Will social scientists’ disputes over words ever end?

Hot dogs aren’t sandwiches at all! (Yes, they are!)

Will social scientists’ disputes over words ever end?

By Gabriel Abend

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Social scientists observe the social world. They measure and represent it. They advance and test truth claims about it. For these purposes, they classify things, they sort them into classes, they draw distinctions among them. “In this article, we’re going to look at four objects. Objects A, B, and C will be grouped together, but D won’t. It’s not like the others.” Electricians, physicians, and magicians share this property. They’re similar to one another in this respect. Architects aren’t. There are gay people, straight people, bi people, asexual people, and none of the above. Social scientists constantly need to draw distinctions. How to do this well? What are the criteria to determine if it’s been done well?

Many social science projects, subfields, and literatures have at their core one key word, or a few key words. (Sometimes they get called “concepts.”) Journal articles report findings on “neoliberal policies” and “digitalization” in the twenty-first century. They contrast several types of “colonialism,” and compare cases of “populism” in Europe and South America. They make general claims about “religions” and “ethnic groups” around the world. What do these key words refer to? How to use them well? What are the criteria to determine if they’re being used well?

Why should empirical researchers care about these issues? It’s not because of philosophical or speculative reasons, but because of their job description and responsibilities. Researchers’ substantive claims about the social world are dependent on their key words and distinctions. According to the ‘democratic peace theory’ in political science, democratic states don’t go to war with each other. Is this contention true? Evidently, it depends on what “democratic state” and “war” refer to. According to some sociologists, racial and ethnic discrimination is better accounted for by economic than by cultural factors. Is this contention true? Evidently, it depends on…

Social scientists ask if social movement participation is declining in the United States and Western Europe. Whether rates of major depression are growing among young adults. Whether social class and gender predict altruistic behavior, and if so, how. Their answers will be a function of how data are sorted into categories: social movement (or not), major depression (or not), altruistic behavior (or not). They’ll depend on what participating in a social movement is, what altruism is, and what behavior is. Whether depression and altruism are dichotomous variables, or they come in degrees, such that someone can be three times more depressed than someone else. Whether there are two genders, three, more, or many more. Two social classes, three, more, or many more. What “social class” refers to in the first place…

Suppose you’re a social scientist who sets out to investigate the causes of gender inequality, or the functions of corporate social responsibility in contemporary capitalist societies. As you carry out your project, you have to make decisions about distinctions, classifications, categorizations, and typologies. Decisions about how to use and define key words. But how? One consideration is your immediate research objectives and ulterior publication objectives. What you have in mind is your next step, your upcoming experiment or survey, how you’ll give support to empirical claims. This is bread-and-butter social science work, on which observations, measurements, variables, and models rely (and eventually explanations, predictions, and policy implications). It’s also relied on by evaluators, such as journal referees and university committees.

Yet, every once in a while, you wonder about the warrants for your words and distinctions. You get more reflexive about them. Lately, you’ve been wondering if your uses of “altruism,” “gender,” or “religiosity” are good. Good enough. Better than others. And why that is.

As it turns out, you’re not alone. Many social scientists have reflected on and clashed over these issues. Some have been accused of unethically redefining key words, reclassifying data, and gerrymandering concepts. Disputes over words and distinctions may get heated. Emotionally charged, since people are attached to their preferred word uses, definitions, and distinctions. Chess is definitely a sport! (No, it isn’t!) Hot dogs aren’t sandwiches at all! (Yes, they are!) Pluto is definitely a planet! (No, it isn’t!) Dedicated conferences are organized, frequently dedicated to one key word. “What is gender?” “Defining ‘the family’ in contemporary societies.” “Toward a renewed conceptualization of ethnicity.” “What is disability?”  Harmonious conclusions are never reached.

Harmonious conclusions or not, the show must go on. Research must get done, journal articles must get written and published, and committees must give awards and make recruitment and tenure decisions. Whatever you may want to say about words and distinctions in social science will have to take this pragmatic imperative into account.

Just like social scientists’ methods shouldn’t malfunction and let them down, their words and distinctions shouldn’t either. Unfortunately, the quality of the literature on the latter (words and distinctions) pales in comparison to the literature on the former (methods). It’s high time the latter got up to speed.

There’ll be payoffs for social science communities’ production of research and knowledge, but also for the relationships between social science and society. Words are needed to mediate between scientific findings and claims on the one hand, and their real-world relevance and policy implications on the other. Social scientists are expected to shed light on populism, religious participation, civil war, empathy, and diversity—in ways that matter to policy makers, think tanks, the law, university students, social movements, international organizations, the media, and the general public. This is why social science is valuable to societies and polities and is deserving of attention and financial support.

It’d be no good for social scientists to arbitrarily stipulate the meaning of “populism” or “diversity” and take it from there. What’s demanded from them is knowledge about populism and about diversity: how to explain the growth of populism and how to stop it, and how to boost the salutary effects of diversity in the workplace, education, and politics. Otherwise, social scientists could be living in a fictional world they’d made up for the convenience of their research, measurements, and models, whose objects and phenomena don’t correspond to anything in the real world. Societies would be reluctant to fund these projects.

Key words like “populism” and “diversity” are vital building blocks for social scientists, whether they’re talking to fellow researchers and research communities or to fellow citizens and societies.

In my book I distinguish two questions. At first glance, they might seem questions for an individual social scientist, or for a research team or lab. Questions to be answered by each project, by each paper, to suit its objectives, what it wishes to accomplish. I argue that, in fact, they’re questions for a social science community (and possibly for its stakeholders as well). They should be collectively addressed and answered, with a view to the common good. I call communities to work together on them.

First, given word “w,” how should it be used in our social science community? For instance, how should we use “gender” or “terrorism”? On which grounds? Alternative formulation: how should word “w” be defined? Additionally: should word “w” be used at all? Which words should and shouldn’t be used in our community?

Second, should distinction d be accepted in our social science community? For instance, someone proposes a distinction between childhood, adolescence, adulthood, and old age. Or between “White,” “Black or African American,” “American Indian or Alaska Native,” “Asian,” and “Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander.”[1]  Should it be accepted? On which grounds? Alternative formulation: should objects be classified according to distinction d? Additionally: which distinctions and classifications are good for our community?

I argue that neither question is truth-apt. Answers to them can’t be true or false, in the sense that empirical research can deliver true claims, and in the sense that “the capital of Uruguay is Montevideo” is true. There’s no right answer to be discovered. Instead, answers to them can be good, better and worse, in the sense that practical reason can deliver good outcomes and arrangements. Rather than discovered, they’ll have to be arrived at by the community, by means of good procedures. Which requires that the community figure out good in which ways, and good for what and for whom.

Both questions have philosophical aspects and philosophical genealogies, but I don’t tackle them from a philosophical perspective. I draw on philosophy to sharpen my tools and construct my arguments, but I don’t contribute to it. Instead, I contribute to the practice of empirical social science. I want to help social scientists with the words and distinctions their projects make use of—no matter what their data are, and how they’re collected and analyzed. So, my attitude is pragmatic.

I don’t think social science communities are clear about the preceding issues. Nor about the tools that might be apposite. Is providing a definition equivalent to providing a conceptualization? What sort of thing is the definiendum: a word, a concept, a thing, or something else? Does it matter? How do words, concepts, categories, notions, terms, and conceptions differ from one another? Does it matter? Cans of worms are all around us. One is how to decide these things and who gets to decide them. Another is usefulness. Where it can be invoked and what its relativity entails. There are plenty more.

A critic of social science notices that something is awry: “will social scientists’ never-ending disputes over words ever end?” The charge is that their discussions about the definition of “power,” “empathy,” or “capitalism” are futile. Always the same old song. There are lots of competing definitions, everyone is convinced that theirs is the best, the most insightful, the most useful. But nobody can convince the others. Why not? Because people are committed to two beliefs. Not only do you have a definition of ‘w’ (the best one, according to you), but also an understanding of how to compare the worth of definitions (the best one, according to you). Therefore, disputes never get anywhere. They never end.

The critic goes on: “social scientists are tasked with describing, explaining, and predicting social phenomena. Making policy suggestions and advising policy makers, and thereby making a difference in the world. They should talk about the social world, not merely about words.” This is a version of the age-old “logomachy” denunciation: you’re just quarreling about words.[2] Not substantive, real things. Just words, words, words.

There’s something to the charges leveled by this critic, but I don’t think they’re clear about the preceding issues either. We’ve got a lot to think through here, so that social science communities can be confident in and at peace with their word uses, distinctions, and classifications. So that words, distinctions, and classifications do the jobs they ought to. We must begin at the beginning.[3]

The history of the social sciences is rife with fantasies. Certainty! Perfect certainty. Complete objectivity and value freedom. Total independence from philosophy and metaphysics. Linear progress. Absolute precision. A perfect scientific language: pure, unambiguous, stable, final. An algorithmic methodological machine: enter your data where the user guide tells you to, and it’ll automatically produce results. Voilà!  No human interference or human judgment; just follow the predetermined instructions.

These fantasies are alive and well in the twenty-first century, minus the self-assured and triumphalist tone of earlier times. They did and continue to do harm to social science. Expectations won’t be lived up to and disappointment will ensue. But these expectations weren’t sensible: nobody should have had them to begin with. Enemies of science say it’s failed to deliver on its promises. On closer examination, the blame doesn’t lie with science and scientists. They’re doing OK. The blame lies with promises that nobody made or nobody should have made.

These fantasies are pernicious. However, it doesn’t follow—it obviously doesn’t follow—that social science is tantamount to subjective opinions, moral convictions, and political preferences. Nor does it follow that social science can make do without methodology and logic, without collectively reflecting on what constitutes better research and better knowledge claims. Nor that individuals’ judgments, individual social scientists’ discretionary judgments, can take care of the whole of it, thus making communal procedures and understandings superfluous.

Attending to the logic of social research doesn’t commit you to scientism. It doesn’t commit you to modeling social science after natural science, as idealized in undergraduate textbooks. You don’t have to end up with a rigid, uptight, anal view of science, what it ought to do and attain. Attending to the logic of social research doesn’t strike me as philosophically or methodologically controversial. My aims are probably acceptable to everyone, or almost everyone, who makes a living in the social science business. It’s good for researchers to understand how their words and distinctions work, and how their arguments and inferences work. Words may be used well, used badly, misused, perhaps overused: it’d be nice to have well-thought-out criteria to tell the difference between uses and misuses. Observations, measurements, and claims should be about what they’re intended to be about. Social scientists’ arguments should be sound.

Regarding social scientists’ words and distinctions, I think the status quo leaves much to be desired, so I ask what is to be done. My answer to this question is that I can’t satisfactorily answer it.  It’s not the sort of question an individual can answer by themselves. Which is where the community comes in. That means we. That means you. You guys.  

We have to work together and make decisions together. We have to figure out how to use word “w,” whether distinction d is acceptable, and on which grounds.

We’d better get moving.

This excerpt was adapted from the prologue to Words and Distinctions for the Common Good: Practical Reason in the Logic of Social Science by Gabriel Abend.

Gabriel Abend is professor of sociology at University of Lucerne and the author of The Moral Background: An Inquiry into the History of Business Ethics (Princeton).



[1]“About the Topic of Race,” United States Census Bureau, n.d., https://www.census.gov/topics

/population/race/about.html; “Race,” United States Census Bureau, n.d., https://www.census.gov


[2]Cf. Werenfels (1702) 1711, A Discourse of Logomachys, or Controversys about Words, So Common among Learned Men. J. Darby.

[3]Carroll 1911, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There, Macmillan, p. 124.