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The social in social science
The social in social science

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4.2 The perspective of the stranger

One way in which it is possible to build links between everyday experience and social scientific research is to adopt the approach recommended by the philosopher and sociologist Alfred Schütz (1899–1959). As a refugee from Austria in the late 1930s, he found himself transported to America and encountered considerable difficulties in reorienting himself to new conditions and a new culture. This personal experience of not having familiar bearings, and of encountering the impact of cultural differences, sensitised him to the problems of how we perceive and understand social life as well as how we communicate our understandings to others. Schütz argued that in both social science and in everyday life we use ‘types’ or mental constructs, which allow us generally to predict how others around us are likely to behave. By stereotyping the behaviour and motivations of others, we are able to identify predictable patterns around us which enable us to think through a situation and act.

In the social sciences, we also use types to make sense of empirical evidence but we deny that these types are based upon our common-sense stock of knowledge and treat them as objective things (as if they really do exist in the way that we imagine them). Schütz recommended that we should follow the ‘postulate of adequacy’ whereby ideas had to link lived experience with scientific knowledge. Each concept or idea in a ‘scientific model of human action’, if it is to be considered as adequate, must be constructed in such a way that it is understandable in terms of the taken-for-granted assumptions of everyday life. Stereotypes are useful in the organisation of evidence, but they hold dangers if they are seen as real things. A scientific statement is considered to be adequate when it accounts for everyday experience and is understandable to those who live in the relations being studied (Schütz, 1953, p.34). To illustrate, Schütz provides an account of how this form of social analysis can produce insights into the events and relations around us. He asks us to imagine the built environment of a city as our chosen object of analysis and imagine three viewpoints about this urban setting and city life. Types are one-sided exaggerations or simple conceptual devices (stereotypes) for comparing our experiences.

  • The person on the street, someone who is simply at home in a particular place, operating through tacit knowledge, getting by without the need for much deep reflection.

  • The cartographer, someone with the expertise to map urban environments, but who maintains a degree of detachment from the object and is unable to comprehend what it is like to live in such a place. We can treat this as a metaphor for the problems of much of social scientific practice.

  • The stranger, someone who is passing through, but who needs to establish an adequate grasp of existing social relationships in order to get by. The stranger is neither unreflective like the person on the street nor trapped within the narrow vantage point of an academic specialism (Schütz, 1943).

These three ‘types’ help us to understand the relationship between everyday language and experiences and the terminology of scientific study. ‘Strangers’ have a unique vantage point, able to participate in everyday life yet still maintain a degree of detachment. Indeed, Schütz was drawing upon his own common-sense experiences as an Austrian refugee (a stranger) in New York, where he had to acquire enough working knowledge to survive without ever really fitting in (Schütz, 1944). While the person on the street has a ‘working knowledge’ of the situation and can follow the vague rules which have worked well before, the social scientist tends to have a specialised knowledge limited to a particular aspect of urban life, such as housing distribution, traffic flows, population movements, or even waste disposal systems. One of the issues you will encounter when doing social research is whether to be detached from or involved in the processes, relations and institutions with which social scientists are concerned.

For example, economists who attempt to develop models of the economy using computer simulation programs (that is, econometrics) do not actually go and find out about the purchasing decisions of all members of a society. They do depend on existing statistical information which at some point will have been constructed through contact with consumers, producers and government officials. The point of econometrics is to develop a big picture of the economy and to make predictions about what will happen if the present situation continues or when some of the relationships change. Like all other kinds of social scientific practice they have uses, but they also have limitations. Econometric models are used to establish broad patterns of economic activity and, at the end of the day, this is what governments need to make policies. However, they cannot account for the complex ways in which people behave in real markets. Just as there are difficulties if you become too detached, if you become too involved in the lives of the people and social relations you are studying, you can lose sight of the aims and objectives of your research. In such situations, where the researcher is unable to stand back from the taken-for-granted assumptions of the people involved, the research will not really convey what is actually happening. This is not simply a product of the choice of research technique, for even an econometric forecast can be detached in one sense but still be based upon the taken-for-granted assumptions of a particular set of cultural values. So, as a social scientist, the attitude you will have towards finding out about people's lives will be just as important as your choice of research method.

Social scientific research could, however, bridge the gap between the level of detached and often obscure scientific terminology and the level of everyday practical knowledge by adopting the vantage point of the ‘stranger’. This acts as a bridge between social scientific accounts and the everyday experiences of those being studied. The ‘stranger’ sees beyond the lived experiences of everyday life, but is not so detached as to lose contact with the people being studied. In this way, Schütz suggested, a wider audience could also use social science research and social scientists could avoid preaching to the converted. This example itself addresses this concern to make scientific practice connect to everyday life. By using the three types – the person on the street, the cartographer and the stranger – and by asking us to be strangers, Schütz is actually demonstrating the technique of communicating complex ideas to a broader audience. In this case, the types are instantly recognisable in everyday language and Schütz's approach draws from this to build those bridges of understanding to social scientific knowledge (Schütz, 1943, 1946, 1953).

Activity 2

Compare and contrast the three illustrations reproduced below and make notes on what they tell you about the situation they represent.

Figure 3 The stranger in a crowd.
Figure 3 The stranger in a crowd.
Complexity can be overwhelming. A geographical representation of transport links with a confusing and complex array of factors and movements which are difficult to decipher for anyone untrained in advanced cartography.
Figure 4 Complexity and detachment.

The London tube map, designed as a comprehensible and reasonably accurate guide (in terms of its function) which makes sense to transport users and to social scientists.

Click to view 'tube map' [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)]


Now that you've had a chance to compare and contrast these illustrations, here are some points you may want to think about. In Figure 3, the ‘stranger’, in the centre of the picture, has to stand back from lived experience in order to understand what is happening and, in the process, constructs a more detached viewpoint. Figure 4 , by Schütz's criteria, is too complex and detached for us to make sense of what it means to travel in the space represented. Although it provides a detached account of transport flows which is technically accurate, it does not attempt to connect with the human experiences of the people involved in these processes. In addition, it is very difficult to interpret even if you are trained in the social science involved. The London tube map however, provides an example of how it is possible to bridge the gap between everyday life and social science. In terms of its capacity to convey information accessibly, the tube map offers a model of good social scientific practice.

Compare and contrast these three examples in Activity 2 with the three ideal types identified by Schütz. Now return to Activity 1 and reconsider the four examples of research on housing and homelessness. Do any of the readings in Activity 1 find ways of making connections between everyday life and social scientific knowledge?

These examples remind us of the importance of making social scientific knowledge accessible to people beyond the narrow group of social scientists who no longer need to be convinced in any case. It also reminds us that effective social science can convey complex relationships without baffling the audience, while at the same time providing an effective guide to action. The London tube map is often regarded as a masterpiece of design because it is able to convey so much information in such an accessible way. Social scientists should have similar aspirations in the design of their research and the presentation of their evidence.

The preference for ‘detachment’ and ‘objective’ characteristics in many areas of social science raises another important question about the social sciences. Why is there such a strong desire to adopt the label of science when studying social objects of analysis? Part of the answer lies in the legitimacy social researchers acquire when they are seen as scientific. Science is often strongly associated with truth and progress which is a legacy of the Enlightenment belief in the power of human reason since the eighteenth century. Research institutions which can convincingly portray themselves as scientific appear to do well in securing government funding for research. When the Social Science Research Council was reorganised as the Economic and Social Research Council by Keith Joseph (then Education Secretary in the first Thatcher administration), the loss of status was also reflected in reduced funding. Science is more than just a name, for it holds connotations of authoritative knowledge. To describe a statement as scientific is to indicate that it is ‘true’ or at least that it is as close to ‘truth’ as we can achieve. In order to understand how this came to be, we need to examine the emergence of scientific ideas in history, the application of these ideas to the study of social life and human relationships, and the character of scientific knowledge itself.