The Scientific Study of Society
by Max Steuer
Kluwer, ISBN 1402073216
There has been much noise from postmodernist quarters and other niches claiming that social science is an impossible quest. Steuer aims to show the error of this view, not by engaging in philosophical dispute, but by systematically displaying a wealth of research in the five social sciences: anthropology, economics, sociology, social psychology and political science.
In exactly the same way that a proper scientific approach to natural phenomena can rescue us from the delusions and fancies of mere speculation and figmentalism (my word for “belief in figments”), a strong case can be made – and Steuer makes it – for the value of real social science.
Sceptics who may be suspicious of the goings-on in sociology and the other disciplines should be reassured by the huge amount of serious empirical investigation into the workings of society. Steuer writes that “the book could have been called Social Science: What It Is, How It Works, and How to Spot the Impostor.”
The main part of the book comprises chapters on crime, migration, the family, money, housing and religion, and each chapter shows how each science has thrown light on these areas, covering research carried out during the 1990s.
In the chapter on religion, Steuer reports on a study by economists that makes “a persuasive case that the introduction of the doctrine of purgatory by the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages can be reasonably understood as a profitable product innovation to take to the market.” One of the researchers in political science argues that the phenomenon of churches beginning to champion the poor rather than propping up hierarchical regimes is best explained in terms of competition from other religions.
This book is a substantial undertaking, and the author, an economist at the LSE, has done an unusually good job of summarizing a vast range of material in clear jargon-free English.