It brought concepts from game theory to an area where they had not been applied before, and Elster went on to be crucial in making game theory ideas popular in political science. Elster also defended a philosophy of social science there that consisted of some form of methodological individualism and deep skepticism about functionalism in the social sciences. I found the philosophy of social science implausible and not well defended, but the book was full of material new to me and admirable in trying to put greater content in some vague ideas in Marx. Now, over twenty years later, Elster has published innumerable books, so many that Cambridge catalogues have a section entitled "Books By Jon Elster" along with their subject area categories.
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It brought concepts from game theory to an area where they had not been applied before, and Elster went on to be crucial in making game theory ideas popular in political science. Elster also defended a philosophy of social science there that consisted of some form of methodological individualism and deep skepticism about functionalism in the social sciences. I found the philosophy of social science implausible and not well defended, but the book was full of material new to me and admirable in trying to put greater content in some vague ideas in Marx.
Now, over twenty years later, Elster has published innumerable books, so many that Cambridge catalogues have a section entitled "Books By Jon Elster" along with their subject area categories. Unfortunately, the initial vision of Making Sense of Marx has degenerated into an unpromising picture of social science as largely built on folk wisdom and insights from literature about human nature.
The basic philosophy of social science claims are these: 1. All explanation is causal. Causal explanations are different from true causal statements. A mechanism is a "frequently occurring and easily recognizable causal pattern. With very few exceptions the social sciences cannot rely on functional explanation, which accounts for action or behavioral patterns by citing their consequences.
Almost none of the extensive philosophy of social science literature discussing these issues is mentioned. As anybody familiar with the literature in the last two decades in the philosophy of the social sciences will recognize, these claims are in need of clarification and defense.
In a short review such as this I can only point briefly to the most obvious difficulties. A vast amount of social science research is about aggregate level entities such as institutions, organizations, firms, and states. A vast amount of social research about the behavior of individuals is of individuals in roles and positions in institutions, organizations, etc.
A dominant view in current cognitive science is that explanations of individual mental processes cannot be given in purely individualist internal terms. These results present a strong prima facie case against the idea that social science can be done "by referring only to individuals. Explanations at the level of institutions seem often to identify causal processes not explained entirely in terms of individual behavior.
Moreover, explanations of individual behavior are consistently given by taking the institutional context as given and then explaining individual behavior in terms of it. For example, the refinements program in rational choice game theory has found that nearly any set of strategies can be an equilibrium and that outcomes are extremely sensitive to institutional detail. Institutions are not derived from rational choices of agents but are instead essential to explanations invoking them.
The doubts about functional explanation and about structural constraints are dubious for related reasons. Social science explanations frequently identify patterns which seem to be only discernible at more macro scales. Similarly functional explanations that show why some practice persists because of a feedback loop from its effects to its reproduction are common and powerful social explanations Kincaid Some such process, for example, must underlie the constraints that produce efficient market outcomes, a possibility that Elster dismisses in a paragraph.
Evolutionary game theory is all about such processes where consequences explain the reproduction of strategies, is some of the more promising work in current social science, and is completely ignored by Elster.
The claims about mechanisms are more plausible, but they have minimal content. Moreover, the notion of "mechanisms" is ambiguous as well. Mechanisms can either be horizontal -- between the cause and effect -- or vertical, viz.
In either case we explain all the time in everyday affairs and in the sciences without providing a mechanism in either sense, e. Maybe all social science explanation is about causation. However, since many think that explanation in the physical sciences is often not about causation but instead about systematic unification, these alternative possibilities need to be taken seriously in the social sciences as well, and obviously the issues require much more than the few sentences of analysis that Elster gives.
The idea that human action must be explained in terms of the beliefs and desires of the agent is something that I would have thought empirical science had shown false long ago. There has been for some time a strong social science literature arguing that attitudes do little to explain behavior and the last twenty years of cognitive science has consistently argued that much behavior is not explained by folk psychological concepts of desire and belief. Many cognitive scientists believe that most behavior is not best explained in these terms.
Much cognitive science is about things like navigation, clock-keeping, and microscale reward valuation that is regarded as implicit and not proposition-like even though it involves representation.
These results along with the reasons given above for thinking that structural constraints play large roles make it extremely dubious to think that common folk proverbs and literature will provide much evidence at all, not to mention the best or main evidence, in the social sciences.
Thus the "nuts and bolts" Elster offers are a weak imitation of the real causal explanations the social and behavioral sciences provide these days. References Becker, Gary. The Economic Approach to Human Behavior.
Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Becker, Gary. Elster, Jon. Making Sense of Marx. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Nuts and Bolts for the Social Sciences. Kincaid, Harold.
Nuts and Bolts for the Social Sciences
Start your review of Nuts and Bolts for the Social Sciences Write a review Shelves: social-science-economics-business This is a place to start and to always come back for every social scientist. Lots of biology, psychology, economics, rational choice and behavioral science and no post-structuralism, cultural theory and deconstruction at all , which makes this book a really useful guide to the concepts and mechanisms in explaining social phenomena in a scientific and sensible way. Elster has the guts to systematically show that we know more about human behavior than is generally believed but not nearly as much as most professionals in the field claim. The book is an incredible example of applying clear rigorous thinking to show the limits of how far that rigor can take you, and without resorting to throwing up your hands in the end to claim ignorance. Along the way the quotes from the likes of Tocqueville, Montaigne and Proust add an a intellectual aesthetic like no other. Notes to self: - Explanation vs prediction. Need mechanism for explanation.
Groktilar Mar 21, Zdravko rated it it was amazing. Just a moment while we sign you in to your Goodreads account. Cambridge University Press May 18, aarjav marked it as to-read. An intriguing, difficult, exhausting and significant book. Gives a nice direction about how to think straight about it. My library Help Advanced Book Search.