The assertion about the unique “complexity” or the peculiarly intricate character of social phenomena has, at least within sociology, a long, venerable, and virtually uncontested tradition. The classical theorists make prominent and repeated reference to this attribute of the subject matter of sociology and the degree to which it complicates the development of socio logical knowledge. More specifically, the complexity of social reality has, it is widely argued, a most inhibiting effect on the production of powerful practical social science knowledge.
The assertion that social phenomena happen to be complex phenomena is designed to sensitize social scientists, from an epistemological perspective or in a more mundane sense, for the purposes of practicing their craft, to the kind of explanatory and methodological devices that are equal to the task of adequately capturing social reality. Thus, complexity means that a particular social process (e.g., exchange rates, unemployment, deviant behavior, etc.) are set in motion, reproduced, or changed by a multiplicity of interdependent factors and that it is most difficult to make a detailed and precise forecast about price changes, employment trajectories, or crime rates.
Any empirically valid representation, and therefore any effective and manageable control of such a complex process, requires, according to this conception, a faithful and complete understanding of all the intricate factors involved and their interconnections. The alternative is to reconsider the notion of complexity, as an obstacle to practical knowledge, in quite a radical fashion.
Weber and Popper are among a few philosophers of (social) science who appear to be quite unimpressed with the familiar assertion about the intricate complexity of social phenomena. Popper is convinced that the thesis actually constitutes a subtle form of prejudice which has two origins. First, the judgment is a result of a meaningless and inaccurate comparison of circumstances; for example, of a comparison of limited and controlled conditions found in a laboratory and real social situations. Second, the thesis is the result of the orthodox methodological conception which demands that any adequate description of social phenomena requires a complete account of the psychological and material circumstances of all actors. Since humans behave in most situations in a rational fashion, Popper maintains, it is possible to reconstruct social interaction with the aid of relatively simple models which assume such rational conduct among the participants.
Weber, in his essay ”Objektivitat sozialwis senschaftlicher und sozialpolitischer Erkennt nisse” (1922), emphasizes that social science can only portray a fraction of the complexity of social reality and therefore cannot grasp it fully: ”Every knowledge of infinite reality achieved by the finite human spirit is therefore based on the tacit assumption that only a finite part of it should be object of scientific inquiry and ‘essential’ in the sense of ‘worth knowing.”’
In addition, there are two further question able premises of the orthodox position about the significance of capturing the full complexity of a specific social context in order to generate powerful practical knowledge. First, ”mastery” and change of social conditions are not under all circumstances identical with and possibly based on the complete intellectual control of the complex origins and processes of social situations. Whatever control may be possible under given circumstances, such control likely is restricted to a few attributes of the context. Second, efforts to raise the theoretical complexity of social science knowledge may therefore have the unanticipated effect of propelling such knowledge to an even greater distance to social action and its possibilities. Put bluntly, it is not the “scientificity” of social science knowledge (i.e., knowledge that captures the full complexity of social reality, conforms to specific methodological rules, or is expressed in a quantitative language) that ensures that such knowledge is practical.
Reflections about the conditions or constituents of practical knowledge have to start from the assumption that the adequacy (usefulness) of knowledge, produced in one context (of production), but employed in another context (of application), pertains to the relation between knowledge and the local conditions of action. Within the context of application constraints, conditions of action are apprehended as either open or beyond the control of relevant actors. Given such a differentiation, practical knowledge pertains to open conditions of action which means that theoretical knowledge, if it is to be effective in practice, has to be reattached to the social context in general and to those elements of the situation that are action able in particular.
A brief example may serve as a first illustration. A rather common knowledge claim (at least, it appears to be central to a number of theoretical traditions within sociology) states that the degree of urbanization is closely related to the birth rate or the divorce rate. But such a knowledge claim clearly does not pertain, in all likelihood, to conditions that are open to action. Even very powerful politicians in a centralized state, concerned about a decline in the birth rate or an increase in the divorce rate and ways of affecting either rate in the opposite direction, would consider such a claim as highly irrelevant knowledge, since the degree of urbanization cannot be effected within their context of action. But that is not to say that the same context of action is void of attributes and conditions which are, in some sense, open and may in fact influence the rates under discussion.
Yet there is another way in which social science knowledge becomes practical, namely as knowledge that represents the becoming of social worlds. That is, a powerful but largely invisible effect of social science (as Michel Foucault and Helmut Schelsky among others remind us) is the impact it has on interpretations of reality in everyday life and therefore the extent to which the self-understanding of actors and the media in terms of which such convictions are expressed are shaped by social scientific conceptions.
Whether one is prepared to describe this process as a ”social scientification” of collective and individual patterns of meaning may be left open. However, one might suggest that many of the current problems the social sciences face in practice are related to the fact that the self-understanding of many groups and actors is affected, often in ways difficult to trace, by elements of social science knowledge. The empirical analysis of social problems by social science research then evolves into a form of self-reflection or doubling of social scientific conceptions.
- Sowell, T. (1980) Knowledge and Decisions. Basic Books, New York.
- Stehr, N. (1992) Practical Knowledge: Applying the Social Sciences. Sage, London.
- Stehr, N. & Meja, V. (Eds.) (2005) Society and Knowledge: Contemporary Perspectives in the Sociology of Knowledge and Science. Transaction Books, New Brunswick, NJ.
- Wildavsky, A. (1987) Speaking Truth to Power: The Art and Craft of Policy Analysis. Transaction Books, New Brunswick, NJ.
Back to Sociology of Knowledge