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Critical Realism, Sociology, and History - Professor George Steinmetz

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Published on Sep 7, 2016

What is the best approach to historical research, a search for general causal laws, an ideographic description of unique events, or some combination of those approaches? How did scholars such as Rickert, Weber, and Dilthey view comparative work in the social sciences and history? How have historians and humanities scholars understood comparison? What are the particular challenges to social science theory and comparison from poststructuralism and postcolonial theory?

On the one hand, many historians and humanities scholars argue that the singularity and incommensurability of their cases places them outside scientific methods. On the other hand, many social scientists believe that the only substitute for statistical and experimental methods in the social sciences is “The Comparative Method” – comparing cases in order to identify a general model or “General Theory,” a constant conjunction of events. This approach is rebarbative to most practicing historians and humanities scholars.

In this webinar, Professor Steinmetz will address the implications of critical realism for the work of historians and historical social scientists. Critical realism defends the scientific value of historical and hermeneutic case studies. Critical realism provides compelling arguments against objections from both the “Comparative Method”/“General Theory” camp and the super-historicist/incommensurablist camp. Especially important features of critical realism are its emphasis on ontological stratification, open systems, and causal powers. Causal powers in the social sciences are understood as varying across history, geography, and culture. Critical realism helps us see how we can explain unique cases and compare multiple cases, not to discover universal laws but to identify causal powers that produce contingent outcomes and to refine our understanding of causal powers.

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