SOSC 13100

Week 1: Thinking about social science concepts and asking good empirical questions.


We will first build on our discussion on Tuesday by revisiting some the central questions from our discussion while reading Mlodinow’s “Peering through the Eyes of Uncertainty.” We will then examine some of the challenges that crop up when studying many social concepts, and we will examine some solutions for overcoming them. Finally, we examine some attributes of good empirical questions and, ultimately, root them in Friedman’s theory of positivist social science.

How do we study random social events?

On Tuesday, we discussed three fundamental questions: (1) Why study random social events? (2) What do we mean by “random” event? And (3) How can we go about studying random social events? 

Read Mlodinow’s chapter on “Peering through the Window of Uncertainty.” The reading builds on our discussion surrounding these three questions. Accordingly, as you read, keep these questions in mind. In particular:

We saw that one reason to study random social events was to avoid policy and decision-making based on poor intuition. How do findings derived from empirical study diverge from intuition in the different examples laid out by Mlodinow? Can you think of other examples of such divergence?

How can we go about studying a random social event? Here, consider Roger Maris’ “fluke” breaking of Babe Ruth’s record for most home runs in single season in 1961. How does Mlodinow go about “studying” this random event in the chapter? What sorts of questions is he able to tackle through his study?

Once you have completed the reading, watch the brief recap video on “How do we study random social events?”

NOTE: A clarification: At one point in the video, I lay out an example to illustrate the “flavor” of Bayesian statistics: namely, that probability can be viewed as subjective; probabilities are what we “feel” they are, and we constantly update our beliefs about probabilities based on observed data and our experience. The six-sided die (99,999 heads in a row) and Sally Clark examples begin to illustrate this idea. But note that the Sally Clark example is *not* inconsistent with the frequentist approach to probability, which views this illustration as a simple question of independence v. dependence of two events. 

Thinking about social science concepts

Social science investigates relationships between big concepts that are often hard to define and hotly contested. What is democracy, for instance? Is democracy competitive elections? Competitive elections plus basic freedoms? 

Watch the video below. The video briefly lays out some of the challenges of conceptualization in the social sciences. It then lays out two common approaches to these challenges. Keep both the challenges and approaches in mind as you complete your reading further below.

Each of the solutions presented in the video has drawbacks. The first solution, in particular, isn’t a solution at all! To do quantitative social science research, we need to be able to apply concepts across a large number of cases. What are some problems with the second solution?

You will now read Fearon and Laitin’s paper on “Ordinary Language.” The authors grapple with the tricky issues raised in the video as they relate to the concepts of ethnicity and ethnic violence. The authors then lay out a third solution: rooting concepts in an analysis of their meaning. As you read, here are some questions to think about:

  • What do the authors say about the quantoid and interpretivist responses to confusion surrounding social science concepts? What do you think of the authors’ arguments here?
  • What is the third solution/response proposed by the authors? How does it differ, in particular, from the quantoid response? Do you see any problems with the authors’ approach?

Asking good empirical questions 

In SSI, we will focus on empirical questions. In the last video, we examine what this means exactly, and we begin thinking about some of the attributes of good empirical questions. 

In perhaps the most famous piece on social science methodology of the 20th century, Chicago economist Milton Friedman tackled some of the points that I raised in the video above. In particular, Friedman—as you will soon read for yourself—drew a strong distinction between normative and positivist theory. 

As you read, let’s push beyond the video content just presented. In particular, think about Friedman’s “theory of theory”: According to him, what should good social science be doing, such that we should be asking the sorts of questions that I presented in the video above?


We’re taking our discussion online this week. Specifically, after watching the videos and completing the readings, you should go to the course Canvas page and then to the Discussion Board section. You should then write a short (~1–2 paragraphs) response to one of the questions that I have posted there. There are three questions (all containing “Week 1” in their title), but you only need to answer one. This is meant to be low-stakes in that I will be grading for completion. But, for the sake of practicing good written communication, your response should give a clear answer to the question, and you should support your answer with specific reasons. Your reasons can be drawn from the readings and/or lectures, and you should also feel free to draw inspiration from others’ posts.