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Making Social Science Matter: Why Social Inquiry Fails and How it can Succeed Again. (Book Reviews).

Making Social Science Matter: Why Social Inquiry Fails and How it can Succeed Again Bent Flyvbjerg; Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2001, 204 pages

In Making Social Science Matter, Bent Flyvbjerg addresses an important problem for all areas of research in the social sciences. He argues that the current obsession in the social sciences, of trying to be like the natural sciences, leads to poor research and a fundamental misunderstanding of the strengths proper research in the social sciences can demonstrate. Further, he offers his own new methodology for the social sciences that his argues will allow good and important work to be done in the social sciences using its strengths rather than trying to emulate the natural sciences. In doing so, Flyvbjerg relies heavily on social philosophy from Aristotle to the present day in order to put together a method for what he calls phronetic social science. He is careful to remark at the outset that his method for phronetic social science is not the only such method that might be developed.

The book is divided into two sections. The first section consists in flyvbjerg' s argument that the path that social science is on is not the one best suited to answer the questions social science is meant to answer. This argument is made in two parts and contains both a positive and negative thesis. The second section of the book outlines what Flyvbjerg takes to be the proper role of social science, given his conclusions from the first part. This includes outlining his phronetic social science and incorporating the aspect of power found in Michel Foucault's social philosophy. At the end of this last section of the book, Flyvbjerg gives some examples of how such phronetic social science research might progress taken from his own research in Denmark and other literature in the social sciences. His conclusion is that such research can be done even though too often social science fails to recognize that this is what it is best suited to do. This serves to connect to the earlier argument about the role of social science as it is seen to be currently and what Flyvbjerg thinks it should become.

The arguments given in the first section of the book are by far the strongest Flyvbjerg presents. The negative thesis he argues for is that social science ought not to try to be like natural science. One reason he gives for this is that the social and natural sciences do not attempt to answer the same kinds of questions, so it is no surprise that the same methods do not work. The current orientation--to proceed with social science as though it were natural science--Flyvbjerg calls a symptom of "physics envy," that is, the desire also prevalent in some of the natural sciences that all research, hypotheses, and experimentation should be as exacting as in physics.

Flyvbjerg's positive thesis is that, given social science does try to answer different kinds of questions than those answered in the natural sciences, social science should embrace this difference and should look back to social and political philosophy to find ways to inform its research. He argues specifically for looking back to Aristotle and his three kinds of knowledge--phronesis especially--to inform and serve to connect social science research in the areas of politics, culture, and economics. Looking back to Aristotle to use phronesis as a framework for social science research is a novel, and I think, good approach. Phronesis is what Aristotle calls "practical wisdom." It is wisdom in the areas of values and interests that must be used when one is participating with others in an ethical manner.

In the rest of the first section, Flyvbjerg concentrates on the different ways people learn to master tasks and become experts in things in order to bolster his argument that phronesis--that is, practical wisdom--is the proper kind of knowledge for social science to exploit and with which to be otherwise concerned. He does this by relying on the work of Stuart Dreyfus. In the last two chapters of this section, he concludes that the theories developed in social science are remnants of the push to be like natural science. He argues that even the structuralism found in Foucault falls to provide a theory for the social sciences. Given this, Flyvbjerg says the question remains as to whether theory is even possible for the social sciences. He argues that the elements that are generally taken to be part of theory do not appropriately match up with the goals and research interests of social science. In order to rectify this problem, he recommends phronetic social science.

In the second section of the book, Flyvbjerg sets out his phronetic social science. To do so he looks at a variety of positions in social and political philosophy. He argues that Aristotle's phronesis needs the additional concept of power to be integrated for a proper social science. He comes to this conclusion after contrasting the social theory of Foucault and Jurgen Habermas. Flyvbjerg says that Foucault' s explanation of power better suits social science than Habermas' method of discourse. He takes the aspect of conflict given in Foucault rather than the spirit of cooperation found in Habermas to be more accurate a framework for social science inquiry. To incorporate the aspect of power into Aristotle's phronesis, he argues that Foucault is indirectly influenced by Aristotle through Nietzsche and Machiavelli, therefore the task of integrating power into phronesis should not be a difficult one. Even so, the actual incorporation of power into phronesis is left unclear. The new phronesis seems to be one in w hich truth, knowledge, and reason are now just related to power in a relatively unspecified way. This is a weakness in Flyvbjerg's overall argument.

The final task of the last section is to give some methodological guidelines for phronetic social science and some illustrative examples. Flyvbjerg's guidelines are to remember the crucial questions that those focused on values should be interested in answering, with of course the new component of power included. These are: where are we going; who gains; who loses and by what mechanism of power; is it desirable; and what should be done? These questions, according to Flyvbjerg, focus on values while giving an analysis of the power relations present in the situation to be studied. Further, answering these questions does not arrive at theory for an answer but remains rooted in the interpretation rather than the codification of practices. Flyvbjerg's main example consists of his work in the area of city planning in Aalborg, Denmark. The example shows, according to Flyvbjerg, that the power relations were such that what was best for the city of Aalborg failed to be recognized in part because those who were in powe r had a different agenda. Flyvbjerg cites a variety of other books and research that presume to present the same sort of conclusion.

Flyvbjerg's Making Social Science Matter will prove to be an important book for those interested in the current state of the professions within the social sciences and for other academics because it chooses to address the important and timely question of what role should the social sciences play in the new modem technological society. However, one must be wary of the answer to the question Flyvbjerg gives for two reasons. First, he himself admits that there are possibly other ways of coming up with a successful social science than the one he gives. Second, the argumentation in the second half of the book in which he presents his phronetic social science is lacking as much of it is dismissive of one standpoint for another, which requires better argumentation. And it seems wholly possible that a social science meeting the basic criteria Flyvbjerg presents could be developed from the position he dismisses. Nonetheless, the book promises to be of great interest to those who feel as the author and I do, that socia l science is not natural science and ought not turn into natural science; and, so social science inquiry should try to do what it can do better. The tasks, and therefore the methods and successes of social science are different that those of natural science. For this, the author clearly argues and presents a compelling case. The book will serve as a jumping off point for many who think that there is still an important role left for the social sciences and will certainly invite many responses.
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Author:Maccarone, Ellen M.
Publication:The Social Science Journal
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 2002
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