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From American pragmatic social sciences to social sciences with Chinese characteristics: an ontological and epistemological reflection

ZHAO Dingxin1,2

(1.Department of Sociology, Zhejiang University)
(2.Department of Sociology, University of Chicago)

【Abstract】This article starts with an analysis of the rise and development of pragmatic social science paradigm in the United States and the world, as well as its strengths and weaknesses. Based on the analysis, the article argues that the key to develop a new social science paradigm is to construct new ontologies, not new research questions, concepts or methods. The article then goes on to propose, with illustrated examples from my own works, four criteria of building a quality social science paradigm. (1) The paradigm’s basic ontological statements are mutually independent ideal-types of self-evident nominal social categories. (2) All other relevant ontological statements are either direct inferences or the combinations of the basic ontological statements (completeness). (3) The new social science paradigm has a high capacity to incorporate other social sciences paradigms as its sub-paradigms (inclusiveness). (4) Each of the ontological statements in the paradigm is directly linked to important social mechanisms. This article ends with a discussion of the four widely existed pitfalls in the understandings of time and temporality in Western social sciences, and how the Daoist understanding of time and temporality can help us to develop a social sciences paradigm with distinctive Chinese characteristics.

【Keywords】 pragmatism; innovation of ontology; social science paradigm; Chinese characteristics; Daoist understanding of time and temporality;


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    [1]. ① In this context, mechanism refers to a set of causal relationships that can be observed or inferred such as the relationship between supply and demand and price that forms the price mechanism. [^Back]

    [2]. ② Sociology of pragmatism in the United States and British realism of sociology are quite different. Realism sociology not only pays attention to the social mechanism, but also pays attention to a particular social mechanism under the condition of different macroscopic structures of the importance of change. Realists focus on macro-micro linkages, while the pragmatist focus only on micro ones. It should be pointed out that, American scholars who pay attention to the combination of macro and micro are often functionalists or neo-functionalists, (such as Alexander et al., 1987). [^Back]

    [3]. ① This is similar to the “field” of Bourdieu and to the concept of “governmentality” of Foucault. [^Back]

    [4]. ① For example, religion refers to a kind of ideology which pursues the transcendental meaning of life. However, specific religious thoughts are various and have complicated relations with secular ideas. Historically, some religious groups did business, others controlled large armies and even controlled large areas of territory. Specific religion is never an ideology that only pursues transcendence, and specific religious organizations are never pure ideological organizations. [^Back]

    [5]. ② For example, working class refers to a group of workers who do not possess the means of production. However, there is a huge gap between the economic status and interests within such a group, and class identity is often only one of the multiple identities of a specific worker. Therefore, using this concept alone to understand, analyze and predict the political behavior of workers is bound to lead to great misunderstanding. [^Back]

    [6]. ① “Benign,” “neutral” and “malignant” form a size order, and therefore they are not nominal variables without size order. [^Back]

    [7]. ① Banach space, for example, in the analysis of function is a very important space. If the Euclidean space is subspace of linear space, a large number of mathematical spaces including linear space are all subspaces of Banach space. Banach (Stefan Banach, 1892–1945) a polish, was one of the most important mathematicians of the 20th century, the founder of modern functional analysis. [^Back]

    [8]. ① See Van Den Berg’s (Van Den Berg, 1998) similar criticism of Bourdieu, Giddens, Habermas and Alexander’s theory. Zheng Hangsheng’s theory of social operation can also be regarded as a social theory, because he did not build a bridge between ontology and social mechanism. [^Back]

    [9]. ② Interstitial development, that is, historical change is often the unexpected result of the development of social actors and social forces existing in the interstitium of the old power structure. [^Back]

    [10]. ① Western scholars generally think that this problem is easy to solve. Their logic is: if someone uses Theory (A) to explain his Question a, others can ask Question b, pointing out that my Theory (B) can explain both a and b. Thus, as the number of questions raised increases, the interpretation of the new theory will continue to increase. This way of thinking will encounter two problems. First, in most cases it is difficult to find multiple comparable questions in several natural cases (see Zhao, 2015: 25–26 for reasons and examples). Second, and more importantly, if the starting point of a certain question is wrong, we cannot go down this path and find a better theory by asking and answering more questions. [^Back]

    [11]. ① The core of Lamarckism (or Lamarckian inheritance) is to use and retreat, to obtain trait inheritance. This principle is used to explain the great mistakes of biological evolution, but it is a good principle to understand the cultural and institutional development of human society. To survive, organisms must achieve self-stability in a changing environment, so almost all biological mechanisms are negative feedback mechanisms. However, what people pursue in the society is not only stability, but also power and various success, and the model of success will be copied and strengthened as “acquisition traits.” This means that the human culture and social development have positive feedback, that is, in line with the Lamarckism. [^Back]


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This Article


CN: 11-1100/C

Vol 33, No. 01, Pages 17-40+242-243

January 2018


Article Outline



  • 1 Introduction
  • 2 Formation and development of the practical social sciences
  • 3 Sociology paradigm and social science paradigm with Chinese characteristics
  • 4 Four Western social science methods with different understandings of time
  • 5 Daoist time as noumenon
  • 6 Conclusion
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