“Dirty Hands vs. Clean Models,” P. Hirsch, S. Michaels & R. Friedman (1987)

A classic paper by three sociologists about whether sociology should keep moving in the direction of economics (quantitative models, abstraction, little empiricism, axiomatic development) or retain the traditional character of sociology (field work, surveys, questioning the formation of norms, values, etc.). I agree with the authors – and I think most economists do in 2010 – when they claim that economics needs to pay more attention to norms, value formation, and other feedback effects of societal organization on individual preference. I do not agree, however, with their love of empiricism. The problem with empiricism is that, first, without theory there is no unified understanding of terms within a field, and second, empirical studies without theory have no external validity, since by definition they have no theory to link them with other cases. Weber’s “Protestant Ethic” has great data about the development of labor in protestant and catholic Europe, but I don’t see how it is any different from history until one imposes a theory without reference to that particular time period about human behavior. And to the extent that a theory can explain, for instance, why some people work harder than others, it is not necessary to refer to data except to the extent that it provides interesting cases. For this reason, economists do not do field work or gather their own data: we like and value historians, but we are not historians. The other point, about unification within a field, is the more important one. When a sociologist says “power” or “norms influenced action” or some such term, without a mathematization of such terms, there is no way for other researchers to know precisely what is being argued. Implications of an verbal argument, to a great extent, can be nearly anything depending on the rhetorical skill of the author. Economists do not mathematize social science out of any great autistic love of math, but rather out of a desire to clarify precisely what is being claimed, and to allow, through that very mathematics, other researchers to check the consistency and further implications of those claims in a way that is clear to everyone in the field. Philosophers of science like Kuhn and Lakatos see a unifying set of assumptions, for nearly this reason, as essential to the development of any strong field of research.

http://www.springerlink.com/index/Q257250445W651M1.pdf (I cannot find a non-gated version of this article, I’m afraid, but most universities subscribe to Springer)

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