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A Flyvbjerg by any other name…

September 20, 2010 1 comment

Over the summer I took a closer read of Bent Flyvbjerg’s Making Social Science Matter–I’d read through it quickly when Stacy Branham pulled together her “Making Design Rationale Matter” paper for HCIC 2010 and finally had some time to read it more carefully over the summer. Some thoughts, before they completely escape my head:

– The book puts forth that social science is fundamentally different than “natural” science (I always knew people were unnatural), and that a great many people wrongly apply methods from natural sciences to situations where a social science approach is more appropriate. Natural science is focused on hermeneutic methods, rooted in the study of physical artifacts, while social science studies people. The concept of “context” is used to counter a natural science approach (though natural scientists use it to support the approach), and the Aristotelian concept of phronesis is pitched to balance (or maybe inflame) the natural-social approaches.

– The work is rooted in the Dreyfus model of learning: a five-level process from novice to expert. There’s an assumption that we all want to become experts (or at least we all greatly admire experts) though of course only a small fraction of people will achieve expertise. I worry about one implication (OK two, see below) in this Flyvbjerg argument: that because experts in many social fields seemingly are “unnatural”, that we shouldn’t pursue the study of natural science. But I suspect the study of the natural helped lead to the social for a great many experts…and yes I know about the “proof-by-example” approach of disproving this.

– The book is highly relevant to HCI and interface design because of the tension between those who choose natural science methods and those who choose social science methods. The results from those methods are very different, and if your paper ends up in the “wrong” hands your review will be useless–filled with all the wrong sorts of advice about things that just weren’t the focus of your paper.

– On happy days I see hope for the future, through books like this and events like HCIC 2010 that bring together ideas from the different camps. On cynical days, I’m convinced that the two camps want nothing to do with each other and are happy talking amongst themselves until the others “see the light” and come to join them. This book seems to go back and forth between a unifying force and an establishment of a “right” camp…or maybe it depends on whether I’m reading it on a happy day or cynical one!

– The tone of the book seems like a confession from a convert, or perhaps it is meant to appeal to such people. The shackles of the natural are removed, and your desires to play lightning chess with the world are validated! Flyvbjerg uses a chess analogy (from Dreyfus) as a basis for his book: that the great masters honed their skills playing lightning chess–based on instinct rather than algorithms–and that an algorithmic approach to chess (and to the world!) has a low ceiling. Ironic then, that computers can beat even the best chess players now! Perhaps there’s hope for natural approaches to the social problems of the world…the natural scientists just need faster computers!

– There’s a lot of value in much of what Flyvbjerg says–his book title is so full of hope. I suspect his rebuttal of any criticisms to his findings would be that natural science succeeds for problems of the natural world–that criticisms of the work are rooted in a misunderstanding of what social science problems really are. But aren’t there social and natural components to most problems? And isn’t that the basis of the original phronesis definition? Surely there’s a balance there somewhere (at least, that’s what I believe on good days!).

(On my bedside table is a big stack of books I read over the summer that I’m waiting for the right moment to capture in blog posts. So far, I’ve managed to post about one, HCI Remixed, because I’m looking to use it in a class. Thanks to a certain someone wanting her book back, it’s going to become two…and anyone else, if I borrowed one of your books please ask for it back so I can continue to empty my stack.)