Description, Explanation and Social Science
I recently started reading The Unheavenly Chorus by Schlotzman, Verba and Nie. It’s an interesting book addressing inequalities in ‘political voice,’ which focuses not solely on the individual level but combined this with the organizational level. The title is a reference to E. E. Schattschneider’s famous line “The flaw in the pluralist heaven is that the heavenly chorus sings with a strong upper-class accent.”
While I plan to have more to say about what the book has to say about inequality, for now I wanted to highlight their discussion of explanation and description in social science.
In the chapters that follow, we reverse the relative weight of description and explanation. We engage in explanatory analysis when, for example, we delineate the alternate paths by which political participation is handed down from one generation to the next or the process of rational prospecting by which those who seek to mobilize others to become involved in politics find the targets of their requests for political action. Still, description of the shape of input to public officials from politically active citizens and organizations is front and center.
Description is not very fashionable in political science these days, but we make no apology for our emphasis on detailed systematic description that relies on large data sets and, sometimes, multivariate analysis. There are two reasons for our emphasis on description. First, many important scientific questions are, in fact, primarily descriptive ones, and good description is needed for good science. Second, considering such normative questions about democracy as “Who should be represented in a democracy?” or “Is equal expression of political voice among citizens necessary for democracy?” requires, first, that we ascertain the empirical answers to such questions as “Who is represented?” or “Who expresses political voice?” In terms of the metaphor of our title, we cannot characterize the chorus as “unheavenly” if we do not know whether it does, indeed, sing with an upper-class accent.
The case for in-depth description to hone questions about representation seems persuasive to us. The case for description as a scientific enterprise may appear more controversial. Yet consider the fact that all the following crucial scientific projects involve systematic description: observing the basic characteristics of all astronomical objects in the sky, identifying all the physical elements, mapping the human genome, cataloging the diversity of species, describing the characteristics of DNA, inventorying human languages, and undertaking a census or a survey of human populations. These examples leave no doubt about the importance of description for science.
In political science, path-breaking descriptive research has focused on inventorying the forms of democracy, characterizing the American ethos, describing public opinion on tolerance and other issues, delving into the nature of belief systems in mass publics, describing the jobs of members of Congress, and many other topics. These efforts reach beyond anecdote and narrative by invariably taking the following systematic scientific steps:
- Careful delineation of the universe of interest and the use of reproducible methods for sampling or inventorying it
- Development of scientific categories and concepts and their measurement based on the best available scientific understanding
- Use of these categories and concepts to provide a systematic picture of the phenomena under scrutiny
We have taken these steps in this book. We describe with some care what we mean by political voice. We develop categories for individual political participation and lobbying and use these categories to produce a systematic picture of the expression of political voice. The result, we hope, is a synoptic view of who does and does not have voice in American politics.
I find this entirely persuasive, as far as it goes. But it leads me to another question: is this dichotomy between ‘description’ and ‘explanation’ a useful way to make sense of social science? For me the answer is no. For one thing, note that ‘explanation’ here is often understood as ‘causation’, meaning what initial conditions lead to some outcome. But there are many forms of explanation that don’t follow that sort of logic. Evolution certainly couldn’t be forced into that sort of box, yet it is clearly a scientific theory, clearly explanation. There are plenty of examples from social science as well. Andrew Abbott’s Methods of Discovery is particularly useful on this score.
But I also think that this places too many varied things under the heading of ‘description’. For example, the development of concepts and categories (which is of central importance in qualitative analysis) involves moving back and forth between the world and theory. I made this point a while back while critiquing the concept of the ‘decision’ and offering an alternative:
“[C]oncepts,” as Gerring reminds us, “are critical to the functioning and evolution of social sciences.” (Gerring 1999, 359) They are recognized as important tools for social science, but the attention they generate is not always commensurate with their importance. (Jones 1974; Becker 1998; Gerring 1999; Somers 2008) The temptation is to jump to theorizing and explanations. Discussion about concepts, especially of the things we study, as opposed to the things we use to explain, runs the risk of being called mere description, when explanation is considered more valuable, or being labeled unscientific, since it must take place prior to the prototypical activities of social science.
As you can see, I certainly agree that too much emphasis on ‘explanation’ is problematic. It can lead to accepting legitimations and myths as true, since asking factual questions, or developing analytic categories, is seen as ‘less scientific’ and unworthy of our time and attention.
Part of the reason why this is an issue involves earlier disputes in social science. The behavioralists of the 50s and 60s sought to draw a line between their own work and scholarship that came earlier in part by rejecting past social science as ‘mere description.’ Much earlier work had essentially involved cataloging constitutional rules and structures, treating law on the books as if it were law in action. Later work did spend a good deal of time on establishing the facts of politics–since no one had done that important work previously. I’d argue that a good deal of work in political science in that earlier period did more than that, so that the line shouldn’t be drawn so sharply. Still this gives you a sense of why this is seen as important.
So it’s good to have heavy hitters in the field reiterating that what’s been labeled description is a legitimate social activity. But if we really want to balance the scales better (not to mention think more clearly about what we’re doing), this dichotomy should be tossed out.
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