A. L. Stinchcombe, The Logic of Social Research. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2005.

Arthur L. Stinchcombe is a very distinguished sociologist and is well-known, among other things, for his methodological work. He decided to publish a monograph entirely devoted to methodology only at seventy though. This is thus a mature work, in which Stinchcombe takes stock of a lifelong career as a practitioner sociologist and attentive reader of both philosophy and other social sciences. Yet its intended audience are beginning graduate students (in various disciplines, not only sociology) to whom the lectures in which this book originated were addressed. He offers them “an upside-down version of the ‘unified science’ movement” of his youth. Instead of putting physics first as a yardstick, Stinchcombe issues a plea for a more unified social science whose variety of research methods, well understood, would exhibit the “same intellectual strategy” than any other scientific discipline. Thus one can, perhaps, explain the classical resonance of the title (e.g., Logik der Forschung). Yet, the approach is truly updated.

Having introduced Jon Elster as “probably the leading philosopher of the social sciences” (p. 171), Stinchcombe adopts a very Elsterian piecemeal approach to a big issue, causality, which is explored by means of a series of case studies throughout the book. The cases illustrate at length four methods and seven problems that are covered in it. As to the former, Stinchcombe considers the quantitative, the historical, the ethnographic and the experimental. The problems are: the centrality of distances in study design for causal theories; economy in data collection; the use of data to refine concepts and their measurement; the relevance of context; the empirical research of mechanisms and processes; contrasting theories through hypothesis testing and, finally, the use of data to refine them. Each of these is considered in a separate chapter through the analysis of an array of case studies, where the contribution of the four methods is exhibited and analysed.

The first question then is why causality plays such a central role in the logic of social research. Immediately on page 1, Stinchcombe states that almost all sociological theories are, one way or another, causal. Yet, we will find no philosophical discussion of the concept of causality throughout the book, since Stinchcombe explicitly eschews digression into epistemological topics (e.g., p. 196). Stinchcombe’s approach is methodological instead: there various methods of social research that claim to reach causal conclusions, and the questions are, first, under which conditions they yield these and, second, whether there is any complementarity among them. Stinchcombe’s approach seeks the one in the many: instead of arguing in favor of one particular method as the sole means to assess causality, it is claimed that all four methods can contribute. Obviously, it is necessary to understand causation broadly so that ethnographers and econometricians can cooperate in the pursuit of causal explanations. The author states that “the minimum piece of causal information is two distances”, i.e., some variation in the information we can gather about the units of analysis involved in the causal process. If “a year more of education” is regarded as putative cause of “a three-point increase in a measure of labor market advantage”, the minimum piece of causal information will then be the distance between two observations of education in different people. This approach suggests that indeed all the four methods considered rely on quantitative considerations, namely the measurement of numerical differences in the units of analysis, or lead us to obtain them. As a matter of fact, the chapters exploring the five first problems discussed above are somehow intended as an extended preamble “of a good statistics textbook” (p. 239). At this point, it is necessary to note that the author is implicitly assuming that those social theories that do not produce causal statements do not deserve the consideration of science. I will not question such assumption, but it should have been argued somehow, at least to warn the reader of the consequences of this one-sided causal approach to social research.

Having settled this, Stinchcombe proceeds to explore different research strategies. In chapter three he addresses the problem of costs in the design of a study, stating the general principle that we want “the cheapest right answer”. On this basis, he defends the convenience of oversampling extremes by focusing on those cases “that contain more information on why they are not average”. Thus, they are judged to be more relevant to explore causal distances. Given that these are often initially grasped through vague concepts, in chapters four and five Stinchcombe discusses various uses of data to improve their precision. He explores, first, whether one or more concepts are needed to describe causal distances; second, how to interpret them in terms of causal theories or mechanisms and their contexts. This latter topic is addressed at length in chapter five, where the relevance of boundary conditions for causal analysis is appraised. Information about the context is more or less needed depending on how precisely we can define our units of analysis. When this definition is difficult to attain, narratives providing background information seem to be the main device to improve our understanding of the causal setting through a better grasp of its boundaries. The core chapter of the book, in length at least, seems to be the sixth, about mechanisms, that is, our theoretical understanding of the repetitive processes occurring around the units of analysis which turn causes into effects. Stinchcombe lists and illustrates five types: structural holes (such as social networks), individualism, rational choice (carefully distinguished from the former: there is no token individuality in it), situations and patterns. Chapter seven is about statistical tests, among which Stinchcombe pays particular attention to the role of hierarchical models. The last chapter is, in many ways, “a sermon on the life of research”, the crafting of theories through data as a research program.

This synopsis conveys just a vague impression of the topics covered in the book. The reason is that most of the concepts listed above are not introduced and discussed analytically, but rather exemplified at length through ample transcriptions or summaries of articles and book chapters, very often authored by Stinchcombe himself. He wants to show the four methods discussed at work, and it is shown indeed that there is a complementary role for each in many of the cases presented. The virtue of this casuistic approach seems to be in its utility in class: the examples are detailed enough to allow a discussion of the concepts and methods they illustrate. The interest of the cases selected is obviously guaranteed by the author’s expertise. Yet, it is a reflection of his own (necessarily partial) interests and, as such, several topics are underrepresented or simply omitted (e.g., experiments or simulations). The author’s warning regarding the rhetoric of the book should be taken into account: it is the oral style of a lecture (p. xi) and, given the number of cases discussed, it is easy to get lost in the details. It seems better to use it as a trigger for debate on each particular topic in class than as a conventional textbook.

A different issue is whether this selection of cases sustains the thesis that Stinchcombe is defending, namely the complementarity of the four methods in the search for causal accounts of social phenomena. In my view, the proclaimed methodological unity of the social sciences seems a bit vague, probably because the very concept of unity was not intended to capture the family resemblances that Stinchcombe’s discussions suggest. The stricter we are in our definition of causal explanation, the less unity there will probably be among the cases discussed in the book. However, it was not aimed at convincing philosophers of any matter of principle, but to make students more open to the variety of available methods and the convenience of using them. As such, it deserves all praise. In this respect, I only miss that the author has not summarized the debate presumably elicited by many of the studies compiled, just as a sign of the professional reception that was granted to the attempts to integrate various methods. This would have been useful for students and for philosophers alike as an index of the real unity that may exist if not in the social sciences, among the social scientists at least.

{November 2007}
{Philosophy of the Social Sciences 38.2 (2008), 296-298}

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