socialsciences

On lack of consilience in the social sciences

O.E.Wilson’s characterisation of the social sciences is spot on (emphases mine):

“…There is also progress in the social sciences, but it is much slower and not at all animated by the same information flow and optimistic spirit [as in natural sciences]. Cooperation is sluggish at best; even genuine discoveries are often obscured by bitter ideological disputes. For the most part, anthropologists, economists, sociologists, and political scientists fail to understand and encourage one another… The efforts of social scientists are snarled by disunity and a failure of vision. And the reasons for the confusion are becoming increasingly clear. Social scientists by and large spurn the idea of the hierarchical ordering of knowledge that unites and drives the natural sciences. Split into independent cadres, the stress precision in words within their speciality but seldom speak the same technical language from one speciality to the next. A great many even enjoy the resulting overall atmosphere of chaos, mistaking it for creative ferment. Some favour partisan social activism, directing theory into the service of their personal political philosophies.” (p. 201)

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Concepts and paradigms in mixed methods research

Bergman writes (all emphases mine):

“Concepts, also known as conceptions or constructs, play various important roles in empirical research and, by extension, could be the subject of more explicit inquiry in mono and mixed methods research. For empirical researchers, a concept can be understood as an abstract object, abstractum, or a mental representation. Well-being, depression, poverty, achievement, family, class, illness, democracy, power, gender, and ethnicity are examples of concepts.”

Isn’t a concept a representation of ontological reality (or does he imply this by “mental representation”). Otherwise it is a metaphor (a construct) and not a concept. For example, achievement is a construct (‘achievement’ doesn’t exist in nature, it’s a construct, what counts as achievement depends on a given context) while gender or ethnicity are concepts (they objectively exist in reality, even if people can create their own subjectivity around them).   Am I wrong?

He goes on to discuss the use of term ‘paradigm’ in social science research, in particular in relation to mixed methods research designs.  He uses Powers & Knapp’s (1990, p.103) definition of paradigm:

“An organizing framework that contains the concepts, theories, assumptions, beliefs, values,
and principles that inform a discipline on how to interpret subject matter of concern. The paradigm also contains the research methods considered best to generate knowledge and suggests that which is open and not open to inquiry at the time.”

He then argues:

“In the literature on mixed methods research, the term paradigm is used in a number of ways.
Most often, it is used when authors attempt to differentiate qualitative from quantitative
research. At first glance, it appears that they are indeed different paradigms as most authors
in this vein even provide tables, which classify the differences between qualitative and quantitative
methods on epistemological, ontological, and axiological grounds…On closer inspection, however, it is difficult to sustain these differences because qualitative and quantitative analysis techniques do not necessitate a particular view of the nature of reality, privilege a specific research theme and how to research it, or determine the truth value of data or the relationship between researchers and their research subject…If we were indeed faced with two competing paradigms, then it would not be possible to combine qualitative and quantitative elements within one research question because, as Kuhn already recognized, competing paradigms are incommensurable.”

It follows that qualitative and quantitative research cannot be called ‘paradigms’, but they often are.

Bergman allows that the term in ‘paradigm’ may be used in its weaker sense, meaning an ‘approach’ or a ‘framework’ (eg humanism, structuralism, constructivism, etc):

“In its weaker form, the term is roughly synonymous with a ‘‘worldview’’. Given that most grand or middle range theories could be considered a worldview, the use of the term paradigm would lose its specific significance.”

He concludes on an excellent point:

“So how many paradigms are there in the social and related sciences? In the sense of the strong meaning, probably none… In the weak sense, where the term paradigm signifies an approach or framework, there are as many paradigms as there are authors who feel the need to distinguish a meta, grand, and middle-range theoretical approach from alternatives.”

Reference [access by subscription]: Bergman, M. (2010). On concepts and paradigms in mixed methods research. Journal of Mixed Methods Research, 4(3), 171–175.