Doing ‘realistic’ research

By OUYANG JING / 02-22-2024 / Chinese Social Sciences Today

The Social Science of Practice: Method, Theory, and Prospective Vision

In view of the fact that mainstream social science research has the dual problem of subjective theory construction that is divorced from reality and the tendency of simplified experiential description without theoretical generalization, Philip Huang, a chair professor from the Law School at Renmin University of China and professor emeritus of UCLA History Department, advocates a “social science of practice” that connects theory and experience and integrates the subjective and the objective. The Social Science of Practice: Method, Theory, and Prospective Vision systematically elaborates upon this concept and its implications.

My first experience applying theory in the real world occurred during a field survey in preparation for my master’s thesis. The first “collision” between theory and practice informed me that the real world does not operate according to theories. This discrepancy, or what Huang calls the “paradox of experience” puzzled me. Most of the political theories we were taught aimed to depict how the world “should be,” yet in reality did not align with the suppositions of the theories. At the time, I believed that the problem was with reality, since it did not seem to operate according to the logic prescribed by theoretical systems. Consequently, we felt it necessary to strengthen institutional construction and allow reality to work as it “should.”

However, the increasing field experiences have inspired me that the real world is not without systems. On the contrary, there are numerous systems, but they do not precisely mirror theoretical frameworks. Despite the presence of multiple systems within the rural government, many of them remain only “on paper,” and are not enacted in reality. However, if the villages and counties do not adhere to the systems described in theoretical texts, what institutional logic does it operate according to? 

In order to solve the above puzzle, I decided to conduct fieldwork and participatory observation to understand what the villages and counties mainly do and how they operate. This one-year experience revealed that no theory could adequately generalize the real operational logic of China’s primary-level administration. It did not align with the modern “rationalism” logic of Max Weber nor with the traditional “minimalism” logic of Huang. As such, I “boldly” employed the concept of “strategism,” which is actually imitating the style in Huang’s The Peasant Economy and Social Change in North China

At the time, I had no consciousness of the methodology or path of learning from and imitating Huang. I just felt that his research style suited my taste and inspired me, so I took him as my academic paragon. Only later did I realize that the research path I had imitated was the “social science of practice” advocated by Huang, which “arises from practice and in turn serves practice.” 

Ouyang Jing is a professor from the School of Public Finance and Public Administration at Jiangxi University of Finance and Economics.