Journal of Philosophy, Science & Law
8, July 14, 2008
A Review of James Davis’s Terms of Inquiry:
On the Theory and Practice
of Political Science*
By Lisa Johnson**
The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005, 296 pages.
** Assistant Professor of Law, Ethics, and
James W. Davis’s Terms of Inquiry: On the Theory and Practice of Political
Science (2005) presents a critique of the application of the
scientific method to the social sciences.
argues that the use of the scientific method obfuscates usable knowledge that
might otherwise be gathered by applying methodology more appropriate to the
study of social science. Davis, a classically-trained political scientist, became
disturbed by the dissociation between disciplinary political science and the
practice of politics (p. 2). Additionally, despite the empirical orientation of
became dissatisfied with the lack of apparent success in predictive abilities
of social science theories, despite these disciplines’ adherence to scientific
methodology. These issues propelled the development of this work. His
objections do not focus upon the academicians who employ these methods (p. 3);
rather, his concerns center upon the appropriateness of the scientific method
itself to study social interactions. His assessment rests upon his observations
concerning academic political science and international relations (p. ix),
though he argues that his conclusions are applicable across social science
disciplines (p. 3).
examines the assumptions upon which the scientific method rests and illustrates
through examples drawn from both the social and natural sciences foundational
problems with respect to social science applicability. Overall,
succeeds in raising
important questions concerning the validity of the use of the scientific method
in the social sciences, and his meticulous attention to the problematic pieces
of that methodology go far towards this work’s success. However, the book could
be more unified to avoid redundancy of ideas and to reduce superfluous examples
in some parts, while more fully developing several of the more provocative
ideas that inexplicably receive short shrift, and eliminating tangential
digressions that add little to his thesis. Additionally,
’s general case for neo-interpretivist
methodology might collapse under the weight of serious scrutiny.
presents his work in six chapters, most of
which substantially develop the underpinnings of his argument, though chapter
premise with respect to political science and chapter six extends his work to identify
methodology that he argues is more appropriate to discerning useful knowledge
from the practice of social science. Chapter six’s aims are pragmatic, because
he wants for political science to produce useful knowledge, rather than
remaining bogged in theoretical irrelevance (p. 4).
acknowledges that his work most closely
aligns with that of traditionalists, who analyze history without aspiring to
prediction, but he also recognizes other perspectives where objections to the
scientific method have arisen. He wishes to find a “middle way” between interpretivism
and postmodernism (p. 3), though he aligns himself at least loosely with the
interpretivist position. He relies upon those orientations when beneficial to
his argument, though he is careful to distinguish points of departure. For
instance, to illustrate culture and language constraints upon theory,
draws upon the
example of “thick descriptions” used by interpretivist anthropologists (p. 49).
He also approvingly cites the hypothetical postmodernist scientist, who quits
her job upon realizing that there can be no standard for judging truth (p. 93).
However, he explicitly aims to discover a less radical approach than the
postmodernist view that “anything goes” (p. 3). He also recognizes and wants to
avoid the interpretivist’s inescapable problem that “evaluation[s] of novel
situations [involve] […] preexisting concepts” (p. 65). He cites with approval
both Marxist and postmodernist critical theorists who argue that “the search
for timeless laws stifles social sciences” (p. 106).
’s conclusion that the pursuit of general
laws for social phenomenon may be a bootless errand (p. 106) is well-supported
overall. His most convincing and well-illustrated arguments concern the lack of
precision in language, the fuzzy borders of concepts, the lack of one-to-one
correspondence with reality, and the inadequacy of a two-value system of logic.
His argument’s weakest points include an over-reliance upon examples drawn from
natural science as evidence against the appropriateness of using the scientific
method in social sciences, examples drawn from the social sciences that might
be said to be chosen too carefully, and the rather cursory attention given to
several interesting analogies and extensions of his argument.
After introducing his work in the first chapter, the second chapter
addresses conceptualization challenges and the fuzzy borders of concepts. Conceptualization
represents “the indispensable first step towards the generation of knowledge
[…] and is central to the scientific enterprise” (p. 11). Yet,
examples to successfully support his claim “that there is no one-to-one
correspondence between the physical world and the concepts […] use[d] to
represent it” (p. 11), thereby casting doubt upon the reliance of this “indispensable
first step.” These examples also thoroughly support
’s assertion that language is
culture-bound, and thereby our perception of the world is culture-specific. Additionally,
language does not mirror the world, but rather, it creates the world. Language
does not correspond to some objective truth “out there” (p. 13). Because
language is culture-bound, our reality is culture bound, and there is no
possible objective observation of the world.
These examples include studies concerning cultural perception of color. Though
neurobiological processes allow for human beings to apprehend eleven core
colors, cognitive processes are culturally determined and bound by language. This
is not a matter of simply having different words for different colors.
Researchers have shown that cultural perceptions of core colors range from the
perception of two colors to the perception of all eleven, where the number of
core colors capable of being perceived is consistent among members of the same
culture (pp. 14 – 16). Similarly, perception of spatial relationships (e.g.,
whether something is “in” or “on” something) are determined by culture-bound
language, as are auditory perceptions (e.g., /r/ and /l/ for Japanese speakers)
(pp. 17 – 29). In short, adults from different cultures see and hear very
different worlds based upon their language, because language shapes cognition
examples well support his assertion that concepts and conceptualization are
simply “linguistic expressions of mental constructs” (p. 61), culture-bound and
reflective of the observer, but not indicative of an objective truth with a
also illustrates the idea of fuzzy concepts
to challenge the attainment of “precision [as] […] a necessary precondition for
empirical testing” (p. 32), an agenda which many social scientists have pushed.
Relying upon Wittgenstein’s concept of “game” as “family resemblances” rather
than ideas with fixed boundaries (p. 33),
extends this work to show that most concepts have at their center an
archetypical ideal, and all examples are conceived as in comparison to the
archetype to reach the idea of graded memberships.
discusses democratic peace theory (pp.
77 – 78), as well as other examples, to illustrate the problem of defining
social phenomenon incapable of precise definitions (p. 37), and that language
cues dramatically affect perception. His use of visual renditions of flocks of
birds versus herds of antelope can convince even skeptical readers of this
point (p. 44).
He also argues that observations are theory-dependent (p. 45), and
theories are language-dependent, though empiricists miss or reject the
importance of that truth (p. 43), so concepts change over time (p. 46). He
argues that concepts rely upon “evolving symbolic structures” that bear “no
direct, one-to-one correspondence to mind-external phenomena” (p. 13). He
further notes the evolution of social concepts by tracking their language,
despite the constancy of the empirical referents (p. 48). For instance, the
Victorian concept of “cruelty to children” moved to that of “neglected
children,” as did the notion of punishment due for the former, while social
work was required to rectify the latter (p. 47). Thereafter, “child abuse”
emerged (p. 48). As
mentions (p. 48) Michael Foucault tracked similar changes in language-bound
concepts having the same referent with respect to the perception of “madness”
to “mental illness,” where the former was a relatively normal occurrence and
the latter a bona fide medicalizable infirmity. As
notes, when “we accept data, we are accepting
the limits of the theory and language behind it” (p. 58).
cites Thomas Kuhn favorably when he notes
that paradigm shifts resemble religious conversions (p. 59). Both science and
religion share a belief that “there is an order to the universe that is
accessible and comprehensible” (p. 59 – 60). Fervor for one may be
indistinguishable from the other. This section could be more fully developed,
because it has the feeling of being tacked on at the last minute. If, for
instance, “most basic concepts of science are secularized versions of
preexisting religious terms,” (p. 59) then he should give the readers some
examples. Since so much of chapter two drips with superfluous examples of only
slightly nuanced differences to illustrate the ideas of fuzzy borders (clay
pots, democratic peace theory, games, kinship descriptions, birds, tallness, etc.),
the lack of exemplars to illustrate this provocative point is jarring. Indeed,
a scant two pages is devoted to it.
A primary weakness of Davis’s work is that he relies upon research conducted
using the scientific method to support his proposition that the scientific
method is inapplicable to the social sciences (e.g., the color, spatial and
auditory studies p. 13 – 25). While there may be no way around this irony,
should have at least
acknowledged that he was relying upon results produced from the very method
that he criticizes. In his defense,
however, some – though not all – of these studies emerge from the physical
sciences rather than social sciences. However, that defense may raise an
additional objection. To wit, his reliance upon non-social science research to
support his argument with respect to the social sciences requires something of
a leap of faith. However,
adequately supports this seeming anomaly by focusing on the underlying
assumptions and elements of the scientific method, which are the same
regardless of the subject matter to which it is put.
Chapter three’s exploration of the development of his argument to
political science reaches well-trodden conclusions. This section could be
omitted or integrated with chapter two without loss. For example, he revisits
the definitional problem of democracy (p. 67), but uses it only to reiterate
his point about fuzzy borders of concepts (pp. 77 – 78). This section’s
conclusions do little besides expressly agree with preceding thinkers. For
example, he notes that “truth is not a property of “the world” but rather of
statements about the world” (p. 81).
This is reminiscent of Richard Rudner’s work. Similarly, his averment that
scientific concepts are understandable “between members of the scientific
community” sounds a lot like Peter Winch (p. 84). Indeed, a real question
arises here as to whether he adds anything new to Winch’s work in this arena. Last,
he expressly agrees with Kuhn’s assertion that scientific progress can occur
through conceptual revolution (p. 85). Readers who are familiar with these
thinkers already can skip chapter three, though
’s footnotes contain interesting
comparisons that might better exist in his primary text. For example, he
discusses similarities between case law and classifications of representations
of experiences or observations (p. 81, footnote 99).
Chapter four ostensibly exists to argue that a two-value logic – that
is, something must be either true or false – and the scientific method’s goal
of falsification, is woefully inadequate to the study of social interactions,
which often demand results of neither true nor false, but rather “maybe” or
“undecided,” particularly when working at the fuzzy border of concepts, which
is where most of scientific work is done (p. 129). One wonders whether this is
actually a problem in science or even social science,
’s argument notwithstanding. It might
better be thought of as a problem with empiricist positions in philosophy or
social science only. Nevertheless, given science’s aim “to make sense of the
real world” (p. 94), this two prong approach does not give us enough
possibility for expansion of thought, which is required when studying human
interactions. Given the wide acceptance in the scientific community of logical
positivism (p. 102),
recounts in great detail its development – from the problem of inductive
thought, to Karl Popper’s solution, to deductive logic. However,
’s shotgun approach
to examples in this chapter should be more focused. His examples vacillate
between those from the natural and social sciences (e.g., the source of the
sun’s power to balance of power theory), though, in the end, they each work
well enough to support the insufficiency of two-pronged test. “Whereas
deductive logic requires the exclusion of the undecidable case, and the modus
tollens presupposes the ability to establish the veracity of a purely
existential statement, the logic of scientific practice is three values, with
many statements falling into the category of “undecided”” (p. 117). Overall the
point could be made more succinctly.
Chapter five builds upon the inadequacy of the two-value logic model and
adds to it the effects of social norms. Research flowing from such dynamics requires
a three-value logic (p. 132), a point that he illustrates well through examples
such as social norms with respect to sexual behavior and rape (pp. 134 – 135).
This chapter gives shape to the methodological hole at issue throughout this
work. Namely, if concepts are incapable of objective, precise definition, generalizability
is unattainable through induction, and two-value deductive logic is
inappropriate, how then can social scientists generate knowledge (p. 153)?
His answers, in chapter six, come in several pragmatic recommendations.
For example, he urges the abandonment of grand theorizing, with greater
attention given to unique features of cases (or members of the population) rather
than on the sameness of members of populations (p. 165), and attention to
unique historical attributes that may interpret direction or present state (p.
165). This last point is reminiscent of interpretivism, in that he urges a deep
understanding (like verstehen) of the
individual case, a position with which Rudner would no doubt take issue. These
focuses would allow the social scientist to engage in process tracing, which is
a useful method for the study of norm-based behavior (p. 178). Additionally, researchers
should not dismiss typological approaches, which allow for diversity to emerge
that can lead to greater understanding (p. 183). Likewise, case studies are an
important method for social scientists (p. 175). All of these methodologies
allow researchers to recognize mechanisms that produce social outcomes, employ
diagnostic procedures, and identify critical junctions for intervention (p.
’s aim for social scientists is the
development of middle range theories capable of scenario and contingency planning.
His model is that of medical science (p. 187), because it is capable of
developing explanations that are not just opinion (p. 8).
should have discussed this model more
thoroughly as he envisions it relating to the practice of social science,
especially as he urges the “rediscover[y of] the centrality of philosophy and
religion to the practice of science” (p. 187). Indeed, this last point
illustrates the primary frustration with this work.
develops the underlying argument well,
but upon reaching the apex, is content to briefly mention it and move on
without fully developing just how such a thing would work.
Davis, J. W. (2005). Terms of Inquiry: On the Theory and Practice of