Getting real: heuristics in sociological knowledge

Dylan Riley, Patricia Ahmed, et Rebecca Jean Emigh (2020)

Theory & Society. Online first

Abstract. This article examines the connections among heuristics, the epistemological and ontological presuppositions that underlie theorizing, and substantive explanations in sociology. It develops and contrasts three heuristics: “doing as knowing” (DK), “categorizing as knowing” (CK), and “praxis as knowing” (PK). These are each composed of four dimensions: the theory of knowledge, the theory of reality, the theory of the growth of knowledge, and the theory of knowledge producers. The article then shows the importance of heuristics for empirical work by demonstrating how they shape explanations in the sociological subfield of the historical sociology of knowledge. The essay draws two main conclusions: it argues that PK offers a more useful basis for developing explanations in sociology than either of the two alternatives (DK and CK) that currently shape substantive work; furthermore, it claims that the exposition of heuristic assumptions is an important task for sociology.

Extract. “This article identifies and critiques two heuristics—we summarize them here in their most coherent forms to facilitate a comparison—that dominate contemporary sociology: a framework that equates the knowledge of things with the ability to manipulate them and a framework that equates the knowledge of things with the ability to categorize them. We call the first framework “doing as knowing” (DK) and the second one “categorizing as knowing” (CK). Both frameworks, for different reasons, accord an unrealistic power to expert knowers (whether they are located in states or in non-state institutions). We then develop an alternative to these two heuristics called “praxis as knowing” (PK), which recognizes that interacting knowledgeable agents constitute the main objects of knowledge in sociology. […] At the end of our article, we assess the utility of each of these heuristics for substantive theorizing in the burgeoning field of the historical sociology of official knowledge (Desrosières 1998, p. 1; 2008, p. 40; Loveman 2014, pp. 6–8; Mora 2014, p. 184; Nobles 2000, pp. 1–3; Porter 1995, pp. 5–6; Starr 1987, pp. 7–8; for a recent overview, see Diaz-Bone and Didier 2016, pp. 7–10).” (pp. 1/3)

Link to the article