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The social in social science
The social in social science

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2.2 The challenge of methods

The methodological challenges facing the social sciences are best outlined in the form of a series of questions about how we should engage in research and what kind of research attitude is appropriate.

  • Should social scientists look to the assumptions and methods developed in the natural sciences or develop their own assumptions and methods?

  • Do the objects which we study in the social sciences, such as the self, society, the economy, ideology or democracy, really exist or are they convenient fictions we have grown to trust?

  • Can social life be reduced to simplified relations where it is possible to say that x may be related to or cause y, or is everyday social life more complex than this?

  • Is it possible for social scientists to bridge the gap between attempts to build general explanations, that hold good across a range of similar situations, and attempts to understand the complexity of one concrete situation?

In this course we begin to define these questions and problems, and recognise their importance rather than formulate any definite answers. All of these questions are closely related to one another and stem from an underlying problem with the scientific study of social relations. In the natural sciences it is assumed that the objects of analysis (for example, atoms, DNA, forests, mountains, planets) are clearly separate from the researcher. For the time being, we will not challenge this assumption but instead concentrate upon its implications for studying people. The treatment of objects of analysis as separate from the researcher is more problematic in the social sciences. For example, when we study the family, education or culture, we are part of these things, for we live, think and communicate within them. Social science has to wrestle with the problem of human beings creating explanations about themselves and their society when they are part and parcel of that society. Even when social scientists think about and describe their theories and findings they use words, analogies and metaphors whose meanings are tied to the society of which they are a part. Social scientists are part of their own object of analysis.

These issues provide problems for a social scientist who wishes to be separate from the object of study, in the manner of natural scientists. Social scientists who attempt to do this can be said to be detached but they can never be fully separated from the object. Clearly, when we study a rock or a tree we are not actually part of these things although we can act upon them. This conundrum is often referred to as the subject–object problem. Conventionally, the researcher is seen as the subject and the thing being researched is taken to be the object, but in social science we are both the subject and object of our own knowledge. When we study social life we are also studying ourselves. So, we have to find a way of assessing evidence from everyday experience. Either we can dismiss everyday experience as irrelevant in the pursuit of hard facts and objective scientific laws, or we can self-consciously embrace it and use it fruitfully in order to gain insights into aspects of social existence which would otherwise remain unnoticed. When we study social institutions and cultural forms, in quite a fundamental way we are studying ourselves, and social scientific practice should acknowledge this.

Subject–object problem This is a problem because it indicates the different ways in which social scientists have studied people. The subject object problem focuses our attention on the relationship between the researcher and the things studied. It also highlights the way in which there are crucial differences between social science and natural science.

Scientific laws The development of scientific laws is seen as the ultimate goal of scientific practice – however, as with everything else there is considerable disagreement about what constitutes a scientific law.

These problems become even more acute when we study an institution with which we are all intimately familiar. Imagine you wished to study the family as your object, you would be faced with a range of research choices, of which we shall consider two:

  • How do you define the family?

  • What exactly is it about the family that you wish to study?

The problems in defining clearly what a family is, and what is the most appropriate form of research method to study an aspect of the family, provide a useful illustration of the subject–object problem. Studies of family life in the mid-twentieth century tended to assume that the nuclear family (with two parents of the opposite sex and their offspring) should form the basic course of analysis. Many of the social researchers involved in this field drew upon their own experiences of family life to define their object of analysis. In so doing, forms of family life which did not conform to this criterion were defined as abnormal or deviant and placed within the broader category of social problems. This form of distinction was very much in line with the moral and cultural discourses in the West during this period. Contemporary researchers accept a greater plurality of family forms (single parent, gay and lesbian families and so on) and generally avoid the particular formation of concepts of the 1950s and 1960s. All social researchers have experienced some form of socialisation, so that when they identify their objects of analysis as ‘conjugal roles’ or ‘sibling rivalry’ these concepts have a personal and subjective dimension. Even the language used has an inescapable symbolic content.

Social researchers, then, view the family in various ways. For some, it is the basis of a strong and stable social order, as in some branches of sociology which focus upon the functions of the family. For others, it is the mechanism for reproducing power relationships in society more generally, as well as distorting personality development. This was illustrated by feminist analyses such as Kate Millet's Sexual Politics (1970) and by radical psychiatrists such as R.D. Laing. In The Divided Self (1960), Laing identified conflictual family relationships as the cause of schizophrenia. In the cases he examined, he discovered that children who ‘interiorised’ the conflict between parents were more likely to experience mental illness in their subsequent lives. Furthermore, it is worthwhile considering for a moment how Laing came to fix upon this relationship. In childhood, he experienced such relationships within his own family environment. These may have had an impact on his choice of research topic as well as on his subsequent line of argument. Such personal experiences could have provided a unique perspective on such relations, but they could also have narrowed his consideration of alternative explanations of schizophrenia. This example serves to highlight the way in which social science cannot and should not be separated from subjective experiences. By recognising the relationship between the construction of scientific concepts and social relations we can develop a better understanding of human existence. Personal experiences and participation in social institutions all affect the practice of social research.

You may wish to study issues around which there is considerable public controversy. Moreover, you face a choice of research techniques. These choices can have a considerable effect upon the outcome of your research. For instance, if you ask for responses to standardised questions from a large number of families you may be able to compare the results between one group and another. However, if you spend a greater amount of time with a smaller number of families you may produce richer and more revealing insights into family lives. But you may also encounter problems in trying to generalise to other situations. These choices reveal how difficult it is, in practice, to separate the context of discovery, where we decide what it is we want to study and how it should be studied, from the context of justification, where we attempt to interpret the evidence we have collected and explain the social processes involved.

Context of discovery This is concerned with the situation where the roblems which deserve attention and investigation are identified and defined – the grounds for identifying such things are the product of a wide range of factors, such as the emergence of anomalies which don't fit existing knowledge, the recognition of holes in the research literature, and the values of the communities and institutions engaging in research.

Context of justification This is concerned with the actual conduct of research, of collecting evidence, testing ideas and hypotheses, and of interpreting, applying and evaluating the evidence. In practice, since research is a lived activity, it is often difficult to distinguish between the context of discovery from the context of justification.