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Social Sciences Heuristics, If Any

March 29, 2015

For the first four and the general context regarding heuristics, i.e. ways to come up with ideas and appropriate theories and methods, see Andrew Abbott (2004: 80-109), but there are many more:

Aristotle’s causalities (Physics 195a): material, formal, effective, and final.

Kant’s categories (KrV, B105): quantity (unity, plurality, totality), quality (reality, negation, limitation), relation (substance/accidents, causality/dependence, reciprocity), and modality (possibility/impossibility, existence/nonexistence, necessity/contingency).

Kenneth Burke’s (1945) five keys of dramatism: act, scene, agent, agency, and purpose.

Charles Morris’ (1938) three aspects of symbolic systems: syntactic, semantic, and pragmatic.

Adam Smith’s (1776) interests forcing any self-interested individual to emphatically (even if grudgingly) sympathize with the self-interest of the other if to satisfy any interest, thus defining egoism in terms of altruism, and vice versa.

Auguste Comte’s (1830, leçon 48) distinction between the statics of social order and the dynamics of social progress (toward increasing imperfection) telling us that any social phenomenon, incidentally never to be studied in isolation, at once displays a specific solidarity with all other social phenomena and changes within some kind of development.

Charles Darwin’s (1895) three mechanisms of evolution, distinguishing the chance and mass events of variation from the structure of selection and the system’s re-stabilization by retention. See Karl E. Weick (1979) for an application of the calculus of evolution to processes of organizing, and Niklas Luhmann (1997, chap. 3), to communication in interaction, organizing, and society.

Fritz Heider’s (1926) physiology of perception, which asks for any thing for the medium it is formed in, ‘thing’ being the rigid coupling of the same elements, the ‘medium’ is their loose coupling. The distinction of thing and medium gives a general theory of media if applied not only to perception, but to communication and possible other operations as well.

Fritz Heider’s theory of attribution (1958), telling us that any observer has a choice and must take a decision to attribute a cause either to an agent or a situation.

Martin Heidegger’s (1927) fundamental ontology, calling ‘being’ the framing of empty self-reference (Dasein) by (a) being-in-the-world, (b) being-somebody-in-the-world even if that somebody (Man) is only a proxy for empty self-reference, (c) being-in-sorrow-for-itself (Sorge), and (d) the time, which counts and thereby identifies and distinguishes the variables brought together to determine ‘being’.

Robert K. Merton’s (1945) sociology of knowledge, framed as a systematization of suspicion if not outright rejection, but nevertheless asking for the where, what, how, why, and when of the attribution of mental productions to an existential basis.

Robert K. Merton’s (1949) distinction of manifest from latent functions, the former being intended and recognized as consequences of the actions of participants that contribute to the adaptation and adjustment of a social system, the latter being neither intended nor recognized as such (but being recognized by an observer from some perspective). Merton knows also dysfunctions but is tacit about manifest versus latent versions of those.

Talcott Parsons’ action system (1951): adaptation, goal-attainment, integration, and latent-pattern maintenance and conflict-regulation as functional requisites for both the system’s differentiation with respect to an environment and its reproduction with respect to time; the four functions repeat self-similarly for all four systems of the human condition (Parsons 1978), as there are the physico-chemical system (A), the human organic system (G), the action system (I; itself being differentiated into behavioral system, personality system, social system, and cultural system), and the telic system (L), giving us a scalable calculus of the human condition appropriate for cognitive sciences’ research programs.

George Spencer-Brown’s (1969) calculus of indications, re-entering any indication into its form, which marks the distinction that is being drawn to make the indication. Any identity, to be indicated, has to be distinguished and thus to be supplemented by something else. – Note that Spencer-Brown gives us a notation to write down forms comprising concatenated distinctions.

Erving Goffman’s (1974) frameworks to analyze the organization of experience, as there are primary and secondary frameworks, keys and keyings, fabrications, out-of-frame activities, anchoring of activities, ordinary troubles, and breakings of frames.

Michel Serres’ (1980) parasitic relation, an arrow pointing in one direction, not knowing any going back, relying on finding a host who gives it a niche to exploit.

Niklas Luhmann’s (1984) three dimensions of meaning and three types of social systems: factual (boundary/horizon), temporal (before/after), and social (ego/alter ego); the three types of social system being interaction, or communication among people present and perceiving each other; organization, or communication about decisions among members of organization; and society, or communication among people absent. – Note systems theory’s basic injunction, which calls to deal with any issue in terms either of the structure of a system or of an object in the environment of a system. Specification of systems reference in any case comes first.

Michael E. Porter’s (1980) five competitive forces that shape strategy: threat of new entrants, bargaining power of buyers, threat of substitute products or services, threat of new suppliers, all four of them driving the fifth, which is rivalry among existing competitors.

Michel Foucault’s (1990) discourse analysis: understanding ‘discourse’ as a power related to a knowledge shared by agents with respect to procedures to be applied (such as procedures to be applied to the insane, to the prisoner, to the sick, to the deviant, or to sexuality).

Harrison C. White’s (1992) disciplines: interface, valuating quality, arena, valuating purity, and council, valuating prestige, all three of them describing a specific calculus of how a network is done, or of how a social formation emerges (White 2008).

Michael C. Jensen’s (2000) principal/agent-theory, stating that for any principal, there is no perfect agent, and allowing for the supplement which states that for any agent, there is no perfect principal either.

Bruno Latour’s (2005) list of five uncertainties distinguishing the observer’s perspective from the object’s perspective: who is constituting the group; who or what acts; what other agencies are in force; what controversies underlie the constructions; and who is reporting to whom?

Note, however, that there is no way to deduce your key ideas or insights from any previous idea; heuristics are inventive and creative, depending more on luck than on method; methodological control applies only afterwards, to embed your idea or insight within scientific argumentation (Popper 1935, Feyerabend 1975, Glaser/Strauss 1967). Thus, you start with prejudice, correct it, and come up with another (Gadamer 1960). That is why the ‘mess’ in social science research is only to be dealt with relying on ‘tricks of the trade’ (Law 2004, Becker 1988). Everything depends on how you manage to relate knowledge and ignorance, and how you are able to account for both in your subject as well (Luhmann 1997: 36-43).



Abbott, Andrew (2004): Methods of Discovery: Heuristics of the Social Sciences, New York: W. W. Norton.

Aristoteles (1987): Physik, 2 Bde, griech.-deutsch, übers., mit einer Einleitung und mit Anmerkungen hrsg. von Hans Günter Zekl, Hamburg: Meiner.

Ashby, W. Ross (1958): Requisite Variety and Its Implication for the Control of Complex Systems, Cybernetica 1, 83-99.

Baecker, Dirk (2012): Die Texte der Systemtheorie, in: Matthias Ochs and Jochen Schweitzer-Rothers (eds.), Handbuch Forschung für Systemiker, Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 153-186.

Becker, Howard S. (1988): Tricks of the Trade: How to Think About Your Research While You’re Doing It, Chicago, IL: Chicago UP.

Burke, Kenneth (1945): A Grammar of Motives, Reprint Berkeley, CA: California UP, 1969.

Comte, Auguste (1830): Leçons sur la sociologie: Cours de philosophie positive, Leçons 47 à 51, introduction et notes Juliette Grange, Paris: Flammarion, 1995.

Darwin, Charles (1859): On the Origin of Species By Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life, Reprint Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1964.

Feyerabend, Paul (1975): Against Method: Outline of an Anarchistic Theory of Knowledge, London: New Left Books (dt. 1983).

Foucault, Michel (1990): Qu’est-ce que la critique? Bulletin de la Société Française de Philosophie 84 (German transl. Berlin: Merve, 1992, English transl. in Semiotext(e) 2007, 41-82).

Gadamer, Hans-Georg (1960): Wahrheit und Methode: Grundzüge einer philosophischen Hermeneutik, 6th ed., Tübingen: Mohr, 1990.

Glaser, Barney G, und Anselm L. Strauss (1967): The Discovery of Grounded Theory: Strategies for Qualitative Research, 2nd pbk. printing, New Brunswick, NJ: Aldine, 2007.

Goffman, Erving (1974): Frame Analysis: An Essay on the Organization of Experience, Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP.

Heidegger, Martin (1927): Sein und Zeit, 12th ed., Tübingen: Niemeyer, 1972.

Heider, Fritz (1926): Ding und Medium, Neudruck Berlin: Kulturverlag Kadmos, 2005.

Heider, Fritz (1958): The Psychology of Interpersonal Relations, London: Wiley.

Jensen, Michael C. (2000): A Theory of the Firm: Governance, Residual Claims, and Organizational Forms, Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP.

Kant, Immanuel (1781/7): Kritik der reinen Vernunft, Werke in zwölf Bänden, vols. III-IV, Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1956

Latour, Bruno (2005): Re-Assembling the Social: An Introduction To Actor-Network Theory, Oxford: Oxford UP (German 2007).

Law, John (2004): After Method: Mess in Social Science Research, London: Routledge.

Luhmann, Niklas (1984): Soziale Systeme: Grundriß einer allgemeinen Theorie, Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp (English transl. Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 1995).

Luhmann, Niklas (1997): Die Gesellschaft der Gesellschaft, Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp.

Merton, Robert K. (1945): The Sociology of Knowledge, in: idem, Social Theory and Social Structure, rev. and enl. ed., New York: Free Press, 1968, 510-542.

Merton, Robert K. (1949): Manifest and Latent Function, in: idem, Social Theory and Social Structure, rev. and enl. ed., New York: Free Press, 1968, 73-138.

Morin, Edgar (1974): Complexity, International Social Science Journal 26, 555-582.

Morris, Charles (1938): Foundations of the Theory of Signs, in: Foundations of the Unity Sciences: Toward an International Encyclopedia of Unified Science, ed. Otto Neurath, vol. 1, no. 2.

Parsons, Talcott (1950): The Social System, New York: Free Press.

Parsons, Talcott (1978): Action Theory and the Human Condition, New York: Free Press.

Popper, Karl (1935): Logik der Forschung, 11. Aufl., Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2005.

Porter, Michael E. (1980): Competitive Strategy: Techniques for Analyzing Industries and Competitors, New York: Free Press.

Serres, Michel (1980): Le parasite, Paris: Grasset (German 1981, English 1982).

Smith, Adam (1776): An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, London: Pinguin Classics, 1982.

Spencer-Brown, George (1969): Laws of Form, international ed., Leipzig: Bohmeier, 2008.

Von Foerster, Heinz (1981): Observing Systems, Seaside, CA: Intersystems (most papers reprinted in: idem, Understanding Understanding: Essays on Cybernetics and Cognition, New York: Springer, 2003).

Weick, Karl E. (1979): The Social Psychology of Organizing, 2nd ed., Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

White, Harrison C. (1992): Identity and Control: Structural Theory of Action, Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP (2nd ed., Princeton, NJ: Princeton U P, 2008).

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