The Politics of Method in the Human Sciences

Positivism and Its Epistemological Others

The Politics of Method in the Human Sciences

Politics, History, and Culture

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Book Pages: 632 Illustrations: 1 table Published: May 2005

Science and Technology Studies > Philosophy of Science, Sociology > Social Theory

The Politics of Method in the Human Sciences provides a remarkable comparative assessment of the variations of positivism and alternative epistemologies in the contemporary human sciences. Often declared obsolete, positivism is alive and well in a number of the fields; in others, its influence is significantly diminished. The essays in this collection investigate its mutations in form and degree across the social science disciplines. Looking at methodological assumptions field by field, individual essays address anthropology, area studies, economics, history, the philosophy of science, political science and political theory, and sociology. Essayists trace disciplinary developments through the long twentieth century, focusing on the decades since World War II.

Contributors explore and contrast some of the major alternatives to positivist epistemologies, including Marxism, psychoanalysis, poststructuralism, narrative theory, and actor-network theory. Almost all the essays are written by well-known practitioners of the fields discussed. Some essayists approach positivism and anti-positivism via close readings of texts influential in their respective disciplines. Some engage in ethnographies of the present-day human sciences; others are more historical in method. All of them critique contemporary social scientific practice. Together, they trace a trajectory of thought and method running from the past through the present and pointing toward possible futures.

Contributors. Andrew Abbott, Daniel Breslau, Michael Burawoy, Andrew Collier , Michael Dutton, Geoff Eley, Anthony Elliott, Stephen Engelmann, Sandra Harding, Emily Hauptmann, Webb Keane, Tony Lawson, Sophia Mihic, Philip Mirowski, Timothy Mitchell, William H. Sewell Jr., Margaret R. Somers, George Steinmetz, Elizabeth Wingrove


The Politics of Method in the Human Sciences is an extraordinary book. It is extraordinary for the sheer amount of intellectual ground covered in the individual chapters and for its significance.” — Marion Fourcade, Social Science History

The Politics of Method in the Human Sciences offers a fascinating set of inquiries into the shifting foundations of epistemological practice within the social sciences. . . . [I]t remains a significant accomplishment to have brought together such consistently interesting metatheoretical reflections on the full range of social-science disciplines. . . . [E]xceptionally stimulating. . . .” — William Sites, Social Service Review

“Steinmetz’s contributors usefully illustrate current debates, and, more importantly, they point to an emergent consensus within much of the social sciences. They sketch out a possible route for the future of the social sciences.” — Anthony King, Philosophy of the Social Sciences

“The individual essays are informed, insightful, and often provocative. . . . [T]he volume offers a window on methodological practices and trends in neighboring disciplines that often confounds, or at least complicates, widely held stereotypes. . . . [Steinmetz’s essay] is a very impressive and thought-provoking essay. . .” — Val Burris, Social Science History

“The volume makes clear the need for systematic comparative historical studies of the social sciences, without providing this. It offers critiques of contemporary practices, and critiques of those critiques. . . . [I]t contains much that is worth reading.”
— Roger E. Backhouse, History of Political Economy

“This wide-ranging collection of essays explores the remarkable reach and extraordinary career of positivism in the human sciences while simultaneously considering alternative epistemologies.” — Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences

“By contrasting the diverse trajectories and strategies of positivist method within each discipline, The Politics of Method in the Human Sciences develops a comparative perspective which has been lacking in virtually all prior treatments of positivism in social science. The contrasts in the form and prestige that positivist method assumed in each discipline are striking.” — Craig Calhoun, President of the Social Science Research Council

“George Steinmetz and his colleagues present provocative perspectives on the politics of knowledge in the human sciences. Magisterial overviews jostle with unsettling manifestos in this comprehensive and challenging collection. The Politics of Method in the Human Sciences is a necessary prolegomenon to any future epistemological debate.” — John Lie, Class of 1959 Professor and Dean of International and Area Studies, University of California, Berkeley


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

George Steinmetz is Professor of Sociology and German Studies at the University of Michigan. He is the author of Regulating the Social: The Welfare State and Local Politics in Imperial Germany and The Devil’s Handwriting: Ethnographic Discourse and “Native Policy” in the German Overseas Empire (Southwest Africa, Samoa, and Quingdao/China) (forthcoming) and the editor of State/Culture: State-Formation after the Cultural Turn.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Acknowledgments ix

Introduction: Positivism and Its Others in the Social Sciences / George Steinmetz 1

Part One. Positivism and Nonpositivism in Twentieth-Century Social Science Anthropology

Estrangement, Intimacy, and the Objects of Anthropology / Webb Keane 59

Area Studies/Asian Studies

The Trick of Words: Asian Studies, Translation, and the Problems of Knowledge / Michael Dutton 89


Economists and the Economy in the Twentieth Century / Timothy Mitchell 126

Economics/Philosophy of Science

How Positivism Made a Pact with the Postwar Social Sciences in the United States / Philip Mirowski 142


The Political Unconscious of Social and Cultural History, or, Confessions of a Former Quantitative Historian / William H. Sewell Jr. 173

Political Science/Political Theory

Defining “Theory” in Postwar Political Science / Emily Hauptmann 207

Sociology and Economics

Beware Trojan Horses Bearing Social Capital: How Privatization Turned Solidarity into a Bowling Team / Margaret R. Somers 233


Scientific Authority and the Transition to Post-Fordism: The Plausibility of Positivism in U. S. Sociology since 1945 / George Steinmetz 275

Part Two. Alternatives to Positivism in the Human Sciences

Philosophy and Critical Realism

Critical Realism / Andrew Collier 327

Philosophy and Standpoint Theory

Negotiating with a Positivist Legacy: New Social Justice Movements and a Standpoint Politics of Method / Sandra Harding 346

Economics and Critical Realism

A Perspective on Modern Economics / Tony Lawson 366

Process and Temporality in Sociology

The Idea of Outcome in U. S. Sociology / Andrew Abbott 393

Psychoanalysis as Critique

Psychoanalysis and the Theory of the Subject / Anthony Elliott 427

Sociology of Science

The Real and the Imaginary in Economic Methodology / Daniel Breslau 451

Making Sense In and Of Political Science

Facts, Values, and “Real” Numbers / Sophia Mihic, Stephen G. Engelmann, and Elizabeth Rose Wingrove 470

Being Undisciplined

On Your Marx: From Cultural History to the History of Society / Geoff Eley 496

Conclusion: Provincializing the Social Sciences / Michael Burawoy 508

References 527

Contributors 583

Index 587

Citation Index 607
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Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-3518-4 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-3506-1
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