22 May, 2009

Fuzzy Concepts?

Fabio Rojas writes:

Back to social science, I’d argue that the underlying concepts of any social science are inherently vague. Formalizing them allows you to ignore the ill-defined nature of the process so you can make a clean academic model. It doesn’t address the underlying mess.
Is it the concept that's fuzzy or the underlying reality? I'd argue it's the real world that's fuzzy, but that our concepts shouldn't be. Science progresses through the continual sharpening and refinement of ideas, so social science should strive for clear concepts, not fuzzy ones. Suppose physicists had some concept that was ill-defined, unmeasurable, and produced no falsifiable predictions. They wouldn't get very far. (String theory, anyone?) Social science has no different epistemological requirements.


Eremita said...

Spencer, I am inclined to agree with you over Rojas: that refined concepts are the goal.

You're right that what he said doesn't quite make sense...perhaps he means the underlying concepts of any social science SHOULD be vague, in order to capture the messiness of the real world. This is a charitable rewriting of what he did say, but still is not quite believable.

You are also right: we want clear concepts. But he's right about one thing: we want a theory that gets at the underlying, messy reality. It won't be one vague concept that will get at the messy reality though. In fact, this should be obvious from the diction - the underlying reality isn't VAGUE, it's complicated. So what we really need is for the vague concepts of early theory to organize into many refined concepts that work together in a complex way.

spencer said...

Yeah, I am happy to interpret him as saying that the concepts of social science *should* be vague. I would disagree with that assertion based on the reasons in my post. But ultimately, the concepts are what you make them, clear or vague.

Good point about vagueness--it's a term that applies to concepts, not things. So perhaps I shouldn't say that the underlying reality is fuzzy, but it is messy and endlessly complicated!

Eremita said...

Right, reality is messy and endlessly complicated. The concepts we use to analyze/predict/etc. shouldn't be messy (or vague), and that way of not exactly reflecting reality will be a good one. But the concepts should be complicated. Not endlessly complicated, that doesn't really seem possible (on the level of concepts that would be the same thing as being vague), but they should be complicated. As I said before, however, I think a lot of this complication can be reflected in the web of relationships between many concepts, more so than in the complexity of individual concepts.

Cassady said...

I seem to remember a certain young philosopher expounding to me all the reasons effective communication between individuals is impossible...

I hate to just add one more voice to the agreeing chorus, but I don't think Rojas is saying what he really means to say. The 'clean academic model' he talks about isn't going to happen--quite simply because of the underlying mess you both have talked well about.

Whatever academic model arises (and in whatever social field) won't be a denial of or in spite of some vague concepts, it will just be a necessarily complicated system--a la Eremita--because the world of necessity is complicated.

spencer said...

Yeah, I agree. Incidentally, I think this is an important dividing line between sociology and economics. (Fabio is a sociologist, after all!)