Bent Flyvbjerg’s radical alternative to applied social science

Bent Flyvbjerg is one of the authors we teach in our Summer Institute of Civic Studies. He is a Danish social scientist who has developed a radical ideal of social research that he calls “phronesis” (Greek for “prudence” or “practical wisdom”). I would introduce it as follows:

A very common method is to identify some feature of practice or policy that can be described generically. It may be an “approach,” a “strategy,” or an “intervention.” The goal is to show that this thing works in general, all else being equal. The ideal method is a randomized field experiment (individuals are randomly assigned to receive or not to receive the intervention, and we measure the differences in results). Alternatives to experiments are acceptable, but overall, social programs are treated like drugs. If something is effective, it should work reliably in whole categories of contexts. So any positive finding should be replicable.

In reality, we find many programs that work in their original contexts for the people who enroll, but very few that prove replicable when tested in randomized studies. One conclusion might be that government and nonprofit agencies just can’t do any good; they aren’t up to it. But that seems very odd because no one wants to (say) disband all the schools in a suburban, middle-class town on the theory that interventions never work.

An alternative conclusion is that there is something wrong with the method. Social interventions don’t work like drugs because the behavior of groups of human beings is not law-like. People know what is going on and influence any treatment, as well as being affected by it. They have a variety of interests and motives that do not all align neatly with the experimenter, and they adjust as they are being experimented on. People act differently if they feel that a social process is theirs instead of someone else’s experiment. Context is highly variable and very important. That includes the “macro” context of major events in the world, which constantly change people’s values and beliefs. There are complex interactions between subjects, researchers, and contexts.

Flyvbjerg goes so far as to say: “The natural science approach simply does not work in the social sciences. No predictive theories have been arrived at in social science, despite centuries of trying. This approach is a wasteful dead-end.”

On one hand, I want to say that Flyvbjerg is wrong. In our Institute, we read work by scholars like Elinor Ostrom and Archon Fung who identify methods and approaches that seem to work fairly regularly in various contexts. Ostrom has identified design principles to use if you want to manage a public resource voluntarily. Fung shows that certain formats and strategies for public meetings work better than others for various purposes, under various circumstances. Such research seems very important for reform efforts.

On the other hand, these are not literally “predictive” theories. They do not deny people’s freedom to change outcomes. There is nothing inevitable about the recipes that Ostrom and Fung identify. Further, the search for powerful explanations, regularities, and generic solutions in social science does seem disappointing overall. As the volume of data rises, analytical tools improve, publications proliferate, and more and more people work at understanding social issues, faith in actual solutions only seems to recede.

Flyvbjerg has a constructive alternative, based on his own intervention as a researcher in the city politics of Aalborg, Denmark. In his model, “social scientists and social science professionals [are] analysts who provide food for thought for the ongoing process of public deliberation, participation, and decision-making.” They do so by immersing themselves in a concrete situation and asking (with all due methodological rigor) the following four questions:

    (1) Where are we going?

    (2) Who gains and who loses, and by which mechanisms of power?

    (3) Is this development desirable?

    (4) What, if anything, should we do about it?

Note the following features that are absent in purely positivist social science (although they are practiced by many fine scholars): a combination of values, facts, and strategies; a forward-looking orientation; a sensitivity to power that does not preclude hope that something good can be achieved; and a presumption that the researcher is part of the community that must act (“what should we do?”).

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