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The Lively Science: Remodeling Human Social Research Paperback – May 21, 2013
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The Lively Science is a very approachable book for those actually looking to make application of human social research to real problems and those, like me, who have little to no training in it. Yet, it does an admirable job of exposing the strengths and weaknesses of the two identified aspects: behavioral social science and human social research.
Dr.Agar confronts a different problem; the likes of which is being faced in multiple areas. Behavioral social science (BSS) is being applied to human social research issues. Guess what! BSS doesn't help, but it garners lots of hope ($) in successful outcomes. It is assumed that BSS will work. Evidence is ignored that that assumption is false. Insisting that assumptions are fact when there is evidence to the contrary is or has been a common mode failure in almost every organization. The book serves as a great example of one way to intervene. Those insisting that assumptions are fact when they are not must ignore the excellent case made by Dr. Agar.
Agar is having an identity crisis with his field, human social research (HSR). He says it took the wrong fork in the road 150 years ago, and has been twisted and tormented by "pure" science ever since. In sciences like maths or physics, chemistry or biology, it's all about hypotheses, numbers and replication. But when dealing with human activity, you need to take the subjects into consideration. Specifically, humans' intentionality and lived experience make HSR a different beast, with different approaches needed, and different expectations for outcomes. So while a subject might answer a structured question one way, his lived experience might provide different data, and an unexpected outcome. Agar says, "The lived experience, researcher and subject intentionality are as important to HSR as mass and motion are to physics." But the purists will have none of it.
Worse, pure science's approach is naive; its claim to be unbiased is not so much laughable as impossible, Agar says. HSR is about how you acquire the measure of the study, not about putting a rigid hypothesis to the test. He says the study itself will point to new directions and conclusions. HSR is the jazz improv of science.
Agar describes the book as a newcomer's first look at HSR. But that's not what comes across. Obviously, it contains a detailed description of the field and its history. But it is also a plea for openmindedness and flexibility, sorely lacking in science, as it takes on the mantle of religion in its structured regimentation and intolerance of outliers with nonsense talk of the earth rotating around the sun.
Where the book disappoints is that Agar has not broken out of the pack himself. Even as he approaches retirement, even though he does not fear criticism, and even though he clearly sees lost potential, he too seems held back by tradition. He is all over references to 19th century thinkers. They validate his desire to reach out and beyond. But I expected a breakout revelation of a whole new approach for this lively science. Instead, Agar is happy to have got the complaint down on paper, and leaves it to future volumes or other researchers to break away from the structures and strictures of the past.
He does have solid, recognized ideas of his own, including rich points - discoveries made in the course of a study that can change the researcher's approach, and languaculture, the acknowledgment that 1) language shapes our understanding and 2) translation is never totally accurate, which combined lead to false conclusions. But there is no radical new approach, no startling results from a dramatic new method, and no call to arms to define one.
And no word on the fate of the Subaru.