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  • Cited by 12
  • Print publication year: 2012
  • Online publication date: June 2012

1 - Introduction: new directions in social science


There is ferment in the social sciences. After years of sustained effort to build a science of society modelled on the natural sciences, that project, long treated with suspicion by some, is now openly being rethought. A critical intervention in this period of reflection was Making Social Science Matter (MSSM) by Bent Flyvbjerg, published in 2001. In that book Flyvbjerg challenged the very idea of social science as a science modelled on the natural sciences. Flyvbjerg argued that, as the social sciences study human interactions that involve human consciousness, volition, power and reflexivity, attempts to build generalizable, predictive models such as those for the natural world are misplaced and even futile.

MSSM offered a pointed argument about what is wrong with the social sciences today, and enumerated examples of how what it saw as an alternative social science is possible and already happening. The book provided a thorough analysis of how its alternative social science is dedicated to enhancing a socially relevant form of knowledge, that is, ‘phronesis’ (practical wisdom on how to address and act on social problems in a particular context). Significantly, MSSM reinterpreted the Aristotelian concept of phronesis to include issues of power and explained that building on this new version of phronesis is the best bet for the relevance of the social sciences in society. Intelligent social action requires phronesis, to which the social sciences can best contribute and the natural sciences cannot with their emphasis on ‘epistemé’ (universal truth) and ‘techné’ (technical know-how). This Aristotelian tripartite distinction of ‘intellectual virtues’ was critical in MSSM for highlighting the comparative advantage of social science. Even in Aristotle's original interpretation, phronesis is seen as the most important of the intellectual virtues, because it is needed for the management of human affairs, including the management of epistemé and techné, which cannot manage themselves. Phronesis, in this sense, is knowledge that is sensitive to its application in specific settings and is therefore able to manage itself (and more), which is what gives it prominence in social thought and action.

Flyvbjerg, B 2001 Making Social Science Matter: Why Social Inquiry Fails and How it can Succeed AgainCambridge University Press
Landman, T 2008 ‘Paradigmatic Contestation and the Persistence of Perennial Dualities’Political Studies Review 6 178
Schram, S. FCaterino, B 2006 Making Political Science Matter: Debating Knowledge, Research, and MethodsNew York University Press
Shdaimah, C. S.Stahl, R. W 2006 ‘Reflections on Doing Phronetic Social Science: A Case Study’Making Political Science MatterNew York University Press
Spivak, G. C 2004 ‘“On the Cusp of the Personal and the Impersonal”: An Interview with Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak by Laura Lyons and Cynthia FranklinBiography 27 203