Book Review

Making Social Science Matter: Why social inquiry fails and how it can succeed again

Esther-Mirjam Sent

ISBN: 0-521775-68-X; 2001; 204 pages; Bent Flyvbjerg;

Trish Scott-Wandmaker
Faculty of Nursing, University of Sydney, Sydney NSW

This book is a fascinating re-examination of the theoretical basis of the social sciences. Flyvbjerg wishes to restore social science to its classical position as a practical, intellectual activity aimed at clarifying the problems, risks and possibilities faced by humans and societies. The emphasis is on the contribution social sciences make to social and political praxis. His exploration has been divided into two parts. In part one of the text Flyvbjerg deconstructs the conventional scientific ideal for the social sciences, with its emphasis on theory and context-independence and instead argues that social science research inquires about a quite different form of knowledge and thus needs to be reoriented. Part two reconstructs a theoretical basis for the social sciences by exploring Aristotle's division of knowledge and its relationship to the social sciences. Using Nietzsche and Foucault' s modes of enquiry Flyvbjerg proposes an extension of Aristotle's phronesis to include the phenomenon of power and maintains conflict and power ought to be established as major considerations when conducting social science research.

Refreshingly, he does not enter the natural versus social sciences debate but rather points out that both methods have strengths and weaknesses. He claims these strengths and weaknesses differ however, along fundamentally different dimensions of knowledge. "…the social sciences are strongest where the natural sciences are weakest: just as the social sciences have not contributed much to explanatory and predictive theory, neither have the natural sciences contributed to the reflexive analysis and discussion of values and interests" (p. 3).

For the novice Flyvbjerg carefully considers the three types of knowledge identified by Aristotle, namely 'epesteme', 'techne' and 'phronesis' and discusses the difference between them. Phronesis he claims is prudence, practical commonsense or wisdom. In other words, knowing how to behave in given situations and it is this type of knowledge that forms the basis for his "phronetic social science".

Behavioural scientists have come to grief, Flyvbjerg suggests, when the methods used for validation and prediction in 'episteme' and 'techne' are applied to 'phronesis'. The social sciences, he maintains, cannot claim to be universal or predictive because they are always context-dependent and experienced by a particular reference group.

Instead of asking the traditional questions, what is knowledge, what can we know; and under what circumstances can we know, he suggests social science, ought instead, to ask how do people acquire knowledge and skills (p.9)? He answers his question by using the five levels of Herbert and Stuart Dreyfus' novice to expert hierarchy of learning (Dreyfus, 1988). Like them, Flyvbjerg believes that of the five levels the two upper levels of interactive learning can only be reached through experience. Because the lower levels focus on the acquisition of facts he sees them as more relevant to the natural sciences. Experience, he and Stuart Dreyfus believe, becomes embodied; often-called intuition, and experts do not see problems and solutions as separate identities. Instead phenomenologically the experts' skills have become so much a part of themselves that they are not aware of their behaviour: the act is simply performed. Flyvbjerg sees phronesis as the intellectual activity most relevant to praxis, and for it to happen there needs to be "interaction between the general and the concrete, which requires consideration, judgment and choice but, most of all, requires experience" (P. 57). While constantly acknowledging the importance of the natural sciences Flybjerg suggests that phronetic social science works as a counter balance to the instrumental rationality of the natural sciences. For those researchers already convinced of the context-dependence of social science research his extension of the phronesis concept to include power as a fundamental component to be considered is thought provoking and clearly articulated Moving on to reconstruction Flybjerg extends Aristotle's definition of phronesis to incorporate Nietzsche's and particularly Foucault's belief that power is always present in human interaction. Flyvbjerg advocates that social sciences ought to keep the 'value' aspect of Aristotle's phronesis, include the phenomenon of power and concentrate on questions such as where are we going; is it desirable; and what should be done? In relation to power, he recommends asking how questions such as how are power relations linked together; and how can games of power be played differently?

The later chapters include a discussion of the benefits of case study methodology; a description of Flyvbjerg's developed method and examples from his own and others studies using what he considers to be "phonetic social science". At no stage does Flyvbjerg suggest that his theory ought to be the only theoretical foundation for the social sciences and readily admits that the theory will probably need refinement.

The tone of the book is humble but passionate. The author asks big questions and answers them with engaging clarity. The language is not esoteric or obscure while the ideas are powerfully argued with a clear and enthusiastic style. I recommend it for all teachers and researchers in the social sciences; particularly those who tend to discount the 'soft sciences'.

Toggle references


Dreyfus H. & S. Mind over Machine: The Power of Human Intuition and Expertise in the Era of the Computer 2nd Ed. New York Free Press.

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