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In The Beginning Was The Deed...
Zaid Hassan, 27 Nov 03

"Making Social Science Matter: Why Social Inquiry Fails and How It Can Succeed Again" by Bent Flyvberg

While this book has a terrible title it's one of the most exciting books I've read in a long time.

Danish professor Bent Flyvberg presents an exciting and incredibly practical approach, called phronesis, to the social and behavioural sciences. He argues that social science has fallen flat on its face trying to emulate the predictive capabilities of natural science. Instead social science should stick to what it is good at, what it can excel at - which is moving beyond the theoretical and analytical to rich, reflexive, real-world analysis of values and power.

He writes that "Phronesis goes beyond both analytical, scientific knowledge (episteme) and technical knowledge or know how (techne) and involves judgements and decisions made in the manner of a virtuoso social and political actor."

The point is that we should look at what really happens - in the fine details and in those details we will gain a truer understanding of how the heck things actually happen in our societies. Phronesis aims to create general understandings of how things work through a study of the details of a situation, through painstakingly researching and understanding the local context, practices and the actors who are at play within that context.

The book provides clear methodological outlines and practical examples throughout.

If you're at all interested in creating and fostering deeper understanding of the changes our societies are going through and need then I strongly recommend that you invest time into understanding this approach.


Flyvberg outlines how natural sciences is limited in its ability to explain human behaviour.

Rather "what sociologist Pierre Bourdieu calls 'feel for the game' is central to all human action of any complexity, and it enables an infinite number of 'moves' to be made, adapted to an infinte number of possible situations which no rule, however complex, can foresee. Therefore the judgement, which is central to phronesis and praxis, is always context-dependent. The miniutiae, practices and concrete cases which lie at the heart of phronetic research are seen in their proper contexts; both the small, local context, which gives phenomena their immediate meaning, and the larger, international and global context in which the phenomena can be appreciated for their general and conceptual significance."

What makes this work exciting for me is that it breaks us out of the tedious pseudo-science that many new-age social theorists resort to in trying to communicate their understandings of what's going on in the world today. I feel that Flyvberg's work gives us a rigourous and well thought out practical approach to building meaning from our experiences. All too often contemporary social science resorts to plainly bad natural science in order to gain legitimacy for a theory that is probably based on experience (which may well be legitimate and symptomatic of larger truths). In other words it tries to borrow authority from the natural sciences and while this may work in hoodwinking those who have no understanding of science - in effect it's a bit of a con job and we often feel this in our gut.

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