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The social in social science
The social in social science

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3.2 What does it mean for knowledge to be situated?

Scientific knowledge has been frequently portrayed as universally true. If this were the case then there would be no fundamental disagreements, for what counts as true would never change. However, what has been considered scientific in the past is now often seen as archaic or simply odd. The opposite approach would be to say that truth is relative – no one view is superior to any other. Both of these positions are simplistic. Contemporary defenders of science would argue that science is improving and that the misinterpretations and flaws of the past were simply ‘poor science’.

The approach adopted in this section is that we should take seriously the issue that science has changed over time and varies across cultures. This approach tries to establish why certain views of science are taken to be plausible at certain points in time in particular societies. For instance, you may have used alternative health therapies. One of these, Chinese medicine, includes sets of assumptions about the holistic relationship between mind and body. This is at odds with the mechanical approach of Western medicine, which clearly separates physiological disorders from mental states. This does not mean that what we consider to be scientific is a fad or fashion but that we need to consider what makes a particular conception of scientific method plausible and privileged. Western medical science is founded upon the assumption that the mind and body are separate things and that the body can be understood as a complex machine made up of tissues, cells, bones, fluid and so on. In such a view, illness is a mechanical malfunction which can be remedied with appropriate treatment. Unlike this mechanistic view of the body, Chinese medicine rests upon the assumption that mind and body are intimately connected. This means that treatment should not only involve a recognition of emotional and mental states but also work with the body to repair itself. The practitioners of both mechanistic and holistic medicine consider their knowledge systems to be scientific and each claim in the West and in China is plausible within its respective cultural location.

To situate science is to establish its location. By situating the traditions in scientific method we can begin to have a clearer insight into contemporary approaches. We can also make more informed judgements about which assumptions and methods are most appropriate for our own social research. In order to understand the ways in which knowledge is produced and communicated at any point in time and place, you should consider the ways in which scientific knowledge is situated. Science, as a social practice, is situated in two ways:

  • knowledge is situated socially through the cultural and institutional life of a given community;

  • knowledge is situated historically by examining the shared traditions of knowledge production.

In the search for the universal principles of scientific method, one feature of the history of science, the context within which knowledge is produced, is often neglected. This does not mean that we have no control over scientific knowledge, for, as a human product, the form and the content of social science are very much the product of the assumptions and methods of social scientists and will change accordingly.

This course focuses upon approaches towards the natural as well as the social sciences. This is a reflection of the extent to which social scientists have drawn upon the philosophy of natural science to justify their own work. You will also have your attention drawn to the way in which we establish criteria as to what constitutes scientific or non-scientific knowledge. All forms of social scientific knowledge are based upon human practices within institutional environments.

All such criteria are grounded in human practices and the academic and commercial institutional environments in which natural and social science take place. By identifying the cultural assumptions upon which the social sciences have developed, it is possible to begin to identify the impact of social science in society. In addition, by being sensitive to the way in which research is produced, we can also begin to spot the assumptions and values which are often left unstated in social scientific research. Not all researchers make their value positions as explicit as Saunders or Conway in Readings A and C. Scientists are often seen as remote and detached from everyday experience, a view that they themselves have often been quite happy to promote. The desire to be objective in social science can create a distance between the researcher and the object under consideration (in this case, human beings and the relations between them). This distance can lead to the mental constructs of the researcher being imposed upon the object rather than account being taken of the complex existence of human actors and their own institutional environments.

Objective When we say that knowledge is objective we are making authoritative claims about its standing. Actually, objectivity is an essentially contested concept in the philosophies of science and the social sciences; it is usually invoked to convey a sense of truthfulness and to offer a cloak of legitimacy for a particular story – it is a mark of authoritative knowledge.

While all models in the social sciences simplify social life in order to make it understandable, there are also dangers in providing a one-sided or partial account, especially where the experiences of those being studied are distorted or even ignored. There is an implicit danger in any attempt to attain objective knowledge, that what appears to be obvious to one group of researchers at a particular point in time is often treated as matter of fact. Indeed, what we take as objective truth has changed so much and so frequently that it is worthwhile regarding all such claims with suspicion. For example, if we take the treatment of women's experience in social scientific research, we find that the concerns of women have been primarily defined in terms of masculine perceptions of women's role in society. So, for instance, in studies of social mobility and educational attainment the class position of women has often been defined in terms of the occupational position of the father or husband. More subtly (and very rarely challenged) theories of female voting behaviour are packed full of assumptions about the traditionalist and religious orientation of women, concluding that women are more conservatively inclined than men. Social scientists simplify the complexity of social life to make it more understandable – but it could also mean that they make biased/misinformed judgements in social science. Similarly, the discussion of ‘race’ and ethnicity in the 1960s and 1970s was largely conducted in the voice of those who were not part of the cultural groups identified as an object. In this way, crude stereotypes often go unchallenged in the social sciences. Black identities are frequently expressed through the concepts and terms of reference of white ethnocentric social science. The problem of ethnocentric knowledge is the way in which we do not often acknowledge how our own cultural location shapes our ideas. As tacit knowledge, ethnocentricity is hard to identify. This can be seen in the ways in which broad umbrella labels such as ‘black’, ‘white’ and ‘Asian’ have attained a factual status in many areas of social science. There is a danger that we end up treating such labels as nouns rather than adjectives. By identifying a group of people as ‘blacks’ or ‘Asians’ you fix the identity of the people involved as manifestations of an objective category and ignore cultural differences. When defining social identities, social scientists have often translated prejudices into objective categories.

Always ask yourself what values underpin the choice of concepts and the way in which an object of study is defined. Values are a key component of any investigation of the social world, even if there remains a tendency to hide one's own value position. In the next section, we consider an approach which acknowledges the cultural location of knowledge and turns it around to good use. We explore one attempt to build a bridge of understanding between our everyday experiences of the events around us and the detached scientific knowledge of specialists. This approach allows us to move closer to the meanings of the people being studied and how they understand their own activity, while at the same time maintaining a critical distance from the unreflective habits of everyday life.