the Danish city of Aalborg (explored more fully in his Rationality and Power: Democracy in Practice ) as an example of phronesis put into practice. By pouring over archival data, conducting extensive interviews, and through use of participant-observation, Flyvbjerg generates a nuanced, detail-rich account of the key players, practices, ideologies, and conflicting goals that defined the project. In particular, he shows how the Chamber of Industry and Commerce was able to subvert the democratic process to the detriment of the city's pedestrians and cyclists. But Flyvbjerg does not end his inquiry by laying bare the dynamics of power in the renovation project; instead, he injects himself into the debate through participation in public forums, such as radio programs and newspaper op-ed pages. His avowedly partisan aim is to expand democratic participation in the project and provide a counterweight to the Chamber of Industry's distorting effects. In these aims he seems to have succeeded.
With the help of translator Steven Sampson, Flyvbjerg has provided a lucid, highly readable, and philosophically provocative guidebook for reforming social science. Even if not wholly persuaded by his arguments, one must certainly be sympathetic to his cause. For the reasons documented by Flyvbjerg and others as well, social science is unlikely ever to obtain the range, precision, and predictive power of natural science. If social science is to matter - indeed, if is to continue to exist as a discipline - it must find another way to become relevant and useful. Flyvbjerg's reformulated phronesis suggests a possible route, but one wonders if perhaps Flyvbjerg has proved more than he intended. If, as he argues, the tacit skills that govern social life cannot be expressed as rules, if fully understanding a social realm requires immersion in its everyday practices and repeated exposure to myriad concrete situations, then it is unclear how such understanding could ever be re-expressed as a body of knowledge. Of necessity, re-expression would seem to produce accounts that are elliptical and distorted. Has Flyvbjerg unwittingly provided a radical argument for the impossibility of social science? If his arguments were to become widely accepted, perhaps they would contribute to social science's demise rather than its salvation!
But we need not draw this unsettling conclusion. Flyvbjerg's own account of phronesis put into practice demonstrates, I think, the value of the approach. A socially immersed, pragmatically experienced, and politically engaged social inquirer is likely to produce more useful knowledge than social scientists who employ more conventional approaches. But what kind of knowledge does phronesis produce? Perhaps we might say that the knowledge produced by phronesis ultimately resides not in the head of a social scientist or in some journal article; rather, it is lodged in the community itself. This conclusion would seem to align with Flyvbjerg's closing-chapter declaration that the ultimate goal of phronetic social science is to contribute "to society's capacity for value-rational deliberation and action" (167).