Call for Papers – #24 : “The Real and the Possible in Social Science”

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The rise of social constructionism has opened a new area of research about possibilities in social science. This may have been a secondary consequence, but it has generally been left unquestioned. The insistence on the radical contingency of social phenomena – which goes hand in hand with the idea of their constructibility – leads to consider the possible integration, as objects of knowledge, of various phenomena that were, if not artificially eliminated by linear causal models, at least neglected by classical social science : randomness, serendipity, uncertainty, etc. As opposed to two of the main classical explanatory paradigms in social science – rational choice theory and mechanistic models – social constructionism highlights two aspects of the possible that, we argue, have to be taken seriously. First, possibility is irreducible to mere subjective ignorance. Second, possibility is closely connected to social change. Possibilities are not simply zones of indetermination in a system. They are objective tendencies that play a role in the evolution of the system.

However, the unqualified application of constructionist principles can be risky: the possibilities that constructionists mention tend to be under-determined, if determined at all. When constructionism goes beyond the mere assertion that things could have been different, the possibilities invoked are generally left unspecified. One would like to know more about them: could we not consider for example various degrees in the possibility of an alternative or investigate the effective conditions required for individuals and groups to construct possibilities?

We therefore suggest that we should in a sense follow the social constructionists in taking seriously the idea that possibilities are a legitimate subject of inquiry for social science, but that we should also, contrary to social constructionists, engage in the effort of precisely specifying and qualifying those possibilities of interest. We propose to focus on “realistic” or “determinate” possibilities – as opposed, for instance, to the possibilities revealed by uncontrolled exercises of the imagination.

The consideration of “realistic” or “determinate” possibilities also has an important practical aspect. For sure, without the conviction that “another world is possible”, there is no project of social transformation – whatever that transformation may consist in. However, the mere allusion to an unspecified alternative is not enough. We need to know more. Social science certainly has a role to play there. So the consideration of “realistic” or “determinate possibilities” in social science also has an important practical, critical and perhaps political potential.

This upcoming issue of Tracés invites all interested researchers to submit contributions dealing with possibilities in this “realistic” or “determinate” spirit. Being an interdisciplinary journal, we welcome papers from the whole spectrum of the social sciences, taken broadly to include sociology, economics, history, political science, anthropology, psychology and philosophy. We welcome epistemological reflections as well as empirical case studies, or analysis of classical works of social science.

Papers can be submitted in English or in French. Accepted papers in English will be translated in French.

Specific approaches

We suggest three possible approaches to the topic of “realistic” or “determinate” possibilities.

1. Conceptual and Theoretical Transfers

Various forms of conceptual or theoretical connections can be observed between fields that have come more or less independently to deal with possibilities. We would like to explore those connections further.

For example, progress in the field of modal logic, ie the logic of possibility and necessity, at the end of the 1950’s, has led some philosophers to take very seriously the idea that the actual world is but one of many different possible worlds. As the first chapter of (Lewis, 1986) shows, the concept of a possible world, so understood, has important philosophical applications for a number of topics. Philosophers have offered a theory of counterfactual conditionals based on the idea that propositions can be true in different possible worlds and that possible worlds can be more or less “close” to one another (Stalnaker 1968, Lewis, 1973). This clarification of the logic of counterfactuals enabled philosophers like Lewis to defend counterfactual theories of causal dependence (Collins, Hall, Paul, 2004). It appears to us that such results from philosophical logic can be extremely useful in order to clarify the way social science deals with possibilities. A book like (Elster, 1978) shows that bridges already exist between modal logic and social theory. We would like to encourage contributors to explore further this kind of connections.

(1.1.) How can possible-world theories of counterfactual conditionals clarify (or perhaps even criticize) the way historians (Ferguson, 1997) or international relations analysts (Tetlock 2010) consider counterfactual alternatives and reason with them? In order to assess the impact of public policies, economists and political scientists are often led to consider what would have happened if such policies had not been implemented. How does this practice of counterfactual reasoning relate to logical theory?

(1.2) Counterfactual theories of causation also raise interesting questions when they are compared to the practice of causal inference in social science. Can counterfactual reasoning help extract causal information? Reiss (2009) suggests that the forms of counterfactual reasoning traditionally used in history fail to establish singular causal relations between events, contrary to Weberian ideas on the subject (Weber, XXXX). Cartwright (2007) identified what she calls “impostor counterfactuals” in economics, that is to say counterfactuals that (falsely) claim to provide causal information. We hope that contributions will shed some further light on the relations, if there are any, between causal and counterfactual reasoning.

(1.3) Psychology is another field where reasoning about possibilities has been investigated. Cognitive and social psychology have provided results concerning the ability of agents to form mental representations of alternative situations and to draw inferences from them. It appears, for example, that when we conceive alternative situations, we systematically alter some properties rather than some others (Byrne, 2005). Those findings invite a more general inquiry into the conditions, both cognitive and social, of the construction and manipulation of possibilities in the minds of agents. A further question concerns the relationship between ordinary counterfactual thinking and scientific counterfactual thinking (Tetlock, 1999). What do they have in common? What distinguishes them?

We believe thus that it is fruitful to consider the way ideas from various fields (philosophical logic, psychology, history and economics) can interact to enrich our concepts of possibilities and our methods to investigate them.

2. Manufacturing possibilities

A second line of inquiry concerns more specifically the concrete methods that social science can use to deal with possibilities. How can social scientists construct the possibilities inherent to a given situation?

(2.1.) A first question concerns the access to the possible. One of the most established methods is probably descriptive statistics. In sociology, it is possible to draw a picture of the distribution of objective possibilities for an individual to have various behaviors or various trajectories, given various attributes of his. Statistics enable sociologists to establish various degrees of probability within an agent’s space of possibilities or that of a historical event. Epistemological, historical or methodological contributions on the relationship between statistics and the study of possibilities are welcome. One of the background issues here is the connections between the concept of probability and that of possibility.

Statistics, however, are not the only way to access possibilities for social scientists. One might consider the role of archives for historians and the way they can bear witness to forgotten or erased possibilities. What possibilities, under what conditions, can we extract from such data? The comparative method is sometimes considered as a way to handle “real counterfactuals” (Passeron, 1991). So, similar questions can be raised about comparison as an access to ready-made possibilities.

Still another way to access possibilities is to consider the anticipations of the agents. Here possibilities are in the minds of agents. How can we reconstruct what was thought to be possible for various agents in various situations, especially when one, as a historian, considers bygone periods? What empirical techniques can we use to determine these anticipations? The notion of horizon of expectation (Koselleck), for instance, is useful here, but we need to know how to handle it precisely.

(2.2.) In order to include possibilities in the accounts of social science, we need a way to articulate those possibilities with the descriptions of the actual world.

On the conceptual side, we can think of various notions that have been used to add a determinate element of possibility to the realities described: space of possibles (Bourdieu), room of maneuver (Crozier, Friedberg), habitus (Bourdieu, Elias), repertoire of collective action (Tilly), turning points, etc. The complete list of various concepts of the possible in social science still needs to be made.

Very often, the construction of those concepts is motivated by empirical problems, for example the problem encountered by William Sewell (1996) when he wanted to analyze what happened in July 1789 in Paris within the framework of a “sociology of the event”. Similar problems relative to the analysis of political crises and breaking points of political systems led the French political scientist Michel Dobry to elaborate a typology (1986). Researchers specialized in this area (historians, historical and political sociologists) are invited to offer analyses of previous attempts to solve those problems and share their own innovations.

On the theoretical side, we welcome contributions which examine the concepts of possibilities which emerge in debates concerning related issues. Behind classical disputes (structure vs history, structure vs agency) we usually find a double criticism of objectivism and determinism in social science, which opens up a new space for a notion of possibility. One could imagine contributions dealing with the elaboration of a notion of possibility that remains implicit or under-specified in a theory and offering to construct this notion in a more explicit and robust way.

(2.3.) Of course, the articulation between possibilities and the real world is not just a matter of concepts and theories. It can and should include efforts towards building models. We would be extremely happy to publish survey papers about the main modeling tools that are available, for example critical mass models (Schelling, 1978) or threshold models (Granovetter, 1978). Contributions dealing with the use of simulation models in social science and the treatment of the possibilities that ensue from it are also welcome.

For many social scientists, however, there is a gap between description (and maybe explanation) on the one side, and forecasting on the other, even though some fields like economics are less hesitant about making forecasts. Insofar as prediction and simulation techniques are part of the toolbox of social science and insofar as they partake in the definition and characterization of possibilities, they form the subject-matter of potential contributions. Moreover, any paper trying to specify or criticize realistic methods or conceptions of possibilities drawn from “future studies” is welcome.

3. Possibilities: what for?

The last line of inquiry that we would like to suggest goes beyond the merely scholarly treatment of the possible. The idea is to question the possible practical interests that the social scientific study of possibilities could serve. The path we would like to open up aims at avoiding on the one hand the fantasy of a scientific mastery of the future, via rational techniques of prediction, and on the other hand idealistic appeals to possibilities, whether they are under-determined, as in the political slogan “Another world is possible” for instance or over-determined, as in social utopias. We do not mean to imply that rational forecasting and political imagination are irrelevant. Our point is rather that we need to bring together the possibilities as revealed by theory and practical possibilities as closely as possible. This presupposes, of course, that the social sciences can play a role in the process of social emancipation and that research on the possible can provide strategic weapons to that effect – alongside others, like the deconstruction of preconceptions or the unveiling of hidden mechanisms.

This use of the notion of possibility can be both appealing and problematic: appealing because it brings together knowledge, social criticism and a practice of social transformation; problematic also in the sense that if is too hasty, such a connection can be harmful both to the project of emancipation and to the rigor of social science.

It seems to us that two intellectual traditions have come to grips with this articulation between knowledge, critique and transformation, with an eye on the notion of possibility.

(3.1) The first one is the first generation of the Frankfurt School. We have in mind the theoretical texts of the 1930’s (Horkheimer, 1931, 1937), the empirical studies of the same period (Adorno et al., 1950) and also some post-1945 sociological writings (Adorno, 1972). The Frankfurtian project stems from the idea that man exerts collective power not only on nature, but also on the “second nature” that society represents. The project is to make the exercise of this power fully conscious and rational. Throughout its history, the Frankfurt School has struggled with the difficulties implied by this formulation of their project. For example, it already appeared to the thinkers of the first generation that the conception of freedom as mastery could imply the possible mutilation of the subjects exerting this mastery (Horkheimer and Adorno, 1947). Does it not also point toward the atrophy of their “theoretical imagination” and the closure of the possible on the actual? Studies analyzing the tools, concepts and objects with which this first generation of Frankfurt thinkers tried to grasp the possibilities that their project sought to fulfill are more than welcome.

(3.2.) The attempt to conceive simultaneously social reality and emancipation, empirical science and human practice is also shared by Pierre Bourdieu and his followers. The notion of possibility is present in this tradition under various forms, for example in this idea of a mis-adjustment between structures (mental and social, for example). However, Bourdieu’s critical sociology has often been criticized for having given way too easily to social determinism or even fatalism, and thus for having darkened the prospects of emancipation. Whether this criticism is fair is an interesting question. It seems to us that debates surrounding the proper interpretation of Bourdieu’s program of critical sociology are a good starting point for the discussion of the role that the concept of possibility has both for critical social theory and for social practice.

The examples of the Frankfurt School and Bourdieu are only meant to be suggestive. Any other attempt to bring together knowledge and action around the concept of possible in any other intellectual tradition is worthy of attention.


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  • Cartwright Nancy, 2007, « Counterfactuals in Economics : a commentary », Hunting Causes and using them. Approaches in Philosophy and Economics, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.
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Submission instructions

Contributors can submit long papers (30 000 signs) or shorter notes (20 000 signs).
Papers are expected to consist in first-hand original research. Notes can consist in book reviews or critical remarks on ongoing controversies.
Papers will be evaluated using a double-blind review process.

The deadline for contributions is July the 15th 2012

Contributions are to be sent electronically to the following address:
Contributors are invited to contact the editors of the issue as soon as they start working on their paper or note.

The editors

Laurent Jeanpierre : ljeanpierre (at) free [point] fr
Florian Nicodème : florian [point] nicodeme (at) gmail [point] com
Pierre Saint-Germier : pierre [point] saintgermier (at) free [point] fr

For a French version of this call for papers.

Citer ce billet
Guillaume Calafat (2012, 29 mars). Call for Papers – #24 : “The Real and the Possible in Social Science”. Tracés. Revue de sciences humaines. Consulté le 14 juin 2024, à l’adresse

Guillaume Calafat

Maître de conférences en histoire moderne (Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne/Institut d'histoire moderne et contemporaine). Membre junior de l'Institut Universitaire de France (2022).

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Guillaume Calafat

Maître de conférences en histoire moderne (Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne/Institut d'histoire moderne et contemporaine). Membre junior de l'Institut Universitaire de France (2022).

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