Generalization, epistemology and concrete: what can social sciences learn from the common sense of engineers

  • Simone Tulumello Instituto de Ciências Sociais da Universidade de Lisboa

Abstract

In this essay I debate critically, and somehow playfully, some assumptions and shortcomings of quantitative/positivist social research, using a dash of common sense typical of engineers. Civil engineers, in designing concrete structures, particularly those made up of concrete, have to continuously consider the error embedded in the limits of available systems of calculation, ending up adopting substantial factors of safety as counter-measures. The study of resistance of concrete structures is a good metaphor for social research; and yet, quantitative/positivist researchers, in their search for “falsifiable generalizations”, often forget about the omnipresence of error, let alone adopt the factors of safety. In short, the common sense of engineers is useful to casts some not-so-frequently-considered doubts over the capacity of quantitative methods and positivist epistemologies to create generalizable social science findings in face of uncertainty and the complexity of human societies. By casting such doubts, I advocate for a more relaxed (but not less rigorous) approach to social research and its complexity.

Section
Reviews and Essays
Published
Apr 29, 2019
How to Cite
Tulumello, S. (2019). Generalization, epistemology and concrete: what can social sciences learn from the common sense of engineers. Fennia - International Journal of Geography, 197(1), 121-131. https://doi.org/10.11143/fennia.77626