Reflections of the 10th New Institutionalism Workshop, 20-21 March, Rome – Part II

The social obligation of research

Bernard Forgues (IAE Lille) raised an important point during his small speech at the panel discussion: scientists develop the taste for an abstract scientific language addressing constructed problems, and thereby forgetting the real world. Honestly, self-critically, and a bit ironically he said that at the end of a paper he has written about institutional work, he asks himself if he really addressed what the actors of his study are actually doing. Since the concepts developed are so abstract, they hardly reflect the practical concerns and actions of the actors studied.

This point was similarly made by Elke Weik (University of Leicester) in her presentation, in which she reported from the state of the art of her long-term project about the enduring features of institutions.

She stumbled upon the scientific contributions of J.W. Goethe, who developed a very critical distance towards the developments of sciences as early as in the 18th century. Being aware of the points raised by Forgues, Goethe proposed five principles of studying social phenomena, which sound inevitably anti-scientific for us as scientists:

(1) There is no subject-object-opposition between the researcher and the object

(2) The phenomena itself is the ultimate reality – the Anschauung emerges out of the object

(3) Rational thinking is only one of multiple necessary approaches to study social life.

(4) Instead of looking focusing on generalities, synchronic developments with eye to differences have to be studied.

(5) Instead of looking for linear causalities, correlations have to be studied. Instead of explanations, descriptions should be offered.

I am not sure how do deal with these propositions, since they suggest exactly the opposite of what we think of social science is about – abstracting, generalizing, idealizing, constructing causalities and so on. Goethe seems to suggest that we should carefully observe and write it down. This may contribute to our knowledge, but not to what we regard as scientific knowledge.

Nevertheless, the critique that social sciences tend to turn way from addressing practical problems seems to be undoubtful and to be a growing topic at conferences (remember my report from the last EFMD conference). We have to rethink the methods as well as the objects. For example, Elke Weik stated the following: we studied too much the poor and very often, our findings did not really help to improve their position. Hence, we should not forget to study the rich, which may help us to address some questions of injustice.

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