Here’s some beautiful writing from Max Weber on how the validity of social science is rooted in the values and meaning that we attach to it.
The objective validity of all empirical knowledge rests exclusively upon the ordering of the given reality according to categories which are subjective in a specific sense, namely, in that they present the presuppositions of our knowledge and are based on the presupposition of the value of those truths which empirical knowledge alone is able to give us.
These value-ideas are for their part empirically discoverable and analyzable as elements of meaningful human conduct, but their validity can not be deduced from empirical data as such. The “objectivity” of the social sciences depends rather on the fact that the empirical data are always related to those value-ideas which alone make them worth knowing and the significance of the empirical data is derived from these value-ideas.
And while you puzzle over what makes empirical data “worth knowing” I leave you with Weber’s own celebration of a complex reality that social science can only order if it has a clear purpose.
Life with its irrational reality and its store of possible meanings is inexhaustible. The
concrete form in which value-relationship occurs remains perpetually in flux, ever subject to change in the dimly seen future of human culture. The light which emanates from those highest value-ideas always falls on an ever changing finite segment of the vast chaotic stream of events, which flows away through time.
Now that Disney is turning Star Wars into a Marvel-like cottage industry and Harrison Ford has broken a leg while playing an older Han Solo, the time is ripe for asking the real question about what happened a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away: Was the Galactic Empire such a bad thing after all? And what would Max Weber think about Jedis?
Continue reading Weber on Star Wars: Or Why the Empire Should Win in the End
Or: Why development researchers cannot tell policy-makers what to do, only how to think about what they do
The promise of policy-relevant research is the ability to influence policy-making through the supply of evidence for or against specific interventions. Development studies as an academic community is a perfect illustration of this aspiration: a significant part of its research is directly or indirectly funded by government, many of its researchers have also worked in policy as consultants or civil servants, and the field itself is organized around policy issues and not intellectual boundaries, attracting scholars from economics, political science, or sociology who are more interested in practical problems that disciplinary agendas.
But there is a fundamental conceptual obstacle between what policy researchers can offer and what policy-makers often demand: agency, understood as the ability of purposeful actors to change the world that they live in. Social science research –of the kind that development studies pursue- does not deal very well with purpose. For the most part it does not know what to do with change, either. No matter what the ontological, epistemological or methodological school a researcher may adhere to, the vagaries of social research are likely to push her towards trend, not exception, and towards stasis, not change. Continue reading The agency paradox
I don’t really like Game of Thrones: it is basically a soap opera with no clear narrative arc and too much gratuitous despair for my taste. I read the first book in George R. R. Martin‘s series and watched the show until the infamous “Red Wedding”. By that point I had decided there were way too many characters whose names or motives I did not know, too many factions whose background I ignored, and no clear pattern of relationships. But – like everything else in pop culture – I can still use Game of Thrones to demonstrate how my favorite social scientist was a genius. Hence this guide to Westeros through the lens of Weberian theory. Continue reading Weber on Westeros
This years marks the 40th anniversary of the publication of Dungeons & Dragons (D&D). For those unfamiliar with it, D&D was the grandfather of tabletop roleplaying games (RPGs), which mix storytelling, improv, strategy and chance: each player assumes the role of one character with attributes and skills, vices and virtues, and together they face the challenges put forth by one of the players – the Dungeon Master or Game Master – who controls the narration and plays all other characters and creatures. It’s a simple notion, but over the last forty years D&D has had a considerable influence on a large swatch of modern pop culture. Continue reading Wizards and clerics, democracies and autocracies
Here’s the abstract for my ESID Working Paper (25, October 2013) with Badru Bukenya, which was just released on the ESID website under the title “Building State Capacity for Inclusive Development: The Politics of Public Sector Reform”:
A capable state is essential for inclusive development, and throughout the developing world governments and international development agencies are seeking to build it through a multifaceted agenda of Public Sector Reform (PSR). This paper presents an analytical review of the PSR agenda, emphasizing the political contestation inherent to the development of state capacity, and argues for a more nuanced and politically-informed research agenda. We begin by examining the various definitions of state capacity that are commonly employed by researchers, and settle on bureaucratic capacity as the transversal precondition for policy implementation. State capacity so understood has two components, effectiveness and accountability, and two domains, internal and external. Their intersection generates four broad dimensions of reform: organizational rationality, administrative restraint, social embeddedness and political autonomy; and each dimension in turn is likely to exhibit a different pattern of political contestation due to the parallel incentives for patrimonialism, corruption, oligarchy, and capture.
We use this analytical framework to categorise and examine the major components of the PSR agenda, assessing their rates of success or failure according to the available evidence: we find that the relative failure of the PSR agenda so far is due to its reliance on flawed assumptions about the administrative politics of state capacity. We then evaluate whether new models that try to bypass central bureaucracies are likely to encounter greater success; specifically, we review the Africa Governance Initiative, the Open Government Partnership, and the ‘hybrid models’ approach of the Africa Power and Politics Programme, and argue that all of them will be forced to confront the same politics of state capacity in the end. We close the paper by outlining a set of tentative guidelines for future research at ESID and elsewhere, suggesting a greater focus on the role of elites, informal institutions, the legislature as a non-state component of state capacity, the distinction between transversal and sectoral approaches, and finally the modalities and objectives of external assistance.