James Q. Wilson on the difficulties of studying culture

In a long opinion piece looking at possible explanations for the reduction in crime in America, James Q. Wilson concludes by suggesting that cultural explanations are difficult to test and develop:

At the deepest level, many of these shifts, taken together, suggest that crime in the United States is falling—even through the greatest economic downturn since the Great Depression—because of a big improvement in the culture. The cultural argument may strike some as vague, but writers have relied on it in the past to explain both the Great Depression’s fall in crime and the explosion of crime during the sixties. In the first period, on this view, people took self-control seriously; in the second, self-expression—at society’s cost—became more prevalent. It is a plausible case.

Culture creates a problem for social scientists like me, however. We do not know how to study it in a way that produces hard numbers and testable theories. Culture is the realm of novelists and biographers, not of data-driven social scientists. But we can take some comfort, perhaps, in reflecting that identifying the likely causes of the crime decline is even more important than precisely measuring it.

I find it a little strange that a social scientist wants to leave culture to the humanities (“novelists and biographers”). This sounds like a traditional social science perspective: culture is a slippery concept that is difficult to quantify and make generalizations about. I can imagine this viewpoint from quantitatively minded social scientists who would ask, “where it the data?”

But there is a lot of good research regarding culture that utilizes data. Some of this data is fuzzier qualitative data that involves ethnographies and long interviews and observations. But other data regarding culture comes from more traditional data sources such as large surveys. And if you put together a lot of these data-driven studies, qualitative and quantitative, I think you could put together some hypotheses and ideas regarding American culture and crime. Perhaps all of this data can’t fit into a regression or this isn’t the way that crime is traditionally studied but that doesn’t mean we have to simply abandon cultural explanations and studies.

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