Western Philosophy of Social Science Syllabus


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University of Michigan-Dearborn

Western Philosophy of Social Science
Summer 2005
Peking University

Professor Daniel Little
University of Michigan-Dearborn
Email: delittle@umd.umich.edu || webpage: www-personal.umd.umich.edu/~delittle/


Purpose and description

The philosophy of social science is a discipline that attempts to analyze the logic, methodology, modes of explanation, and methods of inquiry of the social sciences. It is based on the assumption that both philosophers and social scientists will benefit from a better understanding of the conceptual and methodological issues that arise in the conduct of social science research. One of the goals of the discipline is to allow us to come to some judgments about the degree of validity and credibility that typical social science theories have as assertions about the nature of the social world we experience.

My approach to the philosophy of social science is based on the idea that the discipline should develop its theories and analyses by working closely with strong examples of good social science research. Philosophy is sometimes seen as the apriori exploration of a set of ideas or concepts. My approach asks that we abandon this aprioricity and construct our discipline by learning from specific fields of social science research, observing the achievements and obstacles that can be identified in the history of social science, and then by reflecting philosophically on these issues and concepts. We should frame the defining questions of the philosophy of social science by reflecting upon the large conceptual and methodological issues that have actually been important to social scientists as they conduct their research and theory construction.

Before we can create genuinely insightful social sciences, we need to fully confront the important differences between social and natural phenomena. Individual agents are different from atoms or molecules, social structures are different from physical structures such as metals or crystals, and the inexact regularities of social life are different from laws of nature. So social science explanations and social science theories will unavoidably display corresponding differences from these constructs in the natural sciences.

This lecture series is intended to introduce students to some of the topics that the author has focused on in his studies of the social sciences. Not all philosophers approach the subject matter in exactly this way. So these lectures are not intended to provide a broad survey of the philosophy of social science by all western philosophers. Instead, these lectures are designed to stimulate new questions for Chinese social scientists about the logic and nature of the fields of social science research.

Other important contributions to the field of western philosophy of social science include writings by Jon Elster, David Braybrooke, Alexander Rosenberg, Paul Roth, and Richard Miller. Important contributions to analytical Marxism include writings by Gerald Cohen, Jon Elster, Richard Miller, Adam Przeworski, and John Roemer. Bibliographies that include citations to these works will be provided as course materials.

Revised schedule of lectures and writing assignments


          Assignments due:
       biographical essay  8-Jul
  5-Jul  lecture 1  lecture 5  lecture 13  11-Jul
 7-Jul  lecture 2  lecture 6  lecture 14  
 12-Jul  lecture 3  lecture 7  lecture 9  18-Jul
 14-Jul  lecture 4  lecture 8  lecture 10  
 19-Jul  lecture 11  lecture 12  lecture 16  25-Jul

Writing Assignments

There will be no examinations in the course.  Each week there will be a short paper on an assigned topic related to the weeks readings.  You will be given a choice of topics each week.  Papers will be written in English with careful attention to clarity, focus, argument, and content.  Papers should be between 750 and 1500 words.  Papers are due by 4:00 pm on the Friday of the week in which these readings are discussed.  I am interested in reading how you approach the topic and reason through to your own position on the issue.  I will also expect a short essay that is a brief intellectual biography that will let me get acquainted with you (described below).  This should be completed before the first lecture.


More advanced students may wish to consult with me in order to formulate a paper topic that goes more deeply into an issue that you find interesting in the readings.


Prior to beginning of course


I would like to get to know you.  Please write a brief statement that describes your educational career and your main academic interests.  If you have thought about social science methodology in the past, I would be interested in hearing some of your thoughts (about political science, anthropology, sociology, or history, for example).  I would also be interested in hearing your thoughts about the role of humanities in your studies (philosophy, literature, the arts).  And I would be interested to know what your career plans are at this point.


Week 1. Philosophy of social science


Do you think that the social sciences should discover generalizations about social phenomena, analogous to laws of nature? Are there examples of social generalizations that you find convincing?  Your paper should take some account of the arguments against social generalizations in the readings, but of course you are free to come to a different conclusion.




Do the assumptions of individual rationality provide a convincing and comprehensive basis for discovering explanations of social outcomes and patterns?  What are the strengths and weaknesses of rational choice theory as a basis for social explanation?


Week 2. Analytical Marxism


Do Marx's writings provide the basis for a scientific theory of society?  What are the main elements of such a theory?  What are some of the limitations of Marx's theory of capitalist development and capitalist society?  How do the arguments considered in the previous readings about the necessary incompleteness of social theory pertain to Marxism?




Does the concept of social class have relevance to every society?  How can we best define social class?  Is the concept relevant in a family farming economy?  Is it relevant in a hunter-gatherer society?  Or is it most relevant to the formative period of capitalism in Great Britain in the nineteenth century?  In what ways do we need to provide other analytical tools for understanding group behavior beyond the category of class? 


Week 3. Western theories of Chinese history


Discuss the occurrence of social mobilization and collective action in Chinese history.  What factors were most important in the mobilization of peasants or urban dwellers in different periods of Chinese social unrest?  What are the most convincing theories of peasant rebellion?




Discuss the factors that are most important in setting the course of China's economic development in the late imperial times. Factors that you might consider could include: population dynamics, features of the state, relationships to powerful external states, the nature of the property system, or the discovery and diffusion of technology. Is China's economic development from 1800 to 2000 a process that can be explained in terms of a few simple factors? Or it is a more contingent and variable process?


Outline of topics and readings

Lectures will be presented in the context of a powerpoint presentation on the day's topic. The presentation will be made available to the class before it is presented. Readings are divided into "Core" readings that everyone should do, and "Extended" readings that advanced students will wish to complete.

Class sessions will be organized in two-hour blocks. The first hour will be devoted to a lecture presentation of the topic, and the second hour will be an organized discussion of these ideas. In order to gain the best benefit possible in the discussion period, I will ask groups of students to work together to formulate some questions. Then each group will have a few minutes to present its questions for discussion by the professor and other members of the class.

Introduction to course--themes and topics


A. Explanation in the social sciences

Lecture 1. The philosophy of social science audio


Core: MMC: introduction; "Objectivity, Truth, and Method in Anthropology". Encyclopedia entries: "Philosophy of Social Science," "Verification," "Explanation," "Falsifiability"
Extended: VSE: chapter 1 ("Introduction"); MMC: chapter 9 ("Evidence and Objectivity in the Social Sciences")

Lecture 2. Causal explanation in the social sciences audio


Core: MMC: chapter 10 ("Causal Explanation in the Social Sciences"); encyclopedia entries "Scientific Realism," "Causal Mechanisms"
Extended: VSE: chapter 2 ("Causal Analysis"); "Transport as a causal factor in history"


Lecture 3. The theory of microfoundations audio


Core: VSE: chapter 3 ("Rational Choice Theory"); MMC: chapter 1 ("Microfoundations of Marxism")
Extended: VSE: chapter 5 ("Functional and Structural Explanation"); MMC: chapter 4 ("Rational-Choice Theory and Asian Studies"), chapter 5 ("Collective Action and the Traditional Village")

Lecture 4. Frameworks of the social sciences audio


Core: VSE: chapter 9 ("Methodological Individualism"), chapter 11 ("Towards Methodological Pluralism")
Extended: MMC: chapter 12 ("On the Scope and Limits of Generalization in the Social Sciences"); "Explaining Large-Scale Historical Change"; "Beyond Positivism: Toward a Methodological Pluralism for the Social Sciences"


B. Analytical Marx Studies

Lecture 5. What is "Analytical Marxism"? audio


Core: TSM: introduction, chapter 5 ("Explanation"); "Marxism and Method"
Extended: TSM: chapter 1 ("Naturalism and Capital"); "Rationality, ideology, and morality in Marx's social theory"


Lecture 6. Historical materialism reconsidered audio


Core: TSM: chapter 2 ("Historical Materialism and Capital")
Extended: VSE: chapter 6 ("Materialism")

Lecture 7. Marx's Capital as a social science audio


Core: TSM: chapter 3 ("Marx's Economic Analysis"), conclusion
Extended: TSM: chapter 6 ("Evidence and Justification")


Lecture 8. Marx's theory of class and modern restatements audio

Readings: MMC: chapter 3 ("Marxism and Popular Politics")


C. China Studies -- Theoretical frameworks in Asian studies

Lecture 9. The moral economy debate audio


Core: UPC: chapter 1 ("Preliminaries"), chapter 2 ("The Moral Economy Debate")
Extended: "Mentalities, Identities, and Practices"; VSE: chapter 7 ("Economic Anthropology")

Lecture 10. Theories of rebellion: a case study of competing theoretical frameworks audio

Readings: UPC: chapter 5 ("Theories of Peasant Rebellion")

Lecture 11. Institutions, organizations, and knowledge systems audio


Core: MMC: chapter 8 ("The High-Level Equilibrium Trap"); "Development Traps in Traditional and Modern China"
Extended: MMC: chapter 7 ("The Brenner Debate")


Lecture 12. Population, technology and economic change in China's history audio


Core: UPC: chapter 4 ("The Breakthrough Debate"); "Eurasian Historical Comparisons"
Extended: "New Perspectives on the Chinese Rural Economy, 1885-1935"


D. Ethical issues in global economic development

Lecture 13. Human capabilities and freedom audio

Readings: PWP: chapter 1 ("Welfare, Well-being, and Needs"), chapter 2 ("What is Economic Development?")

Lecture 14. Distributive features of economic development audio

Readings: PWP: chapter 4 ("Justice")

Lecture 15. Environmental justice and democracy

Readings: PWP: chapter 7 ("Development and the Environment"), chapter 8 ("Democracy and Development")

Lecture 16. Towards a global civil society

Readings: PWP: chapter 6 ("Aid, Trade, and the Global Economy"), conclusion

Texts (all authored by Daniel Little)

TSM The Scientific Marx (University of Minnesota, 1986)
VSE Varieties of Social Explanation: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Social Science (Westview Press, 1991)
UPC Understanding Peasant China: Case Studies in the Philosophy of Social Science (Yale University Press, 1989)
MMC Microfoundations, Method and Causation: On the Philosophy of the Social Sciences (Transaction Publishers, 1998)
PWP Paradox of Wealth and Poverty: Mapping the Ethical Dilemmas of Global Development (Westview Press, 2003)



Rationality, Rational Choice, and Collective Action
Philosophy of Social Science and Economics
Philosophy of Science
Causal Explanation and Inquiry
History of Technology and Business
Economic History
China (Economic and Social History)
Asia (excluding China)
Economic Development and Ethics

Analytical Marxism

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