Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Notes on Heuristics

Notes from the brilliant book, Methods of Discovery: Heuristics for the Social Sciences, by Andrew Abbot, "an introduction to the workings of imagination in social science" and "all struggling to imagine the social world anew."
What then does it take to have something to say?
It takes two things.
The first is a puzzle, something about the social world that is odd, unusual, unexpected, or novel.
The second is a clever idea that responds to or interprets or solves that puzzle.
Everything else - the methods, the literature, the description of data - is really just window dressing.
The heart of good work is a puzzle and an idea.

  • Steal the best ideas from another discipline and put them to better use.
  • Narration seems persuasive precisely because telling stories is how we explain most things in daily life.
  • Narration is the syntax of everyday understanding.


  • Social science aims to explain social life. There are three things that make a particular argument an explanation:
    • 1. when it allows us to intervene in whatever it is we are explaining (for example, managing the economy, eradicating poverty).
    • 2. when we stop looking for further accounts of that something - an explanation is an account that suffices. it frees us to go on to the next problem by bringing our current problem into a commonsense world where it becomes immediately comprehensible (what is self-evident needs no explanation).
    • 3. when we have made a certain kind of argument about it: an argument that is simple, exclusive, perhaps elegant or even counterintuitive. Thus, we may think that Freudian psychology is better than folk psychology because it is better worked out, more complex, and more surprising. An account is an explanation because it takes a certain pleasing form, because it somehow marries simplicity and complexity.
  • That people took so long to recognize the creativity of these works perhaps tells us something important about the nature of creativity. Much of it has to do with how one's ideas fit with others' current beliefs. Creativity is relational. Coase's work went unappreciated until the rest of the economics community came around to the broad conception of economic thinking that Coase took for granted. Fleck's book was completely ignored until Kuhn's Structure of Scientific Revolutions prepared people for it. Often a mainstream cannot see new ideas as creative. Often they cannot see them at all.


  • The aim of social science is to say something interesting - perhaps even true - about social reality.
  • The first and in many ways most important of the general heuristics is making an analogy: saying that an X is really a G...applying ecological models to humans...cities...organizations...applying economic models to family planning...they may seem like far-fetched analogies, but they were very productive...Becker's analogy must have seemed shattering at the time...but the analogy was powerful, and when Becker began to analyze more mainstream topics, like family-planning decisions, his work began to be regarded as truly revolutionary...Analogy is fundamentally different from addition. It means truly changing the terms of analysis, not simply adding something to them. It has a risk to it: there will be naysayers. At the same time, it can be very productive...One of the useful aspects of analogy is that most often the ideas you borrow will be quite well worked out. When you forage in other disciplines and sub disciplines, you will find the intellectual supplies plentiful and well kept, ripe for the taking.
  • Analogy is the queen of heuristics...Analogizers and borrowers must always be reading and learning


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