Three Fundamental Concepts of Social Science

1. Causal Density (and complexity and cultural evolution)

Jul 30 · 3 min read

There are many causal factors that affect human behavior and human interaction. As a result, “social science” is not nearly as reliable as physical science. We can speculate on what causes political and economic events, but we cannot prove our hypotheses. Experts may propose two or more differing theories, none of which can be definitively ruled out.

The main reason that human behavior cannot be analyzed with scientific precision is that our behavior is affected by culture, which is complex and subject to rapid evolution. The physical world can be studied using controlled experiments, because it is not subject to cultural evolution.

If it were up to me, the term “social science” would disappear. We would replace it with another term. I prefer “cultural analysis.” Because the number of potential causal factors is large, cultural analysis is rhetorical and speculative, with propositions not verifiable by the experimental method.

For further understanding of causal density, see the James Manzi podcast with Russ Roberts. Also, see these articles of mine:

How Effective is Economic Theory?

Complex is not the same as Complicated

Cultural Intelligence

2. Sub-Dunbar and Super-Dunbar

Primatologist Robin Dunbar has theorized that the number of people with whom we can maintain stable personal social relationships is limited by our brain size to about 150. Many social characteristics change when people organize into groups larger than the Dunbar number:

— In a sub-Dunbar setting, the basic moral principle is caring for one another. In large-scale society, this basic moral principle is neither necessary nor sufficient.

A family or tribe will readily share resources and take turns doing tasks. In a super-Dunbar setting, we need hierarchies and markets to provide for organization and cooperation. Morality becomes more complicated. As Adam Smith pointed out, self-interest can be a positive force in large-scale society.

In a small business, management can use concrete thinking based on direct observation. In a large organization, managers must operate using abstract thinking, taking in information indirectly from briefings and reports.

In small organizations, communication and decision-making take place informally. There is no need for an employee manual or an organization chart. Large organizations require formal management. Policies and procedures will be put in writing. Responsibilities will be clearly defined, and there will be explicit rules for making and implementing decisions. Regular communication channels will be established.

For more reading on sub-Dunbar vs. super-Dunbar, see these articles of mine:

Human Beings are Social

Camping Trip Economics vs. Woolen-Coat Economics

Micro-Morality and Macro-Morality

How Corporations are Managed

3. Design vs. Emergence

A computer language is designed. Some individual or committee specifies the syntax of the language, and this syntax is implemented in an interpreter or compiler. If you do not pay attention to the rules of the language when you write code, your program is bound to fail.

Human spoken language emerges. A language is modified over time by the people who use it. For example, the phrase “I couldn’t care less” can be used to express that one is contemptuous about having any concern about something. Over time, the phrase “I could care less” has evolved to mean exactly the same thing, even you might think it would mean the opposite.

Some aspects of human culture are designed. They include machines, bridges, constitutions, written laws and regulations, and organization charts.

Other aspects of human culture emerge. They include social norms, beliefs, discoveries, patterns of influence, and patterns of specialization and trade.

I think that we have a bias toward seeing culture in terms of design. This leads us to expect more from regulation and deliberate control than what is actually possible.

See The Regulator’s Calculation Problem.

Arnold Kling

Written by

Author of nonfiction books, primarily in the area of political economy. In a previous life, I started one of the first commercial web sites. Ph.D in economics

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