Explanation in the Social Sciences
Critical Realism and Historical Sociology. A
|GEORGE STEINMETZ a1|
a1 University of Michigan
Perhaps the fiercest conflict within the social sciences today is one that is not even articulated as a recognizable “debate.” Nevertheless, this conflict has generated bitter divisions between academics who only a decade ago might have stood together on the left or the right and has forged equally strange alliances. I am referring, of course, to the split between epistemological and ontological positions which are usually described as radical constructivism and realist positivism. The recent debate provoked by Alan Sokal's article in Social
Text 1 brought into sharp focus the growing sense of distrust and anger that divides these academic camps. And, yet, the heterogeneity of each supposed grouping suggests that the dichotomous model masks what is actually a much more complex, multi-dimensional field. On the one hand we find a motley assemblage of positions variously characterized as constructivism, culturalism, neo-Kantian idealism, and postmodernism; the other pole throws together a set of even stranger bedfellows, including rational choice theorists, survey researchers, and traditional historians alongside “realist” philosophers of various stripes.
1 See Alan D. Sokal, “Transgressing the Boundaries—Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity,” Social
Text (Spring-Summer 1996), 217–52; and idem, “A Physicist Experiments with Cultural Studies,” Lingua
Franca (May-June 1996), 62–64. The key response is Stanley Fish's article, “Professor Sokal's Bad Joke,” in The
Times (Opinion–Editorial page, May 21, 1996); see also the responses in the July-August 1996 issue of Lingua
Franca; Michael Albert, “Science, Post Modernism, and the Left,” in Z
Magazine (July-August 1996); Steven Weinberg, “Sokal's Hoax,” New
Books (August 8, 1996), 11–15; and Tom Frank, “Textual Reckoning,” In
Times (May 27, 1996). I am grateful to Michael Rosenfeld for references to the latter two pieces.