Philosophy of Social Science - Epistemology


In any discipline, there will always be a number of underlying philosophical predispositions in the projects of scientists. Some of these predispositions involve the nature of social knowledge itself, the nature of social reality, and the locus of human control in action. Intellectuals have disagreed about the extent to which the social sciences should mimic the methods used in the natural sciences. The founding positivists of the social sciences argued that social phenomena can and should be studied through conventional scientific methods. This position is closely allied with scientism, naturalism and physicalism; the doctrine that all phenomena are ultimately reducible to physical entities and physical laws. Opponents of naturalism, including advocates of the verstehen method, contended that there is a need for an interpretive approach to the study of human action, a technique radically different to natural science. The fundamental task for the philosophy of social science has thus been to question the extent to which positivism may be characterized as 'scientific' in relation to fundamental epistemological foundations. These debates also rage within contemporary social sciences with regard to subjectivity, objectivity, intersubjectivity and practicality in the conduct of theory and research. Philosophers of social science examine further epistemologies and methodologies, including realism, critical realism, instrumentalism, functionalism, structuralism, interpretivism, phenomenology, and post-structuralism.

Though essentially all major social scientists since the late 19th century have accepted that the discipline faces challenges that are different from those of the natural sciences, the ability to determine causal relationships invokes the same discussions held in science meta-theory. Positivism has sometimes met with caricature as a breed of naive empiricism, yet the word has a rich history of applications stretching from Comte to the work of the Vienna Circle and beyond. By the same token, if positivism is able to identify causality, then it is open to the same critical rationalist non-justificationism presented by Karl Popper, which may itself be disputed through Thomas Kuhn's conception of epistemic paradigm shift.

Early German hermeneuticians such as Wilhelm Dilthey pioneered the distinction between natural and social science ('Geisteswissenschaft'). This tradition greatly informed Max Weber and Georg Simmel's antipositivism, and continued with critical theory. Since the 1960s, a general weakening of deductivist accounts of science has grown side-by-side with critiques of "scientism", or 'science as ideology'. Jürgen Habermas argues, in his On the Logic of the Social Sciences (1967), that "the positivist thesis of unified science, which assimilates all the sciences to a natural-scientific model, fails because of the intimate relationship between the social sciences and history, and the fact that they are based on a situation-specific understanding of meaning that can be explicated only hermeneutically ... access to a symbolically prestructured reality cannot be gained by observation alone." Verstehende social theory has been the concern of phenomenological works, such as Alfred Schütz Phenomenology of the Social World (1932) and Hans-Georg Gadamer's Truth and Method (1960). Phenomenology would later prove influential in the subject-centred theory of the post-structuralists.

The mid-20th century linguistic turn led to a rise in highly philosophical sociology, as well as so-called "postmodern" perspectives on the social acquisition of knowledge. One notable critique of social science is found in Peter Winch's Wittgensteinian text The Idea of Social Science and its Relation to Philosophy (1958). Michel Foucault provides a potent critique in his archaeology of the human sciences, though Habermas and Richard Rorty have both argued that Foucault merely replaces one such system of thought with another.

One underlying problem for the social psychologist is whether studies can or should ultimately be understood in terms of the meaning and consciousness behind social action, as with folk psychology, or whether more objective, natural, materialist, and behavioral facts are to be given exclusive study. This problem is especially important for those within the social sciences who study qualitative mental phenomena, such as consciousness, associative meanings, and mental representations, because a rejection of the study of meanings would lead to the reclassification of such research as non-scientific. Influential traditions like psychodynamic theory and symbolic interactionism may be the first victims of such a paradigm shift. The philosophical issues lying in wait behind these different positions have led to commitments to certain kinds of methodology which have sometimes bordered on the partisan. Still, many researchers have indicated a lack of patience for overly dogmatic proponents of one method or another.

Social research remains extremely common and effective in practise with respect to political institutions and businesses. Michael Burawoy has marked the difference between public sociology, which is focused firmly on practical applications, and academic or professional sociology, which involves dialogue amongst other social scientists and philosophers. Bent Flyvbjerg has similarly distinguished between phronetic social science and epistemic social science, arguing that it is in the former role that social science may contribute most effectively to social and political development.

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