Oslo Summer School in Comparative Social Science Studies 2002

Oslo Summer School 10th Year Anniversery Lecture

How Does Comparative Research aid the Accumulation of Knowledge in Social Science?

Professor Lars Mjøset,
Department of Sociology and Human Geography,
University of Oslo, Norway
Date: Thursday 1. August 2002
Place: Georg Sverdrups Building, Auditorium 1
Time: 15.00

The early postwar «orthodox consensus» in sociology and political science tried to combine explanation by laws, variables-oriented empirical analysis and functionalist theory. The break-up of that consensus produced a confusing multitude of approaches to social science: rational choice theorists proposed to replace functionalist theory with cost-benefit/game theoretic models drawn from mathematics and economics, while other schools were critical of all three elements of the consensus.

Among the latter, three approaches will be mentioned in this lecture: interactionism proposes grounded theory, case-studies and prefers to do without any theoretical elements from outside of social science; social theory insists that social science must be based on a transcendental theory of action, social structure and knowledge; while the post-structuralist program of deconstruction - presently very popular both in sociology and anthropology - tries to make a virtue out of wideranging skepticism.

While debates raged on the ruins of the orthodox consensus, an undercurrent of comparative historical studies emerged within the social sciences, starting with Bendix and Rokkan in the 50s and 60s, continuing with Tilly, Anderson, Skocpol and others in the 70s, and multiplying since then. Although their methodological and theoretical stance - in practice - mostly was agnostic, these studies often turned out to be strong in terms of explaining the research problems they posed. A main question to be adressed in this lecture thus is whether there are at all any links between the principal theoretical debates and the actual craftwork incarnated in these comparative historical studies.

To answer this question, several elements will be needed: a definition of theory (one that emphasizes that accumulation of knowledge is always organized by human beings), a discussion of various types of theory (distinguishing between fundamental theories, middle range theories and interpretations of the present), a distinction between two basic attitudes researchers may hold (cognitive optimism versus cognitive skepticism), and a discussion of the epistemological status of comparisons.

In the end, one out of the four above mentioned responses to the orthodox consensus will be declared the best as far as accumulation of social scientific knowledge goes. The winner will be announced at the end of the lecture!

Lars Mjøset (b. 1954) studied at the University of Oslo. He is professor of sociology at the University of Oslo, Director of the Oslo Summer School of Comparative Social Science Studies and member of the editorial board of the journal Comparative Social Research. He has published extensively on social science theory, international relations and comparative socioeconomic development. Two of his books are comparative studies, one on economic development and economic policies in the Nordic countries (published in Norwegian in 1986), the other on Irland's development in comparison with the Nordic and Alpine countries (The Irish Economy in a Comparative Institutional Perspective, Dublin 1992).

Recently he has published a comparative study of welfare states and unemployment in Western Europe and the U.S., as well as a comparative historical study of conscription into military forces (co-authored with Steve van Holde, published in Comparative Social Research, Vol. 20, 2002), focusing on the differences between the Anglo-American world, France and Prussia/Russia. He is presently completing a book on postwar sociological theory, and elements from this book form the background of his 10th anniversary lecture at the Oslo Summer School in August 2002.