Explanation in the Social Sciences with particular reference to economics
Torrance, Thomas S.
The aim of this thesis is to discuss the nature of social phenomena, and to determine (with particular reference to economics) the appropriate way to explain them. Many of the contentions advanced rest largely upon the fact that social phenomena can be investigated only by methods which respect their distinctive character and status as social phenomena. In chapter I it is argued that the most important difference between the social and the natural sciences is that the former have to employ intentional criteria to identify their explananda-phenomena. Because human and societal phenomena are intrinsically meaningful, the type of causation which prevails in the social realm is fundamentally different from that which prevails in the physical. In chapter II the claim of Popper and Hayek that the task of the social sciences is to trace the unintended consequences of human actions is critically examined. Two examples of economic explanation are given in order to show the importance of unintended consequences, and to illustrate the general form explanations of social phenomena (apart from those of single actions) should adopt. In chapter III the contention that the social sciences deal with inherently complex phenomena is examined and defended, and the main implications of this contention for social analysis are drawn. The extent to which social phenomena are in principle predictable is discussed. In chapter IV the structural properties of formal scientific theories are briefly characterised, and then Friedman's famous argument on the testability of economic theories is analysed and rejected. The role within a scientific theory of statements formulated with reference to idealisations of the phenomena being studied, and the role within a social explanation of the 'principle of rationality', are discussed. In chapter V the central questions behind the methodological individualism/methodological holism controversy are brought to light. Provided that methodological individualism is not construed as a reductionist or mechanistic principle, it can successfully avoid the main objections of its detractors. It is argued that the method of functional analysis in sociology (in the form developed by Merton) is consistent with methodological individualism. Finally, it is claimed that (apart from a few minor exceptions) the principle of methodological individualism does indeed recommend the appropriate way to explain societal phenomena. In chapter VI, the various strands of thought running through the five preceding chapters are drawn together in a brief summary of the most important points raised by this thesis.