Institutions as Social Theory

Blogpost by Titus Alexander: “The natural sciences comprise of a set of institutions and methods designed to improve our understanding of the physical world. One of the most powerful things science does is to produce theories – models of reality – that are used by others to change the world. The benefits of using science are so great that societies have created many channels to develop and use research to improve the human condition.

Social scientists also seek to improve the human condition. However, the channels from research to application are often weak and most social research is buried in academic papers and books. Some will inform policy via think tanks, civil servants or pressure groups but practitioners and politicians often prefer their own judgement and prejudices, using research only when it suits them. But a working example – the institution as the method – has more influence than a research paper. The evidence is tangible, like an experiment in natural science, and includes all the complexities of real life. It demonstrates its reliability over time and provides proof of what works.

Reflexivity is key to social science

In the physical sciences the investigator is separate from the subject of investigation and she or he has no influence on what they observe. Generally, theories in the human sciences cannot provide this kind of detached explanation, because societies are reflexive. When we study human behaviour we also influence it. People change what they do in response to being studied. They use theories to change their own behaviour or the behaviour of others. Many scholars and practitioners have explored reflexivity, including Albert BanduraPierre Bourdieu and the financier George Soros. Anthony Giddens called it the ‘double hermeneutic’.

The fact that society is reflexive is the key to effective social science. Like scientists, societies create systematic detachment to increase objectivity in decision-making, through advisers, boards, regulators, opinion polls and so on. Peer reviewed social science research is a form of detachment, but it is often so detached to be irrelevant….(More)”.