Wilson vs. Coleman: just a little mistake?

The social sciences are presently characterized by a methodological pluralism. Both between and within disciplines, several methods are applied to answer questions and test hypotheses. Some see this as a richness or an asset of the discipline, others see this as a serious problem. Recently, I’ve been writing a philosophical paper on the merit(s) of this methodological pluralism.

Doing so, I came across the book `Consilience’ by Wilson. Wilson is a famous and influential biologist who developed into a sociobiologist. In is book `Consilience’ he proposes a unification of scientific method. Basically, this comes down to an analytic method an the acknowledgment of a hierarchical ordering of knowledge.

When he mentions Coleman, an influential sociologist, I think he makes a mistake. About this, I wrote the following:

Wilson mentions that social scientists should take an analytic approach, that is they should break social phenomena down into smaller parts that constitute those phenomena. In order to illustrate his statement, he quotes Coleman (1990) who states that “the essential requirement is that the explanatory focus [of social sciences] be on the system of a unit, not on the individuals or other components which make it up”. Wilson criticizes this comment by arguing that if biology would have taken this approach, that it wouldn’t have been able to make any progress at all. However, he misunderstood the statement Coleman made. In my opinion, Coleman meant that what needs to be explained in social sciences are (societal) `systems or units’, not that this explanation should be in terms of phenomena at societal level, as Wilson reads it. The great merit of Coleman in social sciences has been, that he showed that macro-level phenomena best be explained in terms of the individuals that bring the change about. So instead of criticizing Coleman, Wilson had better interpreted this as an indication that some notions about scientific explanation are indeed to be seen in both the natural and the social sciences.

2 comment on “Wilson vs. Coleman: just a little mistake?

  • In here there is more than what meets the eye: Wilson is famous indeed, but rejected by many of his colleages. What made Wilson known were his claims on the “emergent properties” of social systems, properties that supposedly could not be seen on the elements level. The thing is that it is still to be shown the real existence of emergent properties, and, on the other side, the reductionist approach of things like population genetics (what I actually do) is very effective at the moment of doing predictions. So I would take with a grain a salt any comment of Wilson on the correct level of analysis. His work on ants is fabulous, his generalizations of it… less.

Leave a Reply