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.

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