Comp-post: Stinchcombe (1968), Chs. 1 & 2

Just a few jots from Stinchcombe’s Constructing Social Theories. A classic and must-read for all political science students. This gives a flavor of the entire book, and the key is the levels of theory toward the end. Along with Lave and March, this book is trying to get you to think theoretically, to enjoy and get comfortable with speculation. Enjoy! — Erik

Stinchcombe, A. 1968. Constructing Social Theories. Chicago: University of Chicago.

Ch. 1 – Introduction

  • “Theory ought to create the capacity invent explanations.” (3)
  • “Their [the great theorists] usefulness is in showing us how a great mind works when he wants to explain a social phenomenon.” (4)
  • “The crucial question to ask of a strategy is not whether it is true, but whether it is sometimes useful.” (4)
  • A theorist “ought to be trained to be so good at the various approaches that he is never at a loss for alternative explanations.” (4)
  • The Status of Explanations Proposed
    • “What makes explaining a social phenomenon worthwhile for me is not that it can be reduced to some general logical skeleton, but that the skeleton carries beautiful empirical flesh.” (5)
    • “applied logical forms”
    • use of theories that, when carried further, prove to be wrong. stinchcombe uses these theories as exemplars because they still retain pieces of truth and the methods that constructed them are useful for constructing other theories. I think that stinchcombe is implying that a theorist may construct many wrong theories, or at least wrongish theories, but in the end the refinement of the method will lead to useful theories.
    • Empirical Derivations from Explanations
      • “For a social theorist ignorance is more excusable than vagueness…Being misunderstood shows sloppy theoretical work. Thus I make no apology for the false statements about the world which are sure to be found here.” (6)
      • The Development of the Book
        • “levels of increasing intuitive difficulty” (6)
        • “outline the basic logic of testing theories by use of observations.” (7)
        • two-component logical structures; demographic theories (number of people, proportionality factor, rates, quantities)
        • three-element causal structure; functional theories (structures, consequences, tensions)
        • Marxian functional theoretic structures
        • “various simple forms of causal structures of an infinite character.” (8)
        • strategies of concept formation
          • relation of power to social activities
            • legitimacy
            • information
          • political access
          • institutions
  • interrelations between power structures and formation of organizations
  • Concluding Comments
    • “I am convinced that the logical forms of explanation and concept construction outlined here have wide applicability.” (13)
    • “This I take to be the model of social theorizing as a practical scientific activity. A student who has difficulty thinking of at least three sensible explanations for any correlation that he is really interested in should probably choose another profession.” (13)
    • “My experience with gifted analysts of empirical data suggests that eventually the student ought to be able to produce the three theories and nine derivations within an hour or two.” (13)

Ch. 2 – The Logic of Scientific Inference

  • IV / Levels of Generality in Social Theory
    • “Confusions over levels of generality quite often lead people to believe that they have refuted something when they have not…What has happened in this case (and it happens just as much to Freud as to Marx) is that people regard all elements of Marxian (or Freudian) theory as equally involved in every one of Marx’s (or Freud’s) hypotheses. Thus they refute, for instance, Marx’s theory of politics by examining a consequence of his economic theory, or Freud’s theory of the unconscious by refuting a specific theory of compulsive behavior.” (48)
    • An Outline of Levels of Generality (48-50)
      • “1. General ideas about causality…
      • 2. General causal imageries…
      • 3. Broad distinctions among classes of phenomena thought to have a distinctive type of explanation…
      • 4. Ideas that the causes of one broad class of phenomena are likely to be found among variables in another broad class of phenomena…
      • 5. Theories that one in particular of the variables within a broad class of phenomena explains a particular variable in another class of phenomena…
      • 6. The empirical consequences of theories, describing the observations that could be made if the theory were true…
      • 7. Assertions that the observations in a particular case support, or refute, the empirical specification of level six.”
  • Levels of Critiques

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