Monthly Archives: January 2016

Weekly log Jan 25-31

I was reading through several pieces on Talcott Parsons’s theory of action when I thought of this idea to start a series of weekly log to write down what I have read and how things are connected. Again sorry for those of my readers who are not so into sociological stuff. You might as well enjoy the pleasure of leering at a graduate student’s wasted intellectual life.

Jan 26 Tue

  • Wrote a review on Andrew Abbott’s Methods of Discovery. Think about (and tried to write a Chinese blog post on) my journey in reading sociological methodologies. From superficial stuff like qualitative/quantitative issues, to Zhao Dingxin’s two by two table (structure/agency * formal/empirical) in 政治与社会运动讲义, to Michael Burawoy “extended case method” and finally to Abbott. The journey goes on.
  • Went to a lecture by Taiwanese scholar 徐斯俭 on Sunflower Movement, NGO and the public. He presented two papers on NGO’s attitude and the public’s attitude in mobilization process respectively. Interesting facts: distrust in Ma Ying-jeou’s (I was about to say Ma Yinjiu before Bi Ran corrected me) government is the most important reason for people to support the movement.
  • Read pieces on Talcott Parson’s theory of action, including Dr. Wang Liping’s assigned reading for Modern Social Theory course and Hans Joas’s Social Theory book. They are interconnected. Should write a summary after tomorrow’s lecture.

Jan 27 Wed

  • Today’s main intellectual reflections are on Parson’s ideas about 1) the model of social action and  2) critique on utilitarianism. Haven’t finished reading and summarise this part of knowledge.

Jan 28 Thu

  • Found some literature on narrative methods but haven’t read them thoroughly. The task again is left for weekend, as the task of a 4000 word literature review on this. The debate happened somewhat 20 years ago when sociologists (methodologists) were trying to upgrade narrative method. After reading Abbott’s method book the map of methodological debates seemed to be much clearer.
  • Read a chapter of Exemplary Society. I don’t think this book has a neat theoretical agenda in mind. Some of the possible main themes –
    • Exemplars in Chinese tradition is both educational and disciplinary. It is a form of social control.
    • The Foucauldian approach to social control is insufficient as it ignore the resistance strategies.
    • The Chinese project of modernization is an attempt of controlled social change.
    • Chinese and the West have different meanings of “norm”. The Chinese ‘norm’ is an exemplary one, in which everyone can achieve the exemplary form through education (and discipline?). Values are given as a priori. But the Western ‘norm’ is about average men, values are defined through comparison.

Jan 29 Fri

  • Talked to Dr. Denise Tang about coming out to parents and loneness in academic. She gave me the following tips –
    • “Coming out” is a process that will never end. You will come out again and again whenever you meet new people in the future. For parents, the journey is longer so be prepared.
    • Seek support friends and don’t give up.
    • There will surely be unfriendly people in your life. Just remember it’s not your fault and don’t take this personally.


Book Review: Methods of Discovery by Andrew Abbott

If I am to recommend one book on sociological methodology, Methods of Discovery is definitely the book to go to. With his smooth proses and sharp mind, Prof. Andrew Abbott teaches apprentices in the sociological profession valuable lessons about how to generate ideas for their research. In his words, this is a book about “heuristics for the social sciences”.

The book is devoted to three parts: an overview of basic epistemological debates in sociology, a collection of heuristics tricks for discovery, and more general remarks on ideas and puzzles in research projects. In the first part, the author discusses three types of explanatory programs in sociology: pragmatic, semantic and syntactic ones. They emphasize on the interactions between explanatory system and real world, translation from one explanatory system to a more familiar one, and the syntactic coherence of the explanation system itself, respectively. He then proceed to outline nine basic pairs of themes in methodological debates in sociology, and situates familiar methods such as ethnography, historical narratives and small-N analysis in this scaffolding. Abbott offers a structured way of thinking through and compare different methods from their more fundamental, epistemological divergences.

The majority of this book (or the second two hundred pages, in Abbott’s page-counting style) is devoted to his heuristics tricks. He roughly divides the tricks into three groups: additive heuristics that can add to existing arguments but usually lead to more ordinary discoveries; narrative and descriptive heuristics that develop new arguments with regard to time and space; and fractal heuristics that twist the arguments themselves, often along the nine pairs of methodological debates. The use of fractal heuristics sheds light on the point that, methodological issues in fact have profound epistemological origins. In a sense, “all methodological are fundamentally theoretical.” Thus said my supervisor, a student of Abbott at Chicago.

The final part of this book deals with more general topics as puzzles, ideas, taste and personality. There are the factors that ultimately determines “good” research, but are hard to specify as the hardness of research itself. “Puzzles” translates to discrepancies in literature and empirical world. Ideas are just that, ideas. Taste and personality are more about styles of finding ideas.

Abbott does not offer any step by step instructions on how to build taste and personality that are prone to good research. It seems this can only be researched by broad reading, as Abbott himself does. Indeed, the book is filled with numerous examples drawn from multiple disciplines of social science, not limited to sociology. I wonder how Abbott has managed to find time to read all these books.

I would like to conclude this review with a comparison of this book with two other pieces I have read on methodology: Shehui Yu Zhengzhi Yundong Jiangyi (Lectures in Social and Political Movements) by Prof. Zhao Dingxin at Chicago, and Tricks of the Trade by Howard Becker. There are other pieces on specific methodological issues, say, Michael Burawoy on “extended case method”, but these threes’ interest are somewhat broader and more fundamental. Zhao spends one chapter of his book compare different methodological foundations on social science and natural science, offers a two by two classification system dimensioned by structure/individuals and formal/empirical. Parsimonious as this might be, this model is more like an insufficient subset of Abbott’s comprehensive scaffolding. For Becker, however, even such a clear model like Zhao’s is missing. Tricks of the Trade is a book in which important ideas scatter here and there in a suspiciously casual manner. I wonder why this book has been so popular among American sociological departments, as I regret not having read Abbott’s book back in my undergraduate years.

Abbott, Andrew. (2004) Methods of Discovery. New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company.


To fall in love is like an adventure. You never know what lies ahead. But in the end, the only thing that matters is not whether you win or lose. It’s whether they are worth the effort.