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.


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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Lee: Yep, Milgram was replicated in many variations in many places. I looked at a lot of them at the time, can’t remember details now. It wasn’t quite so bad under other conditions. He sure showed that “I was just following orders” wasn’t just a concentration camp problem.
On your comments on cultural productions and face-to-face: The anthro tradition was built on participant observation and informal interview, those being with the same people in the same place over an extended period of time. “My village my people” etc. Nowadays “place” has been reconceptualized, what was the name of the book awhile back, Anthropological Locations I think. I always also think of an article I reviewed a few years ago by Jenna Burrell, fieldwork in an Internet cafe in Ghana. Or Marcus’ “follow the x” mantra, follow the money, follow the person, follow the object, etc. 
And cultural productions, I don’t know your specific research approach, but I use them a lot, popular literature, documents, media print and digital, films in a couple of cases. No single type was ever the focus in my work though; instead I was using a variety of them together with  traditional places and faces data as different pieces of evidence in the same “case making” process. 
The comments bring up important issues with too much to handle here. My way of thinking about it is, the traditional privileged kind of ethnographic data, i.e. always and only face-to-face, is only one of many  kinds of data that can be incorporated into an HSR research process. I mean, even back in the 80s when I talked about my independent trucker research and added in the analysis of transcripts and regulatory documents from federal agencies, a senior colleague said that that was “cheating.” The extreme case, during our drug work on trend theory, was to look at the rise of the heroin epidemic after WWII. It was all based on cultural productions of many different types. Sid Mintz’s Sweetness and Power provided a model and I didn’t mind when drug colleagues called me an “economic historian,” because historians, or some of them anyway, work HSR style as well.
John: That was a good two yen. I think of “testing” all the time, reserving “experiment” for the official gold standard linear causal control group etc. routine. We all test all the time. I’m only a consumer of experiments, they being yet another type of “data” I’ll use in an HSR process, alongside of anything else that comes along that is useful in either pattern building or falsifying in our iterative recursive way. The world is made of data.
Your second point: Yeah, I get caught in the traditional BSS/HSR opposition all the time. Usually, in the many decades in the drug field, it was forced upon me, though late in the game people at least knew there was something called “qualitative” (groan) and a few project officers at NIH started to require it in some specific RFPs. But that’s another story. At any rate, BSS played a political role in drug research, in the way of the Frankfurt School writings, preserve ideology at all costs by sealing its premises into top down research. 
The two traditions have a long pedigree with BSS out of the Enlightenment science line always being the prestige item, at least as I’ve experienced it over the years. But I do think things are changing, the politically weaker side of the dialectic, HSR, has gained some weight and we’re on to some new syntheses. Human social science is a different kind of science because its phenomena are different, but it’s also a science, so let’s get down to the details of how it’s similar and how it’s different. I see more and more of that going on, poco a poco.
Your comments about Abbot and adequacy: Interesting, but I’ve got this bias that probably isn’t always the best way to work. When I get a new problem, theory or practice, I just want to wander around and find where it comes alive, though—following on from comments to Lee—it might live on paper or images on web pages as much as in places and faces. The dumb part of this is, it’s hard to pitch a project that starts like this. “Hi, I’ll just wander awhile and read a couple of things and let the problem tell me what it is rather than the other way around." To my surprise, once I started doing projects in the world, I learned that it was easier to work it like that in that context,  impossible writing a proposal for academics. Of course projects in the world usually came my way because they were desperate, had tried the numbers, the computer models, six sigma and all that. So they’d call in a weirdo. Ah those were the days, before design anthro really took off and made it legit (:
Well as Lee said, I think we’re drawing to a close. I don’t mean you all have no right to post something about how I missed the point (: I’m coming up on an obstacle course of deadlines leading to a trip starting this week. My thanks again for inviting me to the party. I enjoyed the exchanges. I’ll stay with the blog and see what happens next.
Best to you both, and Huan, and whoever those people were out there who sometimes listened in. May we meet in living color one of these days.

What I like very much about Michael Agar's book is the way he links the tradition of social science of the late 19th Century which had no problem in seeing anthropology, philosophy and psychology as interlinked ways of inquiring into being human with varying kinds of approach and relevance with the crisis in BSS. Before 1918 the intellectual space in which human experience could be legitimately discussed included high literature, psychological experimentation, philosophical speculation, the ethnological comparison of symbols across time and space: it was not the case that only one or a few of these approaches could offer the final answer. After 1918 with the rise of techno-military states, only answers that fulfilled the laboratory-style definition of replicability (the factory conveyer belt providing another model) were seen as truly valid.

BSS -- the laboratory approach to universal human experience is cracked and leaking; so there is a glimmer of hope for new more open linkages being produced between the 'two worlds' art and science and the 'plural universes' of human experience that William James talked about. I liked how the book draws to a close with a discussion of Edith Stein on empathy as a key. It strikes me that there is more to be said, though, about the historical-epistemological 'why now?' relevance of the concerns you raise in the book, Michael. Also, the wider contextual frame of Transition and Chaos that we said we were going to talk about but haven't. Also, the real problem that you raised in terms of funding.

On that, John, is probably right that a large part of the funding for solutions to problems, little and big, like the 4-way stop etc. will have major corporate and or military interests behind it. If it is no longer the state, but rather large corporations which set the goals for knowledge, what difference does this make to the benign intentions of an HSR researcher? He who pays the piper calls the tune. The crack in the BSS model is perhaps a sign of a more sinister or at least unpredictable transformation in how knowledge is validated. Once upon a time a member of the Bush family would have been a shoe-in for major political office, the Bushes have been political heavy-lifters since 1918, but currently it is the unprecedented Don Trump's turn--someone whose knowledge-validity criteria seem to work in a quite new way. We might say that a shift back or away from lab-factory-knowledge about humans can only be a good thing, but as an outsider watching the rise and rise of Donald Trump I am wondering what kind of knowledge validation processes we might expect from this brave new world.


    Thanks for a Lively time.  

BSS -- the laboratory approach to universal human experience is cracked and leaking; so there is a glimmer of hope for new more open linkages being produced between the 'two worlds' art and science and the 'plural universes' of human experience that William James talked about.

Yes, and especially that great line "the laboratory approach to universal human experience is cracked and leaking." But why is that?

The first time I saw a similar statement was in something written by John Sherry, Chicago-trained anthropologist turned business school marketing professor. Sherry observed, this was back in the early 1990s, that the growing interest of business in anthropology was fueled by the failure of the standard survey research/social psychology-based marketing research paradigm to produce fresh insights. In retrospect, the success of that sort of research was fueled by the end of WWII and the return home from the war of millions of soldiers who were eager to marry, settle down and start raising families. The result was a brief period in which propositions along the lines of Male 24-35, married with two children implies X, Y, or Z, stood up pretty well to testing based on statistical analysis of survey research. By the mid-1990s that moment was over. One of the researchers I cite is a woman who set out to replicate William Foot Whyte's The Organization Man but looking at women in a place called Napierville instead of men in Park Forest. Her ethnographic anecdotes include attending a luncheon for women in their forties, all graduates of a local community college. Some had never married, some had been married and divorced multiple times. Some had new infants and toddlers to care for, others had kids in college or grandkids. Demography was no longer the great predictor it used to be. Consumers were becoming unpredictable and research interest shifted from broad demographic segments to psychographics, attempts to construct personas that represented particular clusters of needs and desires, or geospatial marketing in which the focus was the psychographics of geographically specific clusters.

Psychographics has since given way to experiential marketing (focused on providing customers with specific kinds of experiences — a soymilk Machiatto at Starbucks, for example) and one-to-one marketing based on data mining (Amazon's book recommendations, for instance). Meanwhile, people who produce goods and services are dealing with a world in which there is already so much stuff on the market that finding something compelling as well as new is becoming increasingly difficult. This is where some anthropologists, presenting themselves as people who notice things that others don't, have found their niches. Judging by recent EPIC proceedings, their biggest fear is that AI equipped with advanced data mining algorithms will be able to spot new openings in the market faster than they will.

Here's a good NYT Sunday mag article on the Target big data story that might be of interest.

And Huon, I agree that the historical/epistemological shift merits much more attention. I haven't done that, speculate some in talks, but think it has something to do with a threshold value for nonlinearities having been crossed among the powerful with HSR and data analytics then being used with positive outcomes. But really, I dunno.

Thanks again for taking the time to respond to questions, Michael.

4-Way Stop (2015) from Davey Jarrell on Vimeo.


    Great cartoon.  I had no idea the four-way stop has such traction.  

    Next steps: Organize symposia, apply for grants, establish departments . . . 

Sorry, I sent the wrong URL link by accident. Here is the NYT feature I mentioned earlier:

Michael, interesting. This is the other side of a story that was hot online a few months ago. That story concerned a conservative father who was incensed when his sixteen year-old daughter received a mailing from Target directed at pregnant women. When he went to Target to complain, he asked, "How could you possibly think my daughter is pregnant," Target told him about the kind of research described in this NY Times piece. When he got home, his daughter confessed that she was, indeed, pregnant.

I note that this form of data-mining is the kind of thing Paco Underhill wrote about in The Science of Shopping, now equipped with an afterburner thanks to digital technology. 

People who want to earn more should read Alberto-Lazlo Barabasi's Bursts and Alex Pentland's Social Physics.

Here in Yokohama, October 21 is drawing to a close. Tomorrow is October 22, when this forum is scheduled to close. Closing remarks, please.

A last round of thanks, to Michael Agar, for writing The Lively Science and participating in our discussion, to Huon Wardle and Lee Drummond for fresh perspectives and lively interventions that have made this forum one of the best on-line discussions ever. This forum is now officially closed.

Sorry to have by missed this excellent seminar. Just to announce the launch of a new book by OAC Press, Emancipatory Politics: a Critique, edited by Stephan Feuchtwang and Alpa Shah and an online seminar (see Forum notice) from November 23rd. Hope some of you can take part or at least look at the book. Closing the thread again now.



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