This thread grows out of an earlier discussion started by Huon Wardle, Whatever Happened to 'Social Science'? In that thread several of us who frequently disagree in all sorts of ways converged on enthusiasm for Michael Agar's new book, The Lively Science: Remodeling Human Social Research. Here we will read and discuss that book. In the spirit of the book itself, everyone is welcome to participate, but especially those who are just beginning to think about anthropology, the history of social thought, and social science. To kick things off, I offer the following short review.

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The preface to Michael Agar's The Lively Science: Remodeling Human Social Research begins with the following paragraphs.

"What’s a nice reader like you doing in a book like this? I’m hoping that you’re here because you’re curious about a way to do “behavioral science” or “social science” that will help you figure out a problem you’d like to solve, or maybe you just wonder what those words mean because you’re a curious type. Maybe you’re a student, new or returning, embarking on a course with those names attached to it, or maybe a course in one of the many other areas that make use of them. The point is, I’m writing for readers who are fresh to the concepts, not for colleagues. 

"This book has a simple premise to get you started. The premise is, research on humans in their social world by other humans is not a traditional science like the one created by Galileo and Newton . It’s not that the creators were wrong. Far from it. The ones who were wrong were the historical figures who tried to imitate the way the creators worked, neglecting the fact that learning how people make it through the day is different from dropping balls from the Leaning Tower of Pisa or getting hit on the head by falling apples. Galileo didn’t have to communicate with the balls. Besides, he didn’t have to worry that the balls might look down 185 feet and refuse to jump and throw him over the parapet instead."

Two points are vital here. One concerns how we read, the other what the book is talking about. When Agar writes, "The point is, I am writing for readers who are fresh to the concepts, not for colleagues," he is asking those of us who are or hope to be colleagues to turn off what we think we already know and approach those concepts he mentions with a fresh, innocent gaze that makes no assumption that we know what he is talking about. He asks us to be readers who act like ethnographers, putting aside what we think to attend carefully to the people whose lives we share, looking for evidence of ideas that may be radically different from those we bring to the field. This is no small request, since, as indicated in the second paragraph, the topic sounds awfully familiar.

Anthropology, or at least the anthropology called social or cultural anthropology, is split down the middle. On one side are the "scientists" who see their goal as contributing to the kind of science conceived by Galileo and Newton, a science that discovers mathematical laws that work apply everywhere, regardless of what the entities they describe might be thinking or feeling. On the other side are the "humanists," for whom the essence of humanity lies in what humans think and feel and insist that thoughts and feelings cannot be understood scientifically. They can only be interpreted, thickly described in ways that make human stories plausible. Our usual reaction to this divide is to pick one side or the other and become fierce advocates for our choice. Agar asks us to question the ways in which we conceive of scientific and humanistic understanding, to challenge the divide and consider an alternative view in which science and humanity are combined. 

Stated so baldly, the thesis of the book sounds like a familiar sort of Hegelian dialectic: Thesis=science. Antithesis=humanity. Synthesis=A reconciliation that overcomes the initial contradiction. But there is much more to The Lively Science than is captured in this formula. Agar leads us on a picaresque journey through the thickets of modern social theory. He leads us away from the heavyweights usually featured in brief histories of social theory: Mars, Weber, and Durkheim. Instead he directs our attention to German idealists with names like Dilthey, rarely mentioned except in footnotes, and invites us to consider what they were on about when distinguishing naturwissenschaft, literally "natural science," from geisteswissenschaft, "spiritual sciences," a.k.a., humanities, but insisting that both are wissenschaft, i.e. science. Via this journey, Agar leads us to consider a broader view of science, in which Galileo and Newton represent only one variety, and the humanities are human sciences, retaining scientific rigor. 

As illustrated by the two paragraphs quoted above, however, this is not a pretentious, ponderous book. Agar is a witty and genial writer well-aware that his mission is not to speak to those already his colleagues, already set in our intellectual ways, but to newcomers, still young and open enough in mind and spirit and still rebellious enough to want to challenge their teachers, to consider thoughts not heard, or heard not nearly enough, in classrooms. If you see yourself in this description, please join us in reading and discussing Michael Agar's The Lively Science.

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I might add that, compared to other academic books, The Lively Science is cheap. The kindle edition is available on Amazon.com for US$10.56.

Thanks, John, for starting this discussion.

I understand that Agar says that is necessary to do something different from 1) the behavioral social sciences (BSS) based in statistical data and limited but supposed “hard” conclusions; and from 2) the knowledge of “humanists” that prefer discourses in plain (or not so plain) language but are far from the “real people”.

It is possible to do another kind of Human Social Science, Michael says and many of us agree with him.

I’ll comment some paragraphs of the introduction:

"I’m writing for readers who are fresh to the concepts, not for colleagues. This book has a simple premise to get you started. The premise is, research on humans in their social world by other humans is not a traditional science like the one created by Galileo and Newton."

I have some dissent: the sciences of G & N set general rules: the apples fall with the same acceleration; the stars attracts each other with a force of the same class.

That knowledge is very limited if somebody is making packages for apples or planning an interstellar trip. Another information and rules are necessary for that tasks. But the general knowledge is anyway useful; don't blame it.

I think that knowledge exists -even if embedded- in applied technologies like marketing, publishing, etc. 

Then: allow an open-empty box for general rules, for non-existent models for another logics, languages and mathematics. The Human Social Science (in construction) perhaps have something to do with that kind of knowledge.

To be continued...

Oscar,

Suppose we think of it this way: Problems, methods and evidence differ from science to science.

Classical mechanics is science — the science of simple machines. The results are utterly predictable.

Thermodynamics is science — the science of statistical properties of very large numbers of particles confined in spaces that affect pressure and temperature. The results are so close to utterly predictable, allowing an infinitesimal chance for something really weird to happen, as not to matter in practical applications.

Chemistry is science — Now there are multiple types of particles and how they interact is an issue. Molecular structures and their influence on phase transitions become important.

Evolutionary biology is a science — Now there aren't just different types to worry about. These particles breed, producing more particles, some better, some worse adapted to the environments in which they find themselves.

The human sciences are sciences — Damn, the particles don't just breed and adapt to changing environments, they also think and feel, and how they think and feel must be added to simple and statistical mechanics, chemistry, and biology to explain their behavior.

Is scientific inquiry applied to humans impossible? No. It is still possible to develop and test empirically grounded hypotheses. They may look different, "The butler did it" vs f=ma for example. They may require different types of evidence, bits and pieces on which a case can be built instead of experiments or properly sampled surveys. They may require different forms of explanation, convincing narratives instead of mathematical or computational simulations. But they still fit within a broad conception of empirically grounded science in which competing propositions are tested against the available facts.

No need to erect metaphysical boundaries here.

How does that sound?

Hi John!

Brief comments


John McCreery said:

How does that sound?

> I share the words-opinion before this sentence:
...
The human sciences are sciences — Damn, the particles don't just breed and adapt to changing environments, they also think and feel,
and how they think and feel must be added to simple and statistical mechanics, chemistry, and biology to explain their behavior.
> Some ways for knowing about  that "particles" could be similar  to sandpiles, electrons or ecosystems. The complexity is in the approach or model to use, not necessarily in the subject.

Is scientific inquiry applied to humans impossible? No. It is still possible to develop and test empirically grounded hypotheses. They may look different, "The butler did it" vs f=ma for example. They may require different types of evidence, bits and pieces on which a case can be built instead of experiments or properly sampled surveys. They may require different forms of explanation, convincing narratives instead of mathematical or computational simulations. But they still fit within a broad conception of empirically grounded science in which competing propositions are tested against the available facts.
> "the butler did it" is also a possible valid explanation if the question was clearly stated with words before, and the butler was part of the problem. I don't keep the contrary.

No need to erect metaphysical boundaries here. [ I don't understand well this sentence]

I’ve emailed Michael Agar with an invitation to participate in a forum on the topic of his book, “The Lively Science” and suggested ten or twelve days during the period Oct 8 – 22 as a time.  His work is very interesting, and certainly relevant to the discussion on the “Social Science” forum.  I hope he will be able to participate.   

Thanks, Lee. 

Is everyone else happy with the October 8-22 schedule?

The complexity is in the approach or model to use, not necessarily in the subject.


I am tempted to say, *yes." But isn't the fundamental issue the limited bandwidth of human thinking?

Because there are limits on how much complexity we can process at once, we focus on the foreground, whatever has caught our attention and take for granted what is left in the background. Thus, for example, if we set out to explain a suicide, we take it for granted that if someone jumps out of a window on the upper floor of a building they will accelerate as they fall as described by Newton's laws. Instead, we wonder why they decided to kill themselves? Or, if we are a policeman, we might ask if they were pushed? Or, as a social scientist, we might identify this suicide as one of a growing number of suicides among people living in certain areas or living in particular social or economic circumstances. We would have to be careful, though, since our explanation might not apply to this particular case. 



Oscar González said:

Hi John!

Brief comments


John McCreery said:

How does that sound?

> I share the words-opinion before this sentence:
...
The human sciences are sciences — Damn, the particles don't just breed and adapt to changing environments, they also think and feel,
and how they think and feel must be added to simple and statistical mechanics, chemistry, and biology to explain their behavior.
> Some ways for knowing about  that "particles" could be similar  to sandpiles, electrons or ecosystems. The complexity is in the approach or model to use, not necessarily in the subject.

Is scientific inquiry applied to humans impossible? No. It is still possible to develop and test empirically grounded hypotheses. They may look different, "The butler did it" vs f=ma for example. They may require different types of evidence, bits and pieces on which a case can be built instead of experiments or properly sampled surveys. They may require different forms of explanation, convincing narratives instead of mathematical or computational simulations. But they still fit within a broad conception of empirically grounded science in which competing propositions are tested against the available facts.
> "the butler did it" is also a possible valid explanation if the question was clearly stated with words before, and the butler was part of the problem. I don't keep the contrary.

No need to erect metaphysical boundaries here. [ I don't understand well this sentence]

    Good news.  Michael Agar has accepted our invitation to participate in the Forum.  Interested parties now have time to check out (hopefully, as in “read”) The Lively Science before things get underway around October 8 or so.  Also, particularly since Michael’s book is addressed to persons at all levels of engagement with anthropology it would be great to spread the word about the Forum.  All you social-media surfers, tweet, text, friend, whatever, the news.  OACers keep asking for wider participation in discussions, here is the perfect opportunity.  

Super. Thanks, Lee.
No need to erect metaphysical boundaries here. [ I don't understand well this sentence]
Might have said philosophical or ontological instead of metaphysical. The allusion was to the Cartesian dualism, Mind v Body, that underlies the conventional distinction between the humanities, said to deal with Mind, and the sciences, said to deal with mindless Bodies.

Thank you, Lee... and thanks to Michael.

Let us wait for the forum with his participation.

John:

Every person --anthropologists included-- has limited cultural tools, limitant contexts, limited possibilities of expression.

The sciences develop instruments that see more than the eyes of an individual. The limited bandwith of human thinking is there.

The universe, or the human body physiology, or the antimatter idea are or can be startling for a single person. So happens with some aspects of social human beings. 

I think a human social science is a great/big enterprise, necessarily a collective one. There in the team should be people able to develop tools for seeing what the naked eye of the ethnographer doesn't see.

Agar is proposing some parts of the collective enterprise. I ask for mantain wide possibilities of a scientific human  science.

Thank you for inviting me to the Open Anthro Coop, and it’s an honor that some of you found The Lively Science worth discussing. I looked over the previous “science” discussion, so let me describe a few of the science specific premises in the book. 
1. Science means making an argument using explicit logic and evidence in a way that is capable of challenge.
2. Human social science, of whatever type, deals with a phenomenon that has characteristics that the phenomenon of other sciences don’t have. Among these are intentionality (Brentano) and lived experience and biography/history (Dilthey). No description/explanation in human social science will be adequate without including those characteristics.
3. A researcher/scientist is also a member of this class of phenomenon in interaction with research subjects, so those requirements apply to him/her/them as well. The science is intersubjective, neither objective nor subjective in any simple way.
4. A general model for human social research is social learning. The science part in #1 above is a report of the results of that learning in a scientific mode that meets that #1 definition. A traditional behavioral/social science research moment, survey or experiment, can play a role in the learning process, and it can satisfy #1 above, but as a stand-alone event it fails #2 and #3 and the social learning process.
Enough for now. These are the kinds of things that came clear as people in the organizational world wondered what in the hell I was doing. So I tried to put them together in the book. Most of it shows how there are kinds of logic and kinds of evidence that satisfy all four items in the above list. People in organizations I worked with found it interesting and useful, usually, though the big bosses often didn’t because the results complicated or contradicted how they wanted to believe the world worked. But that’s another story.
Anyway, hope this is interesting to you all and I’ll be curious to see any comments.

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