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Karl Popper and the Social Sciences

William A. Gorton

Publication Year: 2006

This is the first book-length exploration of Karl Popper’s often-neglected contributions to the philosophy of social science. William A. Gorton situates Popper’s ideas on social inquiry within the broader framework of his thought, including his philosophy of natural science, his ontological theories, and his political thought. Gorton places special attention on Popper’s theory of situational analysis and how it aims to heighten our understanding of the social world by untangling the complex web of human interaction that produces unintended—and often unwanted—social phenomena. Situational analysis, Gorton contends, involves a significant departure from the method of the natural sciences, despite Popper’s plea for the unity of scientific method. Gorton also addresses some common misconceptions concerning Popper’s stance toward economics and Marxism, making the provocative claim that contemporary analytical Marxism provides the best current example of Popperian social science put into practice.

Published by: State University of New York Press

Title Page, Copyright Page, Dedication

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pp. ii-vi


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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-x

I owe a debt of gratitude to a number of people who have commented on parts of this manuscript during its development, especially James Farr and Terence Ball. I am also grateful to Jane Bunker at SUNY Press for taking on the book and to Laurie Searl for seeing me through the publication process.


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p. xi-xi

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pp. 1-4

Karl Popper is arguably the most influential philosopher of natural science of the twentieth century. Although his influence on academic philosophers is perhaps not as great as that of several other philosophers of science, Popper’s impact on working scientists remains second to none.When asked to reflect on the method of science, contemporary scientists, if they ...

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1. Popperian Situational Analysis

As Popper acknowledges in his intellectual autobiography Unended Quest, he was always more interested in the natural sciences than the social sciences (UQ, 121). Nonetheless, Popper devoted considerable thought to the social sciences, and in the Poverty of Historicism, The Open Society and Its Enemies, and a number of essays, he offered sustained reflections on the methods of ...

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pp. 6-10

...approaches is so great that the unity of scientific method can only be retained by describing methodology at a highly abstract (and therefore largely uninformative) level. But in this chapter, I want to present the concept of situational analysis as proposed by Popper, including its relationship to other Popperian ideas on social inquiry, especially his support for methodological individualism ...

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pp. 11-15

...intentional and requires that we unpack the beliefs, values, and social rules that inform an agent’s behavior. Thus if our situational model is well constructed, it will advance our understanding of the situation and the individuals who inhabit it. But situational analysis also aspires to transcend the idiography and thick description of interpretive social inquiry by constructing models of ...

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pp. 15-21

...result of a conspiracy by capitalists. But, Popper claims, Marx himself held no such view. Marx believed that capitalist and worker alike were caught up in social situation that resulted in such phenomena as overproduction of goods, declining wages, and economic depressions that nobody intended. In fact, Popper cites Marx as an early and forceful critic of the conspiracy ...

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p. 21-21

...by his confusing labels, for Popper, methodological collectivism is the belief that the attributes and behavior of a collective entity are prior to and independent of the attributes and behavior of individuals. One wonders if any serious thinker actually advocates such a bizarre and seemingly indefensible position. Popper’s other methodological opponent—psychologism—is, at first ...

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2. Metaphysics, Realism, and Situational Analysis

The previous chapter introduced Popper’s situational analysis and considered how it relates to other aspects of his philosophy of social science, including his support for methodological individualism and his rejection of psychologism,conspiracy theories, and methodological collectivism. This chapter and chapter 3 will place situational analysis within the even broader framework of ...

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p. 24-24

To help assess Popper’s relation to positivism, I want to present a sketch of the key ideas that undergird the doctrine. Such an account is necessary because today the term positivism is often used loosely and often used as a term of abuse. For many critics of positivism, the doctrine means nothing more than the attempt to model the social sciences on the natural sciences or,...

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pp. 25-28

...movement, there were significant differences among the views held by prominent members of the Vienna Circle. Still, the core ideas of the Vienna Circle’s positivism can be identified, which I have broken down into seven key tenets. These tenets are, admittedly, simplifications that overlap considerably. More-over, in developing these tenets, I have been influenced by Popper’s reaction to ...

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pp. 29-32

...nor a metaphysical theory can be decisively falsified by empirical evidence(which is not to say that empirical evidence cannot be of some importance in reconstructing an historical event or a text’s meaning). I might elaborate on this comparison by noting that, in general, assessing the validity of an interpretation of, for instance, a particular passage from a novel will entail assess-...

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pp. 32-40

...criteria for realness; therefore, atoms are real (SIB, 9). Moreover, while Popper acknowledges that, probably owing to our early childhood experiences, material objects form the “paradigm of reality” for us, nonetheless we should not concede that “material things are in any sense ‘ultimate’”(ibid.). Material things,modern physics has taught us, may in certain cases be “interpreted as very ...

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p. 40-40

Bhaskar, and Outhwaite all single out Popper as an avatar of the reduction-Thus, just like physical objects, social institutions may be understood as entities that both constrain and enable human actions. A brick wall might inhibit a person’s movement, but a hammer or a microscope can enable a per-son to perform certain activities, like build a house or observe tiny organisms....

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3. Social Laws, the Unity of Scientific Method, and Situational Analysis

This chapter continues our exploration of Popper’s wider philosophy and its implications for situational analysis, again using his response to various aspects of positivism as our guide. We will focus on the other key tenets of positivism that I have identified—skepticism toward causality, the covering-law model of explanation, and the unity of scientific method. Our main findings will con-...

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pp. 41-52

Much of what Popper wrote appears completely at odds with the fifth tenet of positivism, designated in the previous chapter as a skeptical attitude toward causes. For instance, he dismissed the claim that “the aim of science is merely to establish correlations between observed events, or observations (or, worse, ‘sense data’)” (MF, 105). Popper held that the true goal-...

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pp. 52-53

...with rational agents at the center of a situational model, situational analysis cannot be construed as producing causal accounts of behavior. In chapter 4 I will argue that situational analysis explains by uncovering and untangling hid-den connections—in a phrase, by laying bare the logic of the situation.3 Finally, we need to consider Popper’s stance toward one of the central ideas...

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pp. 53-58

...seems to have drained the concept of much of its interest.5 Indeed, describing science as nothing more than critical problem solving would seem to incorporate mathematics and metaphysics into the scientific fold. We might even describe art, music, literature, athletics, automobile repair, or any other systematic human endeavor as exercises in problem solving. Popper himself often ...

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p. 58-58

...be characterized as exercises in critical problem solving is unobjectionable as far as it goes. But this unity is gained only by eliding some very important differences between the two areas, especially with respect to falsifiability, which I have argued is a more worthy Popperian candidate for uniting the sciences. This chapter completes our exploration of Popper’s response to positivism and...

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4. Situational Analysis and Economic Theory

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pp. 59-62

Popper developed situational analysis largely as a result of his encounters with economic theory and—strange as it may seem to some readers—Marxism. We will examine Marx’s influence on Popper in the next chapter. In this chapter we will see how economic theory influenced Popper’s social science methodology and then consider the important ways in which Popper departed from the...

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pp. 62-65

...theory, and while situational analysis even in its latter formulation still bears a passing resemblance to economic method, in the main Popper’s theory offers a rather different approach to social explanation. In particular, I contend that Popper’s notion of rationality with regards to situational analysis, despite superficial similarities to economic models of rationality, is in fact quite differ-...

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pp. 65-72

...own ends. Perhaps the soldier pounced on the grenade anticipating reward in the afterlife, or maybe he was thinking of posthumous glory he would receive on earth. Economists adopt the egoism and wealth-maximizing assumptions because without them the danger of a rational choice explanation degenerating into triviality or tautology is great. Absent these assumptions, virtually any...

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pp. 72-76

...preferences. Thicker versions of rationality may also stipulate that all rational persons seek to maximize some particular goal, such as power, wealth, influence, or simply happiness.These assumptions give the theory potential to generate predictions and explanations of a wide variety of phenomena across a range of cultures and historical periods. In contrast, owing to its internal con-...

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pp. 76-79

...the different values, beliefs, and goals that lead people to cast ballots, rather than explaining the act of voting once these values, beliefs, and goals are assumed. The latter merely amounts to a pedantic restatement of the obvious.In all likelihood, the interesting part of explaining voting will lie in uncovering the factors that lead a person to adopt certain beliefs and norms toward ...

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pp. 79-80

...party faithful. In the end, the disillusioned either quit the party or relinquish their intellectual integrity—they “learn to believe blindly in some authority”It is not my intention to assess the validity of Popper’s account of the degeneration of the Communist party. I merely want to suggest that it provides an example of a situational model of a typical political phenomenon....

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5. Popper’s Debt to Marx

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pp. 81-94

In the previous chapter we considered the economic roots of situational analysis. Our finding that Popper was inspired by the methods of economics was perhaps not terribly surprising, given his close ties with liberal economists,most notably Friedrich Hayek. But we also saw that situational analysis in its latter formulations bore only superficial similarity to the economists’ approach....

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pp. 82-90

This inspiration came not through Popper’s consideration of Marx’s scattered and somewhat inconsistent remarks on methodology. Rather, it arose out of Popper’s critical engagement with Marx’s actual explanatory practices,especially those found in Capital. The bulk of this chapter will be dedicated toward defending this claim, but I close by comparing Popper’s ...

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pp. 90-94

...himself, although he indicates that Marx’s followers were even more guilty of historicism. But we saw that this charge was directed at Marx’s more sweeping pronouncements about history and the fate of capitalism. When Popper con-ducts a close analysis of Marx’s predictions of socialist revolution and the emergence of a classless society, the inadequacies that Popper detects in Marx’s...

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pp. 94-98

World War in terms of the “have-not” nations of Europe versus the wealthy nations are examples of abuse of the class conflict paradigm (ibid.). Popper concludes his analysis of Marx’s methodology with the following observations about what he considers Marx’s explanatory successes: [A] closer view of Marx’s successes shows that it was nowhere his historicist...

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p. 98-98

...that agents seek only their narrow self-interest. Further, Little seeks to dispense with overly abstract or schematic descriptions of an individual’s context of choice, particularly the tendency to describe all human relations as essentially competitive markets. Instead, Little requires that the context of the agent’s choice be enriched with a concrete account of the natural and social ...

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6. The Shortcomings of Situational Analysis

Throughout this book I have tried to show that situational analysis offers a promising model for conceptualizing social science explanations, but I have also criticized Popper’s version of situational analysis. I have argued that social institutions implicated in situational models should be understood as enabling as well as constraining actors’ actions. I have also argued that, con-...

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pp. 100-103

...clearly not all beliefs are produced through rational processes alone. Just as with desires and norms, people often adopt beliefs via subconscious mechanisms. To the extent that they are generated through subconscious processes,the study of desires, norms, and beliefs clearly falls outside of the purview of situational analysis. Yet quite obviously such processes must be of great...

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pp. 103-113

...beliefs are the product of trial and error. To the extent that trial and error is part of an individual’s rational, conscious process of belief formation, then situational analysis would presumably be useful in explaining how a person came to hold certain beliefs. But beliefs about the world—understood broadly as expectations or prejudices—can also be formed through nonconscious, nonintentional...

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pp. 113-119

...increases following a string of “tails.” Other examples of inferential error include the common error of placing too much weight on personal experiences or anecdotal evidence. No good reason exists for barring the incorporation of such psychological mechanisms into situational models to explain belief formation once explanations guided by the rationality principle have been exhausted....

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p. 119-119

...of Tocqueville, Paul Veyne, Alexander Zinoviev, Karl Marx, and many others. In this final chapter I have shown that Popper’s situational analysis can benefit greatly by incorporating psychology, and in particular psychological mechanisms, into its explanatory models. While Popper called for the expulsion of psychology from situational analysis, I have argued that the incorporation of...

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pp. 121-122

I hope the reader is convinced that Popper’s views on social science not only provide insight into the nature of social inquiry but also offer needed direction for the practice of social science. For some time now, social scientists have been mired in self-doubt about their discipline. Indeed, the failure of efforts to model social inquiry on a particular—and often deeply flawed—...


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pp. 123-132


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pp. 133-140


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pp. 141-145

E-ISBN-13: 9780791482216
Print-ISBN-13: 9780791466612
Print-ISBN-10: 0791466612

Page Count: 157
Publication Year: 2006

Series Title: SUNY series in the Philosophy of the Social Sciences
Series Editor Byline: Lenore Langsdorf

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Subject Headings

  • Social sciences -- Philosophy.
  • Popper, Karl R. (Karl Raimund), 1902-1994.
  • Political science.
  • Economics.
  • Social sciences -- Methodology.
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