Methods of Discovery (Abbott)

From WikiDotMako

The book is perhaps best described as a sort of philosophy of social science and it succeeds wonderful in this respect.

The books opens with a chapter (Ch. 1) on explanation that explores in philosphical depth what social scientists feel qualifies as explanation. Chapter 2 goes into depth on a series of what he feels are great conflicts or disagreements within the the area of social science:

  1. Positivism and Interpretivism
  2. Analysis and Narration
  3. Behaviorism and Culturism
  4. Individualism and Emergentism
  5. Realism and Constructionism
  6. Contextualism and Noncontextualism
  7. Choice and Constraint
  8. Conflict and Consensus
  9. Transcendent and Situated Knowledge

He uses these divisions to give a wonderful tour of the social science landscape but also to show the way that different disciplines that take one side or another in this debate are able to challenge each other by reforming questions or approaches to their answers.

With this foundation laid, the rest of the book is about heuristics that can help social scientists answer the questions "What is a good thing to research?" and "How do I know of my research idea is any good?" After introducing the concept of heuristic and its role in social science (Ch. 3), he introduces heuristics useful for searching and couching arguments (Ch. 4) and approaching issues through different forms of description or narration (Ch. 5). His main argument is built around what he calls "fractal heuristics" which he explores in the sixth chapter using the conflicts laid out in chapter 2. He argues that the concepts or conflicts in the social sciences are repeated inside each discipline (e.g., that within the strict constructionists, there are arguments in favor of realism) and that this type of fractal problematizing istself a useful set of heuristics.

The final chapter (Ch. 7) returns to questions of puzzles and idea generation and gives the most basic advice on how one -- especially a beginner -- should approach research.

Abbott claims to be writing a book on social science research for undergraduates but the appeal of the book is much broader extending, I suspect, to nearly everyone who does social science.

My general sense is that book is strongest in its first two chapters. It's summary of the state of social science is excellent and uncommon. While he feel is is simply rerequiste to explaining heuristics, the description itself requires quite a bit of excellent analysis and provides the books major contribution.


Abbott, Andrew. 2004. Methods of Discovery: Heuristics for the Social Sciences. 1st ed. W. W. Norton.

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