Said Simon

My thoughts as a Secular Humanist and student of politics

Experiments with vlogs

I’ve been working on developing a series of short youtube videos on major topics in social theory and the philosophy of social science. The first batch of footage is already filmed and is getting edited up. But I thought, just for the hell of it and also to show how the concept began, that I’d post my two early ‘drafts’. As will hopefully soon be evident, there is a big leap in quality and organisation between these and the real thing.

DISCLAIMER: these totally suck and I was just rambling about interesting stuff in front of a camera. Nevertheless, as they might contain a nugget of worth, however small:


Scientism and its Problems

Scientism is, more or less, the position that all important questions of meaning, morality, and knowledge can be solved best through scientific methods. According to it, science has increasingly colonised those areas of enquiry that were once the preserve of philosophers and theologians, and that this trend will continue until the point where philosophy and theology have basically nothing left to contribute.

In this post I will discuss several problems with this position, and propose some possible solutions to those problems that may satisfy those who find scientism appealing.

The first problem with scientism is that there appear to be questions of value that are essentially unanswerable by any enquiry into facts. Consider what may be the bible of scientism, at least of the ethical variety, Sam Harris’s book The Moral Landscape. In it, Harris proposes that it is possible to use neuroscience to determine, as a matter of fact, what states of affairs produce the maximum amount of ‘wellbeing’ for human beings. Setting aside the exegetical question of what Harris really means to say, I have seen many people interpret his work as demonstrating that there is no longer a need, or at least, there is an ever-diminishing need, for moral philosophy.

Yet there are several questions that need answering here for this to make sense:

  • How do we define wellbeing and why is this particular definition better than another? Put differently, why should we care about wellbeing of one type over another?
  • How do we deal with distributional issues? Consider the ‘utility monster‘ problem, or the ‘organ donor‘ problem?

These are strong challenges against utilitarianism, which appears to generally be the position that follows from this brand of scientism. Curiously enough, it is philosophers who try to answer these challenges. Perhaps there is at least an interim need for moral philosophy after all?

The second problem of scientism is that scientific enquiry itself involves all sorts of philosophical assumptions, and scientists themselves are usually unprepared and uninterested in discussing them. As the meta-methodological turn in the philosophy of science has shown [1], scientific research is only possible within methodological packages; that is, scientists do research on the basis of assumptions about what kinds of things exist (i.e., on the ontological status of the objects of enquiry) and how knowledge about them is possible (i.e., on the epistemological status of claims about the world). There is also the apparent fact that certain commitments are bound up in scientific practice, such as a commitment to establishing an open discourse on theories and to diligence in evaluating all claims. As Popper discussed, there is an affinity between the ideals of scientific enquiry and those of a liberal democracy. This doesn’t mean that such commitments cannot ultimately be justified with reference to their efficiency in truth-seeking, but the process by which scientists are socialised into their disciplines leads most to hold commitments as moral obligations rather than only as means to ends.

Oddly enough, many advocates of scientism I encounter still operate from the view that science either does or should proceed through naive falsificationism. This speaks volumes about their philosophical literacy, but also about the extent to which such people are actually themselves engaged in any form of scientific practice.

Nevertheless, there is a strong argument to be made that scientists do not have to think about their own philosophical assumptions – or at least not in the natural sciences [2] – because at a meta level, their methodological packages will emerge, transform, and be selected-for based entirely on how much empirical or cognitive traction they bring in studying the world. In other words, while philosophers of science may be interested in the metaphysics and epistemology of science, these interests bring no value-added to the actual process and progress of science. Hence the dreadful refrain, ‘philosophy has had two thousand years to progress, and I defy you to name a single major discovery in philosophy in the last two decades’. Or something along those lines.

This is simply false, as a survey of journals in such fields as cognitive science, computer science, biology, and physics shows active engagement by scientists with these assumptions and also, often, collaboration with scholars whose disciplinary background lies in philosophy. [3]

But also, and perhaps most importantly, it proceeds from a misunderstanding of what philosophy is for – indeed, what knowledge is for. This is the third problem. Philosophers are not in the business of progressively accumulating facts about the natural world. Rather, philosophers are in the business of developing sophisticated and critical instruments for analysing concepts and methods. Moral philosophy, for example, grapples with many of the same problems that it has for millennia because these problems are not solvable in any simple sense. Instead, philosophers have accumulated bodies of scholarship that allow us to explore the problems, complexities, and implications of our ethical stances, developing methods for interrogating our and others’ views, and in some cases putting the nail in the coffin on views that once had currency but are now known to be terrible, or for demolishing popular but philosophically bankrupt ideologies.

We need ideology. We need morality. We cannot go about our lives without some idea, even if often implicit, of what the good life is and how society should be organised – what sort of deeds should be subject to sanction, how violence should be used, and so on. And while empirical input from the sciences is incredibly useful for resolving questions about these sorts of things, ultimately, empirical input only helps us undermine empirical premises or instruct us on efficient means to ends. What ends we choose and how we go about conceiving of them and their validity as such is not, in the end, amenable to empirical confirmation and disconfirmation.

Does scientism therefore have absolutely no leg to stand on? Is it irredeemably ignorant, arrogant, and smug? Well, mostly. Even usually. But there is perhaps one small way in which it captures an approach to the world that I find helpful.

I like to take a problem-driven approach to enquiry. What this means is that I do not see it as some attempt to find ultimate truth, but rather to solve pressing dilemmas in accomplishing whatever it is I feel like doing. This sounds prosaic, but it has significant implications. When I am going about doing science, for example, what I feel like doing is making claims about the world that satisfy my standards for descriptive accuracy. And this is a dilemma, in that I can’t just say anything, but rather have to follow certain procedures and engage in certain kinds of directed research. When I am doing ethics, I am recognising that I can’t just do anything to anyone, but rather have to find ways of juggling competing or mutually exclusive obligations, desires, and courses of action that have interpersonal significance. Proponents of scientism often seem interested in the practical nature of science: scientists don’t spend aeons debating whether the smallest things are made of substances or processes, for example, but just get on with finding stuff out about the world so that it’s less confusing and so that we can do new things. This is certainly a problem-driven view of enquiry, even if we recognise that many of the problems that scientists want to solve are influenced not just by method [4] but also by social concerns [5].

According to the above view, there is actually a way to view philosophy as a kind of science, and a progressive one at that. The pragmatist philosopher of science Larry Laudan argues that science consists of attempts to solve conceptual and empirical problems occurs within ‘research traditions’:

A set of beliefs about what sorts of entities and processes make up the domain of inquiry [and] a set of epistemic and methodological norms about how the domain is to be investigated, how theories are to be tested, how data are to be collected, etc.

As Laudan explains:

A theory solves an empirical problem when it entails, along with appropriate initial and boundary conditions, a statement of the problem [and] a theory solves a conceptual problem when it fails to exhibit a conceptual difficulty of its predecessor.

In an important way, philosophy as it is done by academic philosophers also conforms to this model. As you will see from a quick scan of philosophy journals, philosophers are responding to current problems and debating matters of method and concept in a way that cumulatively sorts good solutions to philosophical problems from bad ones and leaves a body of accepted knowledge in its wake, albeit one that is confined to particular research traditions. If we set aside for a moment the term ‘science’ and think instead about ‘enquiry’, we find common ground in the epistemic nature of what chemists do and what moral philosophers do. This doesn’t exactly vindicate the scientistic notion that all research should be ‘scientific’, but it does suggest that there is something deeper about what scientists do that makes their enquiries into the world especially conducive to the production of good knowledge, and that one doesn’t need to use special instruments or mathematics to follow their lead on many issues not typically thought of as falling within the domain of science.

In other words, the notion that science will bring us all the answers is unforgivably ignorant and daft. But thoroughgoing, self-conscious, critical problem-solving carried out within a community of investigators committed to producing a kind of public knowledge need not be the sole province of STEM practitioners, but can provide a model for tackling all sorts of puzzles and dilemmas, including those that cannot be resolved in any final sense by reference to empirical fact.

[1]As exemplified by Thomas Kuhn, Imre Lakatos, and Larry Laudan, who all wrote extensively on the nature of scientific practice.

[2] In the social sciences, where theorising does not take place entirely within one settled paradigm or tradition, but rather features multiple competing, contrasting, and often non-interacting modes of enquiry, active reflection upon fundamental assumptions happens more frequently. Probably not frequently enough though.

[3] Indeed, Sam Harris’s own modest publication shows just such an engagement.

[4] For example, by the appearance an anomaly in the course of research that needs to be investigated and theorised.

[5] For example, enquiries into gender or welfare or climate change that are driven by political or moral concerns related to society as a broader whole, but are still conducted ‘scientifically’ rather than, say, polemically.

The Many Kinds of Rationality!

The nature of rationality and its relationship to action features significantly in pretty much all social science theory and is an essential component of virtually all moral philosophy as well. In my main subfield, international relations, the orthodox view has been and still is that states or other forms of corporate international-level actors behave as ‘rational agents’, and that this rationality consists in attempts to maximise benefits, minimise costs, and otherwise select efficient means to ends. Nevertheless, there are other views, notably those coming from the constructivist tradition, which typically focus on reasoning oriented not around a ‘logic of consequences’ but a ‘logic of appropriateness’ – ie., a focus on moral or deontic rationality.

The thing is, there are actually quite a few ways to think about rationality besides these two approaches, and while they have featured in a few important pieces of scholarship in my field, they are nevertheless not frequently discussed. One of the reasons for this might be that these alternative views of rationality stem largely from traditions in social theory and philosophy that most practicing political scientists do not normally engage with. While it is fair to allow research traditions to focus on some questions over others, and to prefer certain social ontologies (and their views of the subject) over others, I think it’s valuable to develop a broad literacy on such a central thing as rationality and action.

Besides, even non-academics would benefit from a wider view of what rationality is.

To this end, I list here in numbered form a brief overview of different facets, varieties, or conceptions of rationality as it has been theorised in sociology and philosophy.


  1. Instrumental rationality is what we students of politics are most used to. Also called teleological, goal-oriented, or strategic rationality, this is the form of reasoning in which actors conceive of a desired outcome, represent it to themselves (cf. Searle on intentionality), and attempt to make the world conform with that representation. Reason is thus a matter of efficiently selecting amongst means. Consequentialist ethics and game theory both rest upon an instrumental view of rationality.
  1. Value rationality is where reasoning is about aligning actions to rules. When actors engage their capacity for value rationality, they are reflecting upon how their conduct relates to their underlying moral principles. While it is possible to derive preferences based upon these principles on a situational basis, and indeed this is sort of what practical ethics is about, doing so runs the risk of missing the point. As Searle amusingly points out somewhere, if we were beings of pure instrumental rationality, then there would be some odds at which I’d bet my [hypothetical] child’s life for a quarter. And yet we see people willing to sacrifice everything for their principles. Reason is thus about rule-following and value commitments. Deontological ethics and the scholarship in my field on taboos against slavery or the use of chemical weapons rest upon value rationality.
  2. Practical rationality is what many in the recent ‘practice turn’ in the social sciences want to talk about. It is where reasoning is largely sub-intentional; action does not stem from deliberation upon means or upon norms, but is the engaging of skills or habits that the actor need not even think about. The stereotype here would be the craftsperson who works the loom or the lathe with such alacrity and precision that can only be the result of thousands of hours of practice, or the judo fighter who just knows when the time is right for a seioi nage. Reason is thus about performances, rather than about conscious reflection. Aristotle’s phronesis and Bourdieu’s concepts of habitus and field are examples of theories that rest upon practical rationality.
  3. Affective rationality is the means by which the actor seeks authentic expression of their feelings. This is the kind of thinking that the artist uses to determine which colours or brush-strokes to use. It’s the kind of rationality that led Michelangelo to claim that David already existed, and it was simply a matter of chiselling the stone away to reveal him. And the kind of rationality that makes such an utterance sensical. Reason is thus a matter of self-expression.
  4. Theoretical rationality is, if I recall, what Weber refers to as the kind of rationality that the scientist deploys when studying the world. Theoretical rationality concerns the formation of concepts and cognitive representations. Abductive reasoning would be a great example, in that the actor is attempting to develop knowledge of the world rather than to simply follow rules of inference or spot patterns. Bayesian reasoning might also fall into this category.
  5. Communicative rationality is Habermas’s banner, and he develops it in a fascinating synthesis and discussion of basically all of the above. Communicative rationality is what the actor deploys in argumentation, where the goal is not principled action, not strategic action, but truth-seeking and justificatory validity. It (according to Habermas) presupposes such things as the recognition of one’s interlocutors as rational fellow agents and a good-faith commitment to following the methods of logic; one cannot participate in discourse simply out of obligation or to manipulate others through rhetoric. Reason is thus the capacity to engage in authentic discursive interchange.
  6. Creative rationality is my favourite, and it is the view of reason that one finds in the American pragmatists and more recently in, inter alia, the superb book by Hans Joas, The Creativity of Action. The general idea is that there is a sort of spontaneity and innovation that underlies all action – and bearing in mind that thought is, on the pragmatist account, itself a form of action. So rather than creativity being something that people have in measure, with the artist having more than the accountant, creativity is a quality in everyone’s life. Creative rationality is not so much a kind of rationality, therefore, but a way of viewing what rationality is. One example of creative rationality would be the pragmatist view of ends and means. As John Dewey noted, ends and means interact with one-another. As we pursue our ‘ends in view’, we become aware of new capacities hitherto unrecognised. Thus new ends become achievable and old ones begin to change. Instrumentality still persists, but it becomes one part of a complex interchange of other kinds of rationality, ultimately revolving around an inherent human creativity – a capacity for re-orientation and reflection or meta-cognition that makes our struggles in the world ultimately stochastic. In other words, thinking is doing, and doing always involves some unpredictable spontaneity and novelty. Joas’s creative rationality is developed in a meticulous, and if I may be honest, rather difficult (for me, anyway) critical journey through a over hundred years of social theory, and takes into account all of the above forms of rationality.
  7. Other stuff like maybe functional rationality would be the reasoning that impels action in theories such as those of Talcott Parsons and perhaps Niklas Luhmann and to some degree Marx, where the actor isn’t so much treated as a reflecting agent whose behaviour stems from considered desires, values, or communicative relationships, but is understood in terms of its role in social system maintenance. In the same way as we explain the action of the heart and lungs in terms of their role in maintaining the life of the body, functionalists explain actors and their reasons in terms of their role in maintaining some kind of broader social whole. This is a curious view of rationality, in that it ultimately seems to deny the agency of actor, reducing agents to what Giddens famously referred to as ‘structural dopes’ of ‘stunning mediocrity’.

Ends, Means, and John Dewey

Apropos of nothing beyond my appreciation for his phrasing and for the general idea he expresses, I quote here Dewey’s explanation of  what he would come to call the difference between ultimate ends and ‘ends-in-view’ – that our goals are never final but rather are formed in continual conversation with the means available to us and our understanding of possibility.

‘[T]he process of growth, of improvement and progress, rather than the static outcome and result, becomes the significant thing. Not health as an end fixed once and for all, but the needed improvement in health—a continual process—is the end and good. The end is no longer a terminus or limit to be reached. It is the active process of transforming the existent situation. Not perfection as a final goal, but the ever-enduring process of perfecting, maturing, refining is the aim in living.[1]


[1] MW 12:181

For Dewey, then, there is no such thing as instrumental rationality in the sense that it is usually understood, and nor is there a value rationality to be counterposed against it. There is adaptation and transformation, and thus there is only continual growth, as the passage of time, and creativity, as the essence of action.

What really is the difference between being an ‘agnostic’ and being an ‘atheist’?

Most people I speak to about this seem to think that they actually refer to positions on two different spectra. The first spectrum is between ‘gnosticism’ and ‘agnosticism’, or ‘knowing vs not-knowing’. The second spectrum is between ‘theism’ and ‘atheism’. Thus we can end up with something like the following 2×2 matrix:

(A)theism/(A)gnosticism Theism Atheism
Gnosticism Gnostic Theist Gnostic Atheist
Agnosticism Agnostic Theist Agnostic Atheist

We could define the four possible options as follows:

  1. Gnostic Theist: Believes that there is at least one god and that it is possible to know this.
  2. Gnostic Atheist: Believes that there are no gods and that it is possible to know this.
  3. Agnostic Theist: Believes that there is at least one god and that it is impossible to know this.
  4. Agnostic Atheist: Believes that there are no gods and that it is impossible to know this.

The idea behind dividing the positions like this is to allow for differences in opinions as to whether divine entities exist, but also differences in opinions as to whether or not it is possible to know whether divine entities exist.

The main problem with this typology is that it contains a contradiction, a tautology, and a false premise.  The contradiction is to assert a belief while simultaneously asserting that there is no reason to accept this belief as true. I should clarify that this is more of a pragmatic contradiction, in that while it may be formally possible to assert ‘I believe that P’ while also asserting ‘I believe there there is no reason to believe that P’, almost nobody would do this. Rather, the vast majority of people are likely to claim that they have a justification for every belief — that there is a reason to think that their beliefs are true.

Thus 1 and 2 are trivial, while 3 and 4 are contradictions, because basically everyone who makes a claim about the world believes that this claim can be justified and if someone didn’t, they’d appear pretty irrational.

Of course, the reason why this typology looks so broken because a core premise itself is false.

The false premise is that ‘(a)gnosticism’, as the possibility of knowing/not-knowing, can condition atheism in the way outlined above. Rather, let us for a moment instead say that (a)gnosticism refers to the degree of certainty that one has in their belief. Almost everyone is capable of meta-cognition, of looking at some belief P and coming up with an answer to the question, ‘how confident am I that P is true?’ This necessarily admits that it is possible for P to be true, but also that there are conditions, more or less likely, under which P would also be false.

This gives us a different range of possibilities:

  1. Gnostic Theist: Believes that there is at least one god, with high confidence.
  2. Gnostic Atheist: Believes that there are no gods, with high confidence.
  3. Agnostic Theist: Believes that there is at least one god, with low confidence.
  4. Agnostic Atheist: Believes that there are no gods, with low confidence.

However, this excludes one important position: the position that no justification exists for any belief about the divine. Hence:

  1. Theism (T): (it is warranted to claim that) at least one god exists
  2. Atheism (A): (it is warranted to claim that) no god exists
  3. Agnosticism (X): (it is warranted to claim that) no belief about the existence of gods can be justified*

As we can see, 3 is not simply a matter of knowing or not knowing that T/A, but is a substantively different proposition. One in which we can have more or less confidence. That is, we could believe that ‘agnosticism is true’ but with low confidence. So if we’re going to propose a typology, I propose this one:

  1. Theist, high confidence (by definition, ‘gnostic’ aka not-agnostic)
  2. Atheist, high confidence (by definition, ‘gnostic’ aka not agnostic)
  3. Theist, low confidence
    1. tends towards agnosticism
    2. tends towards atheism
  4. Atheist, low confidence
    1. tends towards agnosticism
    2. tends towards theism
  5. Agnostic, high confidence
  6. Agnostic, low confidence
    1. tends towards theism
    2. tends towards atheism

Besides all of this, though, there is another method. One that is a bit less complicated. That is, while I have just outlined what I think is the most logical way to break down the question, this is not necessarily a description of what actually is the case. Thus I advance two empirical hypotheses:

H1: There is often a significant practical difference between how people who would identify as theists or as atheists live their life, in terms of regular attendance at a place of worship, rituals such as prayer, or justifying fatalism or lack thereof in terms of God’s will.

H2: There is often very little practical difference between how people who would identify as agnostics or as atheists live their life, in that both will not attend places of worship, church, not engage in prayer, or refer to divine will in any way.

I believe these hypotheses are largely true, and I believe, therefore, that the main difference between atheists and agnostics is, practically, how much they care about beliefs about the divine and whether or not they, within the context of their community, really want to be associated with other people who call themselves atheists – something seems to matter a lot, actually, in places where declaring oneself to be an atheist can lead to marginalisation or punishment.


*Note that while A is not the same as Not-T, A nevertheless proposes something that is contradictory to what T proposes, and thus A XOR T rather than A OR T.

A random remark on cultural norms and targeted killing

I’ve occasionally run into the argument that once the fighting starts, cultural norms or the finer points of military ethics become less relevant. Rational calculations dictate actions on all sides, abrogated only by terror when terror rises. This may be the case in some situations, but it isn’t the case in all; indeed, I can think of an excellent example of a counter-insurgent military action that quite neatly illustrates the relationship between cultural norms and operational success.

On 5 May 1987, British special forces ambushed and killed an entire, veteran IRA cell: the eight men of the East Tyrone Brigade, as they attempted to attack the Loughgall police station. The East Tyrone Brigade was a bit special; rather than stage ambushes, snipe at police patrols, or plant bombs, they preferred more spectacular and ‘kinetic’ attacks, using construction vehicles as bomb-bearing battering rams and leaping out in full force to rake their enemies’ positions with gunfire. So removing them from the scene appealed to the security forces in Northern Ireland.

Thus, when information came from one of the many double-agents that the RUC and British intelligence services had cultivated within the IRA that the the attack on Loughgall was in the works, which would be the third such attack on an RUC station by the East Tyrone Brigade, it occurred to the people in charge that there might be a good way to prevent there from ever being a fourth. Enter the SAS.

The use of the SAS in Northern Ireland had been controversial. Earlier excess violence by the special forces unit had led to a five-year operational hiatus, while the 1985 killing of two IRA militants in Strabane had led to a public outcry after reports that SAS troopers had a delivered a coup-de-grace to each of the two men as they lay wounded and pleading for mercy. But with Loughgall, this sort of public relations problem could be averted.

Anyway, in rolls the East Tyrone Brigade, with their digger-with-a-big-bomb-in-the-bucket. They blast their way up to the police station then shoot the building up. The building is, of course empty, and nobody is about because it is the evening. Then up pops the SAS where they had been laying in wait around the site, and they do their thing, and thus ends the tale of this particular IRA cell.

The following day, Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams stated, when asked his view of the rather lopsided engagement (no SAS casualties), ‘I believe that the IRA volunteers would understand the risks that they were taking,’ What else could he say? The IRA’s own narrative was that they were an army fighting in a war. They could hardly complain about losing men when those men were on an operation, and had themselves set out with bombs, guns, and the intent to kill members of the security forces.

Counter-terrorism or counter-insurgency is particularly sensitive to the broader propaganda or political messaging surrounding uses of force, and the way that the Irish public reacted to British military actions had an effect upon the strategic environment. By staging a ‘counter-ambush’ of the East Tyrone Brigade instead of just picking them up (or off) in their homes – which might have been safer, from an operational perspective – the SAS avoided being labeled as excessively violent or invasive (for the most part) while removing a significant terrorist threat.

Identity Crises and IR Scholars

What am I?

It’s very difficult for me to precisely orient myself and my work within political science as it is traditionally organised and conducted in North America. As those familiar with how most social science PhD programmes are structured in N.A., students typically take major field examples in two subfields of their discipline. In my case, I ‘majored’ in international relations (IR) and ‘minored’ in comparative politics. I might have instead made my second field political theory, except that my theoretical interests are much closer to what might be called social or sociological theory. In fact, if I later today trundled over to the department of sociology and took the major field exam for sociological theory, I’d probably pass it, which is currently not the case for comparative politics. And while the things I am learning in the seminar on comparative politics that I am currently taking, to prepare me to write the exam in that subfield, help to give me a sense of what political science is, as a discipline, it has not helped me at all in my own research. Those few covered topics which do relate to my research are ones I’ve already read rather deeply on, while most other covered topics relate to things I don’t care to study employing methods I don’t care to use.

When people who are generally unfamiliar with disciplinary distinctions in the academy ask me what I do, I usually answer ‘the sociology of war’. Does this mean that I’m distancing myself from political science, or misrepresenting myself? Does this indicate an academic identity crises? What does this say about international relations scholars and scholarship, that I find myself identifying in this way? I think these are interesting questions to explore as a way of considering how my field and my discipline work, and what sort of knowledge we produce in studying international or global politics.

One important thing to remember about being part of a discipline is that it disciplines you. Comparative politics as a field is, basically, the kernel of American political science, and is in many respects what ‘political science’ is, in terms of what goes on in departments that carry this name. My journey through modernisation theory and the study of electoral politics might as well be through shards of broken glass, but these are the sorts of things that many of my colleagues do. And, quite saliently, my interest in methodology and the philosophy of social science does give me some motivation to look at the methods my colleagues use for their investigations. Critically. Because people like me are nudniks.

An interesting quality of IR is that it actually has quite a lot of space for scholars whose approaches and theoretical backgrounds more closely resemble those of philosophers and social theorists than of typical political scientists. Indeed, this is why there are a number of notable universities where IR is its own separate department, and not a subfield of political science. I have been fortunate enough to secure the supervision, in my work, of one of the more ‘sociological’ scholars in the field, and this goes a long way to making me feel secure in my position within the academy, and not to feel like I’m in the wrong university or the wrong department. And while I probably could also be content in the sociology department – it is perhaps worth noting that both my BA and my MA are neither in political science nor in sociology – it is the case that the study of war, particularly at the systemic or inter-/trans-national level, is traditionally carried out within IR.

However, many of the conditions that lead to me feeling comfortable calling myself a sociologist of war, and in using my preferred methods of enquiry, while being a student in a political science department are partially idiosyncratic. They are a fortuitous confluence of having a particular kind of committee and having a few colleagues whose approaches bear an affinity to mine. Were I in another department, even (or perhaps especially) at an American Ivy League institution, there’s a good chance that these conditions wouldn’t obtain. Toronto is unusual in that respect, in that we have a number of IR scholars who draw upon social theory in ways I find interesting, but it’s also because it turns out that I have, like, two or three fellow PhD students to talk about my work with. And had his or my circumstances been a little different, I might not have ended up such an appropriate supervisor.

I think this highlights the need for departments of political science to recognise that IR is unusually inter-disciplinary, and to make space for IR grad students to maximise their cross-disciplinary education, such as by allowing people like me to fulfill my second field requirement by taking field exams in other departments. It also means encouraging and facilitating scholars with degrees from other disciplines to apply to IR jobs, and vice versa. I recognise that there are plenty of professional/institutional disincentives to this, but it is a possibility worth discussing.

Grad student fitness, bro!

This interlude from the usual comes from having chatted with a couple friends in grad school who are interested in making some programmatic changes to their lifestyle in order to stay a bit more fit.

Grad school is very bad for one’s fitness, generally speaking. Grad students spend many hours hunched over desks, reading or typing. Many of us have appalling eating habits—I will frequently just forget to eat if I don’t have to force myself to remember due to needing fuel for exercise—and abysmal sleeping schedules. We may skip meals, eat poor quality food, stay up to the wee hours of the morning and catch only a few hours of rest, and generally treat our bodies unkindly.

I try to hit the gym every second day, eat nutritiously, and sleep at least 6 and ideally 7.5 hours per night. I have also spent a fair bit of time reading up on nutrition and fitness stuff, and also took a couple courses in kineseology during my undergrad. So I have a modest but salient body of knowledge to draw upon in advising my fellow grad students on how to stay/get fit and healthy.

First, try to get at least 7 hours of sleep per night and perhaps more, depending on your individual sleep needs (they vary). Do not compromise on this. Take naps if you have to make up a deficit, but really don’t go several days on just 6 hours per night or less. I mean, some people need less sleep than others, but generally speaking, being chronically underslept will mess you up in so many ways.

Second, be a lot more rigorous in your eating habits. I’m just going to list some principles (yes, not tips; principles) to guide you in this:

  • Don’t skip breakfast. Don’t skip lunch. Don’t eat dinner too late so that you’re going to bed on a full stomach and unlikely to be hungry in the morning. Basically, do not skip meals. It may take some adjustment to ensuring that you have access to food throughout the day if you’re running around from place to place, or if there aren’t many good food options on campus. But make those adjustments.
  • Eat fewer sweets. Eat fewer things made from rice or wheat flour, which is in a metabolic sense basically like eating fewer sweets. Refined or simple carbs are not your friend, unless you’re an endurance athlete in which case why are you reading this?
  • Eat more protein. Especially chicken breast and tuna, if you enjoy the delicious flesh of dead animals, along with lots of eggs and cheese. Don’t worry too much about cholesterol in the eggs or saturated fat in the cheese unless you’ve been specifically warned by your doctor.
  • Eat more fibre. Apples are a great source of fibre. I eat at least one per day. Other veggies are great for this too. Generally eat more veggies. Other good sources of fibre come from slow-digesting carbs like oats, bulgar wheat and quinoa, yams and sweet potatoes.
  • Don’t snack. If you absolutely have to eat something small, try to make it something relatively heavy in protein and fat so that a small amount will satiate you for a while. And definitely don’t munch.

Finally, we get to exercise. What you do here will vary depending on your ‘fitness priorities’: do you want to lose weight, gain muscle, or improve your capacity to perform certain tasks in a more specific sense? While you might be able to do all three at once, you should ideally prioritise. Nevertheless, your number one priority should be:

  1. Mobility and back health.

Yeah, above all you want to be able to sit for long hours and maintain good posture, and also to be able to move around and lift things without hurting yourself. The grad student life tends to diminish your ability for both. There are plenty of good ways to improve and maintain mobility and back health. You can do some of your own research, but even better would be getting a personal trainer for a few sessions. It’s worth the cost. Make sure that they’re qualified though.

Now that I’ve impressed upon you this first priority, I can suggest some more particular ways of structuring your exercise. Unless you’re training for a particular sport, or are so horrendously out of shape that you need to work your way up to any exertion greater than jogging—and if that is so, do remember not to be discouraged but to take action now, because you would be surprised how quickly you can get into better shape when you’re at rock bottom—then you should probably aim to hit the gym every second day, ideally, for an hour. Here is what I suggest:

  1. A warmup, with some bodyweight squats, some pushups, some lunges, and some other exercises to get the blood flowing, the muscles warm, and your body limber. (5 minutes)
  2. Some weight-lifting, where you pick exercises (one or two, usually) that engage large and multiple muscle groups, like bench or overhead presses, pullups, squats and deadlifts.[1] When you do these with proper form and with intensity, you will improve mobility, lose weight, gain muscle, and generally become better at life. Provided you are getting adequate rest and nutrition. Either do a specific programme—more on that in a moment—or aim to do 5 sets of 5 repetitions at a weight heavy enough so you could probably manage 6-7 reps on the first set, but not more than that. (40 minutes)
  3. Some high-intensity cardio, like sprints, burpees, kettlebell swings, rowing, skipping, mountain-climbers, or something similar. This will vastly improve your cardio-respiratory health and aid you in the archeological dig to excavate your stomach muscles, hidden as they are by the ‘sands’ of the fitness-desert that is the academy. Generally speaking these sorts of high-intensity things, if you have the capacity to do them—and most people actually do have to work their way up, starting with something gentler like running—are better than slower, ‘steady-state cardio’ like jogging or distance biking and rowing. (10 minutes)
  4. Stretch! (5 minutes)

Let me give you my routine as an example. I have been following Wendler’s 5/3/1 programme for almost a year, and it’s working well for me, though progress is slow. This means that I have four main ‘lifts’, bench, squat, deadlift, and overhead press, and each day is devoted to one. Usually I do sets of pullups between sets of the main lift. I start by doing a few sets of very heavy lifts, then I ease off considerably and do several sets at a much lighter weight. Usually I manage to do some conditioning, but sometimes I skip that if I’m too tired and do it the next day.

I’m not especially fit, but I can sprint for a bus or run from place to place if I’m going to be late (this happens so often). I have good posture and no back issues. I can pick up a thing from the ground that weights about twice as much as I do. And I can see my abs. When the light is flattering. Ahem. I’m pretty good about keeping up with my nutrition, though my sleep is rarely what it should be. This is about as much as I could hope for, given my other commitments, and as I live quite close to the campus gym, getting myself there every second day is not too difficult when the whether isn’t nightmarishly horrible.

I’ve deliberately been pretty vague overall with the specifics of exercise especially. This is because individual variance is particularly significant when choosing exercises, and also because frankly it’s probably the last thing you should worry about, coming only after your rest, nutrition, and basic mobility stuff. But since I know a little bit about what exercises are likely to work for people, I can always provide more information on that front.

[1] For squats and deadlifts especially, make sure to have someone who knows what they’re doing, ideally a trainer, show you how to do them properly

Demarcating Social and Natural Science?

I’m going to copy a question and my response to it from a conversation on the philosophy of science subreddit, because it may be of interest to the sort of people likely to read my blog (hypothetical people for the most part, I’m sure).

What do you think demarcates social science from hard science? Is this difference qualitative or quantitative. Could this definition or the demarcating line be changed as science progress?

I smart just a little bit at the suggestion that what I am doing is ‘soft’, but I do not think that qualitative-quantitative captures the difference at all. This is first because to quantify something is simply to describe it through maths instead of ordinary language, so that you can perform a more sophisticated set of logical operations on it, like statistical analyses. What this means is that quantitative data/analysis is no less qualitative; it just describes and facilitates the study of qualities in a different sort of way. I bitch about this all the time to my colleagues, incidentally. Second is that many social scientists employ rather sophisticated quantitative analyses, using techniques like structural equation modeling, in their valiant struggles for satisfying covering-law explanations of the social world. Third, there are plenty of scientists, such as all these geologists whose articles I copy-edit, who do not use a lot of maths, but whose descriptions and classifications are highly systematic and rigorous.

I think that all science is, generally, an attempt to clarify and resolve problems of our experience with the world. The way scientific solutions are distinguishable from, say, religious solutions are, I think, because of the particular social dynamics of the scientific community; viz., extreme attention to rigour and reasoned justification, and a way of producing knowledge that is non-partisan and not immediately technical (that is, it’s about building better models of the world, not that such models can’t then help us change the world). By this token, I don’t think that chemistry and political science are essentially different kinds of science.

But I do think that there is a useful demarcation, and that is whether or not the scientist is studying the world of meanings. I mean, all science is a world of meanings, because all science involves representing the world through symbolic systems. But social scientists are engaged in the study of meanings as their explananda, and this brings in a set of ontological problems (for example, agency and free will) and epistemological problems (for example, what Giddens called the double hermeneutic: the fact that we are engaged in the interpretation of interpretation itself). These problems are why social scientists are engaged in a constant state of methodenstreit and why we will probably never reach the settled nature and predictive capacity that natural sciences have.

It also makes certain critical aspects of social science more salient. That is, we are more saliently able to critique policy or discuss matters of value and their relationship to ethics. It’s actually a pity that political science departments tend to feature little engagement between their empirical/scientific and normative students; political theory tends to be a major part of most big pol sci departments but those theorists go off and do their own thing, in marked contrast to sociological theorists, who are far more engaged with the empirical work carried out by practicing social scientists.

What does it mean to take history seriously?

The following is a extemporised draft of a presentation I need to make in an upcoming methods course, but it also works as a stand-alone post, and that it why it is a stand-alone post.

The proper role of history in social science is contentious. The traditional distinction between the ideographic and the nomothetic remains, in the eyes of many in the disciplines of political science and sociology, appropriate. According to it, the discipline of History is concerned with describing the course of history, while the task of the social scientist is to identify patterns in that history and to describe the operations of cause and effect through law-like generalisations. While history matters in this view, its role is as a source of data. rather than an object or domain of study. But there are a number of research traditions that dissent from this perspective. And they’re right to do so.[1]

Why might social scientists want to get their hands dirty in the sandbox of history? First, there are moral reasons to look at a set of events that took place in the past and try to figure out why they happened as they did. Praise and punishment are closely related to the notion of causal responsibility, and so figuring out who or what caused an outcome of interest will shape our judgements. Second, there are ethical reasons, in that we may want to look at how we arrived at our situation, or how similar situations were arrived at, to clarify the problems we face now. Neither of these is so easily done with simple neo-positivist ‘covering-laws’. Third, and perhaps most saliently, historical enquiries might give us some excellent tools for social science theorising.

A number of themes stand out in looking over the literature on the role of history in political science and sociology: narrative, sequence, path-dependence and contingency,  and process. A brief discussion of these themes and their relationship to ontological concepts such as ‘critical junctures’ or social mechanisms is helpful for clarifying just how an historical social science might work.

To study the role of narrative is, in a sense, to treat history as an object rather than a domain of study. Human beings are constantly making and re-making stories of their lives. Identity, community, collective action, and the identification of social problems all proceed through symbolic action and interaction. The way that people construct their common histories is a potent determinant of social outcomes, and those histories are thus highly political, being formed through rhetorical battles and resulting in the allocation of values (to use Easton’s classic definition of politics).

Returning to a more conventional definition of history, the explanation of many social outcomes seems to rely heavily on the linking-together of a number of causal links throughout a period of time—a sequence of causes, in other words—where later causes function only due to the presence (and order) of prior ones. To adequately explain an outcome requires the scientist to show how it is contingent upon a series of steps along a pathway of cause and effect stretching back through history. The presence of remarkable things in the social world, such as revolutions or massive wars, may only make good sense if understood as the product of such a sequence, and explaining them as such typically requires a rich and broad description of context.

But the question still remains, how do we build forward-looking theories that don’t just tell us what already happened, or how we’ve reached the present, but how things might work out in the future? This is where process comes in.

To treat society as set of processes of constant construction is a philosophical ontology; it is a package of first principles as to the nature of social reality and the source of change and stability therein. It is also a sound starting-point for an historical social science. To take a processual view of history is to treat it as something in a continual state of becoming: not only are we constantly affirming, revising, and contending our historical narratives, but we are generating the society as a physical reality through continuous social transactions. On this view, any ‘outcome’ of interest is nothing but a snapshot of a moment in time, and any explanation is, effectively, a description of the salient sequences or paths that led up to it.

What generality can theory have, then, if all outcomes are so unique?

Historical sociologists and political scientists often explain outcomes through reference to mechanisms, and this gives their theories some measure of portability or predictive capacity. While there are many possible definitions for a causal mechanism, the very general idea is that they are semi-generalisable patterns of interactions between factors that link cause to effect. They are the bridges that lead from one historical situation to the next, through in a sense, to identify a causal (/social) mechanism is more to identify a particular form that a bridge can take, with the actual construction materials or location to be determined by unique historical context. Causal mechanisms can be very general, such as ‘brokerage’[2], or more specific, such as the way capitalist economies generate the need for market expansion (according to Marxists). The notion of ‘critical junctures’, where social structures remain relatively stable until certain points of historical instability, at which point insurgent actors gain the opportunity to generate change, fits best within this perspective on theory construction. A critical juncture can more or less be understood as a situation in which the conditions for transformational—sometimes called ‘morphogenetic’—mechanisms are present for a short while. Thus causal mechanisms can explain how things stay the same, and thus how institutions endure over time, or how things change, and if we know the conditions under which they ‘activate’, then we can have some idea what will happen given a particular historical context. Such as the present.

Unsurprisingly, social movement theorists and institutionalists often build their theories around mechanism-based explanations. This is because social movements and institutions are everywhere[3], and despite being reflections of their social contexts nevertheless show certain patterned regularities in how they operate. By studying when (and by extension, how) those regularities do or do not obtain, social scientists can build a ‘general’ theory that allows them to better appreciate context, rather than to be forced into a compromise between context and covering-law.

Marxists and other ‘materialists’ are also often fond of mechanism-based explanations.[4] By building theories that allow them to explain the causal relationships and interactions of particular situations, they can claim to be doing a ‘realist’ social science. In the same way that biologists can talk of the mechanisms of DNA reproduction or photosynthesis, scientific realists in the social sciences can claim to be theorising how society ‘really works’ in a way that goes beyond correlation or prediction, and to be describing the deeper relationships that generate the reality that most in society take for granted. This entails greater potential for social critique than covering-law explanations.

The foregoing is a shallow and expansive survey of some of the major social science perspectives on why history should be taken seriously and how to go about doing that. But hopefully it teases out some of the implications of treating history as more than just a gigantic dataset, and goes a little way towards selling my own appreciation for historical sociology as a legitimate method for conducting social enquiry.


[1] If I wanted to be glib, I could simply point out that all description is ‘theory-laden’ and therefore already implies causal linkages. But where’s the fun in that?

[2] Where a third-party mediates or brings together two other parties who otherwise would not interact in a way that would produce the outcome of interest.

[3] It should be noted that social movements are pretty new things, whereas bureaucracies or other sorts of institutions have been around a very long time.

[4] Cf. critical realism


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