Making Social Science Matter was written in Danish and translated into English, very beautifully, by Steven Sampson. It is a fine addition to sociological theory, and deserves a careful reading. It is a new addition to the venerable tradition set down by Peter Winch, Hubert Dreyfus, Harold Garfinkel, and many others, who claim that the canons of natural science do not apply to understanding human society. Various reasons are given supporting this view, but they all agree with Richard Lewontin (p. 3), who opines that "social science has set itself an impossible task when it attempts to emulate natural science and produce explanatory and predictive, that is, epistemic, theory." Among the prominent reasons are that social theory is inherently value-laden because we are both the subject and the object of study, society is the product of human consciousness, which is self-incomprehensible, and most simply, human society is far too complex to either explain or predict.
Flyvbjerg develops this theme with insight and flair, although he tries to do two other things as well, with less success. The first is to show that the concept of "power" must be central to all social theory. He fails to show this and his treatment of power is quite standard and rather restricted to left-critical and post-modern treatments. The second is to apply his theory of what social science should be to his own life-experience. Here too his treatment is quite mundane and lacking in insight. He would have done better to drop these two themes, and simply refer to the great hermeutic social thinkers, such as Aristotle, St. Thomas Acquinas, J. J. Rousseau, Alexis de Tocqueville, Bernard Mandeville, and Compte de Montesquieu, and the other greats whose works exemplify this approach to social understanding.
Flyvbjerg's approach is to contrast three forms of knowledge in Aristotle: episteme (theoretical knowledge), techne (technical know-how) and phronesis, which he treats as wisdom gathered through personal life experience and emotive identification with the life-forms studied and their myriad activities. The social-science-as-natural-science folks believe that the height of social knowledge is episteme in the form of Grand Theory, whereas in fact meaningful social knowledge consists of phronesis in the form of case studies by wise and perceptive viewers.
"At present," Flyvbjerg claims, "social science is locked in a fight it cannot hope to win, because it has accepted terms that are self-defeating. We will see that in their role as phronesis, 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, which is the prerequisite for an enlightened political, economic, and cultural development in any society."
It should be clear that by "social science" Flyvbjerg means "sociological and anthropological theory," because his remarks simply do not apply to psychology, economics, or biology, and his treatment of power is too weak to consider his analysis as applicable to political science. Obviously areas like paleontology, neuroscience, epidemiology, and many other areas of social science are quite impervious to the Flyvbjerg critique.
Flyvbjerg is absolutely correct in his support for thickly descriptive ethnographic and historical research, and in his claim that phronetic approaches are important contributions to social science. His error is thinking that this research conflicts with more traditional approaches to explanation in sociology and anthropology. In fact, the research he supports is synergistic with analytical and empirical studies aimed at understanding human society.
Sociology and anthropology are intimately connected to paleontology and evolutionary biology simply because Homo sapiens is a species that evolved to its present position by virtue of the same biological laws that apply to all other species. Of course, there are staggeringly important human specificities, but there are many social species, and until some 30,000 years ago we were not alone in exhibiting these specificities. There is much to learn about human society by comparing and contrasting with other social species---see for instance the recent book Superorganism, by Bert Hölldobler and E. O. Wilson, or my edited collection Moral Sentiments and Material Interests.
I appreciate Aristotle and Machiavelli, but I also have learned an enormous amount about society by reading widely and deeply in animal behavior theory. I love Levi-Strauss, but I also appreciate Donald Brown, who has shown how human values are represented in hundreds of societies, and Frasier's Golden Bough, which gives insight into human religion by cataloging hundreds of religious forms around the world.
Flyvbjerg makes his case by setting up straw men and choosing only examples that support his point of view. One example of a straw man is the notion that the natural sciences can "explain and predict" while the social sciences cannot. Physics can explain phenomena only under highly controlled circumstances, certainly not in general. Physics has changed our lives so much because engineers can reproduce these controlled circumstances in the real world. Except for astronomy and atmospherics (in the age of satellit supercomputers), physics cannot explain or predict much in the way of natural events. Social theory can easily do as well as the natural sciences in situations in which carefully controlled experimentation is infeasible for one reason or another.
An example of cherry-picking examples, Flyvbjerg's examples of successes in the natural sciences are all of the thought-experiment type: Galileo on falling objects, Einstein or general relativity, and the like. Most advances even in physics are not of this type, but rather involve careful and repeated measurement linked to deductive and inductive logic.
Flyvbjerg will appeal to the armchair philosopher who is too ignorant of real advances in our understanding of society to appreciate the value of sustained empirical and theoretical research. I urge the author to give us a new book that appreciates the synergy among episteme, techne, and phronesis, for synergy there surely is.