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July 21, 2009

Bent Flyvbjerg

My latest enthusiasm--also a subject of discussion in our Summer Institute today--is the Danish professor Bent Flyvbjerg. His slogan is "social science as phronesis." The Greek word φρόνησις means "practical wisdom," prudence, or wise practical thought. It is always about a particular situation, because one acts in particular cases, not in generalities. (See my recent post on generic thinking.) Phronesis combines a view of what is, what can be, and what would be good. These are not strictly separable matters; norms influence facts and strategies. According to Flyvbjerg, phronesis should also involve a consideration of power: who is causing things to be the way they are, and who would benefit from changing them in various ways.

We deliberate about practical matters, not about abstract principles. Flyvbjerg recommends that social scientists contribute to practical deliberation by doing research that is closely attuned to particular situations. The social scientist's contribution will rarely be definitive; it will simply inform other actors by providing perspectives on what is, what can be, and what should be.

The opposite is social science on the model of physics--systematic, general, and predictive. I have not yet read Flyvbjerg's full argument for why social science cannot be like physics, but he is obviously skeptical of that idea and notes that "no predictive social theories have been arrived at yet" (PDF). He explains:

I was on much the same track in my June 26th post about the disappointing results of quantitative social science.

July 21, 2009 9:51 AM | category: none


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