modeling social reality

I’m working on an article and have recently posted various excerpts in draft form.* This is the current outline:

  1. A model is a simplified representation of social reality that may take the form of a diagram, a story, a thought-experiment, an ideal-type, or an analogy to something that’s better understood.
  2. Human beings use models to navigate the social world.
  3. Judgment (phronesis) requires choosing and applying models of social reality.  
  4. Social models characteristically have empirical and normative aspects (both “facts” and “values”).
  5. Models can be categorized by their forms, e.g., root-cause, cyclical, genealogical, historical-institutionalist, organizational, game-theoretical, interest-group-coalition, etc.
  6. A model offers guidance, much as a fable suggests a moral (Cartwright 1999; Johnson 2020).
  7. The empirical details of a model should be testable and falsifiable, but new evidence typically modifies a model; it doesn’t invalidate the model. This is because (a) the model has normative aspects that are not empirically falsifiable; and (b) methods, concepts, sources, normative principles, and specific facts interrelate.
  8. Models are wise or unwise, not true or false. The best model is the one that does the most good, not the one that is most correct.
  9. The logic of applying a model to a given case is abductive (per C.S. Pierce), not inductive or deductive.
  10. Choosing a good model requires understanding and considering other options; it’s comparative.
  11. Therefore, (a) good education for civic life involves exploring multiple models, never one model; and; (b) good participation in civic life involves sharing one’s model and listening to others.

*See choosing models that illuminate issues–on the logic of abduction in the social sciences and policy; different kinds of social models; social education as learning to improve models; making our models explicit

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.