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The social in social science
The social in social science

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1 What does the philosophy of the social science offer?

Why study the philosophy of the social sciences? Before we can answer this question we need to ask briefly a whole series of preliminary questions, such as:

  • Why do we study social phenomena?

  • How do we study social phenomena?

  • How does theory help us to deal with complex evidence?

  • Which theory is the most appropriate?

  • Which concepts are most useful for the task?

  • How do we generate hypotheses?

  • What makes our evidence and arguments plausible?

In short, social research involves a great number of choices and we need to use some kind of criteria in order to judge which are the best ones to make. This is what the philosophy of the social sciences offers, a way of making sense of these complex and difficult choices. Now, before you think the philosophy of social science is ‘the best thing since sliced bread’, that it solves all the problems you will normally encounter as you prepare to engage in actual research, there is another issue that you must consider. The philosophy of the social sciences encompasses a whole series of competing standards and criteria that offer different ways in which the above choices can be understood and assessed. This diversity of rules and standards of scientific knowledge is a product of the variety of actual research in both the natural and the social sciences. The philosophy of the social sciences contains as much disagreement as any of the areas of social research with which it comes into contact. The philosophy of the social sciences provides a range of alternative ways of thinking through the questions involved in social research.

Much depends on what you want to achieve in your research. Do you want to establish objective knowledge? Do you want reliable or valid data? Do you wish to communicate your research to a wide audience or a specific scientific community? Your answers to such questions will have an impact upon which perspective within the philosophy of the social sciences most closely relates to your own research strategy. This course begins to explore these diverse choices. The general purpose of this course is to introduce you to the problems and issues involved in social research. The specific purpose of this course is not to provide any answers but to set out a range of questions and debates that are relevant to social researchers. As societies change and social problems are redefined, the social sciences have to respond to be effective.

Now, with these issues in mind, let's turn to the structure of this course. Following this introduction, there are three sections:

  • Section 2 deals with the challenges facing social scientists in their attempts to understand and explain what is going on around us. As social scientists, we are faced with the task of coming to terms with a complex dynamic world. This means that social researchers have to ensure that their theoretical tools and assumptions are appropriate to the tasks they face.

  • In Section 3, we look at social science as a ‘situated practice’, that is, embedded in the very social relations it attempts to explain and understand. This leads us to assess how situational factors influence research practice. At this stage, it is sensible to highlight two aspects of what it means to be situated: social situatedness (in terms of a particular culture with its own distinctive values and debates) and historical situatedness (in terms of the particular tradition of thought). Understanding social science as a situated practice is a theme that is emphasised throughout this book as we address the context in which the various approaches in the philosophy of the social sciences emerged. This is related to their arguments about the character of knowledge and the rules of scientific method.

  • Section 4 acknowledges the important connections between the changing social world, which we all have to cope with, and the development of concepts and theoretical frameworks in the social sciences. We explore how it is possible to bridge the gap between detached scientific knowledge and the human component of the relations and processes which social scientists attempt to represent. In particular, we draw upon the arguments of Alfred Schütz, whose approach also recommends that social science should attempt to find ways of communicating its ideas and evidence widely to all members of society.

Situated knowledge – each form of social knowledge is located within a historically specific culture. Scientific knowledge is no exception.

The relationship between social scientists' knowledge and everyday life raises questions about how detached social research should attempt to be.

The relationship between the researcher and those being studied thus becomes a dialogue, rather than the social scientist simply imposing an authoritative voice upon the object in question. In this way, social scientific practice not only opens up new options for how we study the social world but also provides an opportunity for drawing upon a wider range of human knowledge and experience. Figure 1 illustrates the three main themes of this course.

Figure 1 Working your way through the course.
Figure 1 Working your way through the course.

This course begins to explore what ‘science’ means, in relation both to contemporary social science and everyday life. Scientific knowledge is often described as objective knowledge, which means that it can be taken as a true account of something and that scientific explanations can be applied universally, that is, in all situations. In addition to being universal in scope, if knowledge is considered to be objective then it is also assumed to be detached from subjective experiences in any one situation. In this way, objective knowledge is detached from the specific object under investigation at any point in time. In such instances there is the possibility that these objects are treated as manifestations or examples of a more general scientific law or an underlying causal process.

Objective knowledge is universal in scope and detached from subjective experiences.

As you work through this course, think very carefully about what it means to be scientific when studying social relations and processes. In particular, think about whether it is possible and desirable to try to create objective knowledge. Consider also whether social science should involve an explicit attempt to make the concepts used in research connect to the lived experiences of the people being studied.