Saturday, December 31, 2016

Welcome to the discussion forum for NDPSS

Welcome! This is the discussion forum for Dan Little's New Directions in the Philosophy of Social Science. This book started as an open source blog at Understanding Society, and this forum is intended to allow the discussion to continue.

You can leave comments on individual chapters through the comment function.

If you would like to provide a more extensive  discussion or review, please submit it to me at, and I will consider posting it as a separate post. Criticisms are welcome!

And if you would like to initiate a new thread, feel free to do so by submitting the text that describes the issue you'd like to ask readers to comment about; I will post it as well.

There are very difficult and important issues in the philosophy of the social sciences, and they matter. It would be great to make further progress on some of these issues through an extended discussion with readers around the world.

Here is a free sample of the book:

Sample of New Directions

Wednesday, September 21, 2016



The subject of the philosophy of social science is important but poorly understood. The field considers the most foundational questions about the possibility of scientific knowledge about the social world. What are the scope and limits of scientific knowledge of society? What is involved in arriving at a scientific understanding of society? What are the most appropriate standards for judging proffered social explanations? A philosophy can guide us as we construct a field of knowledge, and it can serve as a set of regulative standards as we conduct and extend that field of knowledge. Philosophy has served both intellectual functions, as guide and as normative recommendations, in the past century.

The importance of the philosophy of social science derives from two things: first, the urgency and complexity of the challenges posed by the poorly understood social processes that surround us in twenty-first-century society, and second, the unsettled status of our understanding of the nature of the social world and the ways we can best describe and explain it. It is as if we were passengers on a technologically complex spacecraft whose propulsion and life-support systems we do not fully understand; and further, we have only a limited understanding of the systems of science and engineering on the basis of which these technologies were designed and maintained. We would have a very lively interest in learning the science that explains the workings of the technologies, and in learning the limitations and areas of uncertainty that the relevant sciences include. Likewise, it is crucial for us to come to a better and more well-grounded understanding of the social, political, and behavioral phenomena that constitute the modern social world. And, there are ...

Chapter 1. A better social ontology

The subject of social ontology has often been treated as an afterthought compared to epistemology and the theory of explanation in the philosophy of social science. But I believe that the social sciences need to be framed out of consideration of a better understanding of the nature of the social—a better social ontology—if we are to be more successful in understanding and explaining the processes of social change the twenty-first century presents. The social world has characteristics that fundamentally distinguish it from the natural world—heterogeneity, plasticity, and contingency, to name several. The social world is not a system of law-governed processes; it is instead a mix of different sorts of institutions, forms of human behavior, natural and environmental constraints, and contingent events. The entities that make up the social world at a given time and place have no particular ontological stability; they do not fall into “natural kinds”; and there is no reason to expect deep similarity across a number of ostensibly similar institutions—states, for example, or labor unions. 

A central thrust here is this: it is important for social scientists to avoid the fallacy of “naturalism”—the idea that social science should resemble natural science and the idea that social entities have a similar constitution and ontology to natural entities. 

Why are these ontological questions important to the philosophy of social science? And, how could they possibly contribute to better research and theory in the social sciences? One answer is that it is not really possible to investigate any domain without having a good idea of what sorts of things the domain consists of. So, attempting to arrive at perspicuous models of what the social world is made up of is a necessary step on the way to more specific forms of empirical and causal research. ...

Chapter 2. Actor-centered sociology


Key to the philosophy of social science offered here is the importance of what I’ve referred to as “actor-centered” sociology. Here is an elliptical description of three aspects of what I mean by this idea. First, it reflects a view of social ontology. The social world is constituted by the meaningful and oriented actions and mental frameworks of socially situated individuals and nothing else. Social things are composed, constituted, and given reality by the activities and interactions of individual actors—perhaps 2, perhaps 300 million. This does not mean social structures and forces do not exist. But it does mean that they gain their properties and powers through the activities and thoughts of social actors. Second, it puts forward a constraint on theorizing: Our social theories need to be compatible with the ontology, and we need to be confident that the social entities and forces that we postulate depend upon microfoundations at the level of social actors (whether or not we can specify those microfoundations). Third, “actor-centered sociology” represents a heuristic about where to focus at least some of our research energy and attention: at the ordinary processes and relations through which social activity take place, the ordinary people who bring them about, and the ordinary concatenations through which the effects of action and interaction aggregate to higher levels of social organization. 

This view can be spelled out in a number of observations: 

a. The premise of actor-centered sociology means that sociological theory needs to recognize and incorporate the idea that all social facts and structures derive from the activities and interactions of socially constructed individual actors. It is meta-theoretically improper to bring forward ...

Chapter 3. Social things


Let us shift now to a more traditional question of ontology, the nature of entities. There are substantive disagreements at this level of social ontology. What sorts of social things exist? Does the “proletariat” exist as a social entity? There are certainly workers; but is there a “working class”? Did “feudalism” exist as an extended social structure? What about the world trading system? What is needed in order to attribute existence to a social agglomeration?

In chapter 1, we argued that social entities are composed of socially constituted individuals. So, the lineaments of composition are important. We can recognize a wide range of ways in which individuals are composed into larger social entities: agglomeration, adherence, mutual recognition, coercion, contractual relationships, marketing, recruitment, incentive systems, and so forth. Here, we would like to look more closely at the nature of higher-level social entities and forces that emerge from these various forms of aggregation.

We might want to say that things exist when they have enough persistence over time to admit of re-identification and study from one time to another. Persistence involves some degree of stability in a core set of properties. A cloud shaped like a cat has a set of visible characteristics at a given moment; but these characteristics disappear quickly, and this collection of water droplets quickly morphs into a different configuration in a short time. So, we are inclined not to call the cat-shaped cloud an entity. On the other hand, “the Black Forest” exists because we can locate its approximate boundaries and composition over several centuries. The forest is an agglomeration of trees in a geographical space; but we might reasonably judge that the forest has properties that we can investigate that are not simply properties of individual trees (density and canopy temperature, for example). The forest undergoes change ...

Chapter 4. Reduction and emergence

Earlier chapters have focused attention on the nature of social entities and their relation to social actors. In this chapter, we will pursue some of the conceptual and theoretical problems that emerge from these concerns. We will consider the idea of reductionism—the notion that social phenomena can be reduced to the actions and interactions of individuals. Here, we will also consider the notions of generativity and supervenience—the notion that social phenomena are “generated” by the actions and interactions of individuals, and nothing else.

The second largest theme in this chapter is the topic of emergence and relative explanatory autonomy. Do social phenomena have properties that cannot or need not be derived from the behavior of individuals after all? Are social outcomes “emergent” in some strong sense? Do facts about complexity imply that we cannot derive or predict social outcomes, no matter how much we know about the circumstances and actions of individuals? Is it possible to be a generativist without being forced to assume that social outcomes are predictable in principle?


Figure 4.1 provides an illustration of how the entities and processes of the social world might be arranged.

The first diagram, Figure 4.1 represents the social world as a set of layers of entities, processes, powers, and laws. Entities at L2 are composed of or caused by some set of entities and forces at L1. Likewise, L3 and L4. Arrows labeled with W indicate microfoundations for L2 facts based on L1 facts. Diamond- tipped arrows indicate the relation of generative dependence from one level ...

Chapter 5. Generativity and complexity

Many of the topics considered in the earlier chapters have to do with the relation between macro and micro, and social and individual. These topics are potentially relevant to a very lively body of work emerging within the interdisciplinary fields of complex systems, computational mathematics, and simulation studies. This emerging synergy between advanced computational mathematics and the social sciences is possible because of the way that social phenomena emerge from the actions and thoughts of individual actors in relationship to each other. This is what allows us to join simulation models to methodology and explanation. Essentially, we can think of the upward strut of Coleman’s boat (Figure 4.2)—the part of the story that has to do with the “aggregation dynamics” of a set of actors—and can try to create models that can serve to simulate the effects of these actions and interactions. A well- known example is Thomas Schelling’s simulation of residential segregation (Schelling 1971). This chapter will consider some of the philosophical and methodological issues that arise from this intersection.

As we have seen at many points already, apparently simple assumptions about the social world give rise to very different ideas about ontology and methodology. This is true for the current chapter as well. One group of scientists examines the tools of agent-based simulation and conclude that it should be possible to generate all important social phenomena making use of these tools. These are the advocates of “generativity.” Another group of scientists are struck by the unpredictability of complex systems and observe that complex systems have novel characteristics not found among the units. Complex systems possess features like “tight linkage,” “nonlinearity,” path dependence, and multiple systems of feedback that lead to dynamics that are difficult or impossible to predict, and leading complexity theorists argue that complex systems have “emergent” properties. These scientists are grouped ...

Chapter 6. Social causation


To explain an outcome is to demonstrate what conditions combined to bring it about—what caused the outcome in the circumstances, or caused it to be more likely to occur. The most fundamental aspect of an explanation is a hypothesis about what caused the circumstance we want to explain. So, social explanation requires that we provide accounts of the social causes of social outcomes. Consequently, we need to raise two sorts of questions: First, what kind of thing is a social cause—how do social circumstances cause other social circumstances? And, second, what kind of social research can allow us to identify the causes of a social outcome or pattern?

The idea of social causation is a difficult one, as we dig more deeply into it. What does it mean to say that “poor education causes increased risk of delinquency” or “population growth causes technology change” or “the existence of paramilitary organizations contributed to the rise of German fascism”? What sorts of things can function as “social causes”—events, structures, actions, forces, and social opinions? What social interactions extend over time in the social world to establish the links between cause and effect? What kinds of evidence are available to support the claim that “social factor X causes a change in social factor Y”? Social scientists often have a variety of things in mind when they make claims like these. For example: “X is a necessary and/or sufficient condition for Y”; “if X varies, Y can be expected to vary”; “controlling for other factors, more X contributes to more Y.” (See Little 1991, chapter 2, for a more extensive discussion of these variations in causal thinking.) However, none of these approaches is sufficiently fundamental, and much of the rest of this chapter will focus on the theories of ...

Chapter 7. Social realism


Scientific realism is the idea that scientific theories provide descriptions of the world that are approximately true. Realists in a particular domain of science postulate that the realm under consideration consists of entities, forces, and structures that are real and independent from our observations. Realism involves the view that at least some of the assertions of a field of knowledge make true statements about the properties of unobservable things, processes, and states in the domain of study. This view presupposes a correspondence theory of truth—the idea that the world is separate from the concepts that we use to describe it. And, it implies some sort of theory of scientific rationality— a theory of the grounds that we have for believing or accepting the findings of a given area of science. Realism, objectivity, and facts go together. We can interpret a theory realistically just in case we believe that there is a fact of the matter concerning the assertions contained in the theory.

Several major philosophers of science have taken up this issue in the past three decades, including Hilary Putnam, Richard Boyd, Rom Harré (Harré and Madden 1975), Roy Bhaskar (1975), and Peter Manicas (2006). Ilkka Niiniluoto’s Critical Scientific Realism provides an excellent contemporary analysis of the premises and varieties of scientific realism (Niiniluoto 1999). Richard Boyd’s arguments for scientific realism are particularly compelling (1990, 2002): various areas of the natural sciences are highly successful in predicting and controlling natural phenomena; their accounts are based on hypothetical theories of the unobservable mechanisms of nature; and, the best explanation of that success is the assumption that those theories are approximately true. Here is a good statement of Boyd’s view: ...