Monday, September 14, 2015

Kieran Healy on Nuance in Sociology

In market design, we often have to think about how much detail is useful, for what purposes, and how much abstraction remains useful for theoretical models intended to inform detailed practice.

Something similar is discussed in a delightful paper by Kieran Healy on how much and what kind of nuance sociologists should embrace for different purposes in constructing social theories.

His paper and abstract set the stage, but don't do justice to the nuance in his argument:

Fuck Nuance
Kieran Healy
Duke University

Abstract: "Seriously, fuck it."

Here are some quotable quotes...

"often it is easier to embrace complexity than cut through it...

"This sort of nuance is fundamentally anti-theoretical. It blocks the process of abstraction that theory depends on.
" three nuance traps. First is the ever more detailed, merely empirical description of the world. This is the nuance of the fine-grain. It is a rejection of theory masquerading as increased applicability or range. Second is the ever more extensive expansion of some theoretical system in a way that effectively closes it offš from rebuttal or disconfirmation by anything in the world. This is the nuance of the conceptual framework. It is an evasion of the demand that a theory be refutable. And third is the insinuation that your sensitivity to nuance is a  manifestation of one’s distinctive (oftŸen metaphorically expressed and at times seemingly ineffšable) ability to grasp and express the richness, texture, and žflow of social reality itself. is is the nuance of the connoisseur. It is mostly a species of self-congratulatory symbolic violence.
"Demands for more nuance actively inhibit the process of abstraction that good theory depends on.
"Connoisseurs call for the contemplation of complexity almost for its own sake, or remind everyone that things are more subtle than they seem, or than you just said. The  attractive thing about this move is that it is literally always available to the person who wants to make it. Theory is founded on abstraction, abstraction means throwing away detail for the sake of a bit of generality, and so things are always “more complicated than that”—for any value of “that”. Connoisseurship gets its aesthetic bite, and a little kick of symbolic violence, from the easy insinuation that the person trying to simplify things is, sadly, a bit less sophisticated a thinker than the person pointing out that things are more complicated
"it is traditional in Sociology to deride the way Economists work, depending as they do on an extremely pared-down model of human action. There is no less nuanced a character than Homo Economicus. While it is easy to snipe at theory on this basis, the strategy of assuming a can opener (as the old desert-island joke goes) turns out to be an unreasonably šeffective way of generating some powerful ideas.
The paper contains some interesting facts about sociology as it is practiced (e.g. I didn't know that Foucault appreciated Becker)...

Healy has a blog post explaining the title of the paper here.

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