Method Acting

A Treatise on Social Theory Volume I: The Methodology of Social Theory

by W.G. Runciman
Cambridge University Press, 350 pp., $14.95 (paper)

On the first page of his new book, the well-known British sociologist W.G. Runciman defines the classic and often ferocious debate he wants to deal with. It is, he writes, the debate between “those who affirm and those who deny that there is a fundamental difference in kind between the sciences of nature and the sciences of man.” This controversy, which “has continued without resolution for more than two hundred years,” he proposes to resolve. If the social sciences have not yet provided us with convincing theoretical knowledge or laws governing human behavior, is it because the matters they deal with are so complex as to prevent the discovery of such knowledge? Or is it because no one has found a suitable method for studying these materials? Or is it because the interests and values of social scientists have contaminated their work, with the result that instead of objective theory they have produced merely a series of tendentious, if occasionally brilliant, speculations?

At one extreme, among those concerned with this debate, are uncompromising positivists and behaviorists, and others, who claim that the social sciences should use methods of inquiry and patterns of explanation identical, for all practical purposes, with those in other sciences. Human beings, they acknowledge, are indeed more complex than stones or plants, but they are physical systems that are in principle predictable. Causal generalizations about them can be confirmed or disconfirmed by observations of their behavior in the same way that hypotheses about inanimate objects are. They hope that such causal generalizations will in turn be explained by more inclusive theories which will enable us to explain and predict such human conduct as the behavior of economic markets, kinship systems, crime and deviance, voting patterns, the causes of class conflicts and of war. It is true, they contend, that constructing and verifying these laws and theories is often limited by the frequent impossibility of conducting controlled experiments on human beings, and by the special problems that arise when self-conscious human beings study each other. But, they claim, these obstacles do not necessarily prohibit constructing a science of society.

At the other extreme stand the champions of “hermeneutic” and “interpretive” social theory, who claim that the methods of social science, if it is science, are not those of observing outward behavior, at least for much of its research. The explanations of social science differ in both form and content from the causal ones of natural science. The reason is that the business of social science is to study not behavior but actions that have meanings for those who perform them, and actions (like voting or engaging in political protests) cannot be grasped by causal generalizations but instead require a distinctive “method.” We will never understand why a man will respond in anger to being called an ass unless we understand the meaning of the insult when used in a particular “social context.” If we attempt to formulate a generalization that the utterance of the word “ass” invariably causes…

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