Making Social Science Matter: Why Social Inquiry Fails and How It Can Succeed Again

ISBN: 0521772680
ISBN 13: 9780521772686
By: Bent Flyvbjerg Steven Sampson

Check Price Now


Academia Academic Currently Reading Non Fiction Partially Read Political Science Science Social Theory Sociology To Read

About this book

Making Social Science Matter presents an exciting new approach to social science, including theoretical argument, methodological guidelines, and examples of practical application. Why has social science failed in attempts to emulate natural science and produce normal theory? Bent Flyvbjerg argues that the strength of social science is in its rich, reflexive analysis of values and power, essential to the social and economic development of any society. Richly informed, powerfully argued, and clearly written, this book provides essential reading for all those in the social and behavioral sciences.

Reader's Thoughts

Hans Gutbrod

generally an excellent Aristotelian argument for social science. I am not entirely convinced that all is quite as resolvable, but still, this is essential reading for any social scientist.


so so great at harnessing philosophy to talk about social science


This is a fantastic book that I wish I'd read when it came out in 2001. Offers a compelling case for eschewing the trend toward everything quantitative and the attempt to make social science a "hard" science. Instead Flyvbjerg, a Danish economic geographer, argues for a methodology he dubs "phronesis", based on Aristotelian principles and carried out via careful fieldwork, "thick" description, and a series of critical questions that take into account the essential role of power. His chapter on Foucault and Habermas is brilliant.

Larry Gallagher

I recently finished this book, and am still pondering my impressions. Overall, it is well-written, including perhaps the only approachable treatment of Continental Post-Modernists I've come across. I highly recommend it for anyone interested in philosophy of [social] science.The book begins with Aristotle's cleavage of "knowing" into three types: episteme, techne, and phronesis. The author argues that natural sciences focus on episteme and techne, following in the footsteps of Plato; phronesis has never received the same prominence in Western scientific tradition. From this beginning the author makes two assertions and essentially argues if A, then B. First assertion: social sciences can never achieve the epistemic depth and sophistication as the natural sciences. Second assertion/conclusion: the social sciences are well-positioned to examine phronetic knowing, and since the epistemic project is doomed to failure, social scientists should re-focus their efforts on phronesis.In my opinion, the weakest part of the book is the argument that social sciences can never achieve superb epistemic knowledge. The author sets up a bit of a straw man argument. Obviously individuals are not predictable in the same way that physical objects are. I have two counters to his argument. First, social sciences have done well with stochastic models, where the expected behavior of groups is relatively predictable, whereas behavior of individuals is not. The entire advertising and political propaganda industry is built on this knowledge. Second, there are plenty of natural sciences (such as meteorology) where phenomena cannot be predicted with long-term accuracy, but local models of temporally-bound behavior are useful. My argument back to the author is that epistemic social science can provide useful, context-bound knowledge; the definition of epistemic knowledge as "context free" is an unnecessary constraint.The argument for a phronetic social science logically stands on its own, and does not require negating the epistemic social science program for justification. Here is where the book shines - calling for a serious investigation into power and values in social phenomena, without getting mired in the mind-numbing rhetoric of post-modernism. I plan on re-reading some of these chapters to really digest the implications for my own work in education research.

Shyam Sundar

It may be a defining book of the social sciences, assuming that social scientists care to read it. His calls for a phronetic social science are timely, and cannot be dismissed. The Aristotelian turn in the social sciences is becoming more and more evident, from International Relations ("the practice turn") to Philosophy (Macintyre and Gadamer) to Sociology and Anthropology (Foucault, Bourdieu and Robert Putnam). I personally liked the sections where he elaborated on how the skill-acquisition model is absolutely fundamental to understanding human action. It would be quite interesting to further develop his model within the framework Macintyre proposes and using the hermeneutics of Gadamer.

Ryan Holiday

This is a shockingly honest and self-critical book about sociology. If you took a women's studies or humanities class in college, you could be excused for thinking that the entire field is dominated by intellectually dishonest hacks. If you'd read much on your own by the time you got to the classroom like I had, you probably also found it difficult to contain yourself throughout the lectures. Fyvbjerg hopes to change that. See, the social sciences have a strange relationship with the scientific method. They want the respect that comes with the findings but none of the rigor that goes along with adhering to its rules.Aristotle wrote of three types of knowledge: epistme (scientific), techne (technical know-how) and phronesis (understanding and ethics). Instead of trying to shoehorn the study of people into epistme, Fyvbjerg asks social scientists to embrace phronesis. He wants them to abandon the idea that you can distill an infinite amount of human variables into some predictive theory and focus on asking a few simple questions about the subjects they study. "Where are we going?" "Who benefits and who loses?" "Is this desirable?" I've written about phronesis before, and I described it as sort of a practical, intuitive understanding. MSSM is saying that we deserve social scientists who practice this kind of expert knowledge, rather than pseudo-scientists looking for confirmation of their political beliefs.I have one criticism of this book. It's written in exactly the kind of dense, academic style that he's supposedly trying to get us to give up. As a result, it often feels like it exists in some Ivy League vacuum, rather than the real, gritty world that social sciences live in. It's the wrong tone for a book of this kind of importance and its influence has suffered accordingly. If you can push through it, you realize that you can skip whole sections and pages without missing anything. This is bad for him but good for you. Definitely read this.


As a graduate student, this was a really useful book to read. Flyvbjerg offers a refreshingly practical way out of the post-modern navel gazing that paralyzed many in my generation. It even is a helpful salve against the recurring existential crisis that plagues me as an academic because it offers clear, practical tools for research practice. Unlike most Foucaultians, he favors practical application over endless, fruitless discourse.


If I could have given this 4.5 stars, I would have. It's an excellent book, but I'm mostly enamored of the theory laid down in chapters 1-4. You can see my summary of the book and some light critique in my next blog post:

Share your thoughts

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *