Social science — a plaidoyer

16 Jun, 2020 at 08:37 | Posted in Theory of Science & Methodology | 4 Comments

One of the most important tasks of social sciences is to explain the events, processes, and structures that take place and act in society. But the researcher cannot stop at this. As a consequence of the relations and connections that the researcher finds, a will and demand arise for critical reflection on the findings. To show that unemployment depends on rigid social institutions or adaptations to European economic aspirations to integration, for instance, constitutes at the same time a critique of these conditions. It also entails an implicit critique of other explanations that one can show to be built on false beliefs. The researcher can never be satisfied with establishing that false beliefs exist but must go on to seek an explanation for why they exist. What is it that maintains and reproduces them? To show that something causes false beliefs – and to explain why – constitutes at the same time a critique.

bhskThis I think is something particular to the humanities and social sciences. There is no full equivalent in the natural sciences since the objects of their study are not fundamentally created by human beings in the same sense as the objects of study in social sciences. We do not criticize apples for falling to earth in accordance with the law of gravity.

The explanatory critique that constitutes all good social science thus has repercussions on the reflective person in society. To digest the explanations and understandings that social sciences can provide means a simultaneous questioning and critique of one’s self-understanding and the actions and attitudes it gives rise to. Science can play an important emancipating role in this way. Human beings can fulfill and develop themselves only if they do not base their thoughts and actions on false beliefs about reality. Fulfillment may also require changing fundamental structures of society. Understanding of the need for this change may issue from various sources like everyday praxis and reflection as well as from science.

Explanations of social phenomena must be subject to criticism, and this criticism must be an essential part of the task of social science. Social science has to be an explanatory critique. The researcher’s explanations have to constitute a critical attitude toward the very object of research, society. Hopefully, the critique may result in proposals for how the institutions and structures of society can be constructed. The social scientist has a responsibility to try to elucidate possible alternatives to existing institutions and structures.

In a time when scientific relativism is on the march, it is important to keep up the claim for not reducing science to a pure discursive level. Against all kinds of social constructivism we have to maintain the Enlightenment tradition of thinking of reality as something that is not created by our views of it and of the main task of science as studying the structure of this reality. Ontology is important. It is the foundation for all sustainable epistemologies.

The problem with positivist social science is not that it gives the wrong answers, but rather that in a strict sense it does not give answers at all. Its explanatory models presuppose that the social reality is closed, and since social reality is fundamentally open, models of that kind do not explain anything of what happens in such a universe.

4 Comments

  1. “it is important to keep up the claim for not reducing science to a pure discursive level. Against all kinds of social constructivism have to maintain the Enlightenment tradition of thinking of reality as something that is not created by our views of it and of the main task of science as studying the structure of this reality.”
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    But we know from relativity that two contradictory stories can both be true: a farmer sending an electric current through a long enough fence sees cows jumping away from the fence one by one as the current gets to them, but Einstein on the far end of the fence sees the cows jump all at once. Each observer creates a story based on their view. Why insist upon one correct view? (Note: it is probably better to think of light bulbs along a wire than cows being shocked.)
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    Reference: https://www.physicsforums.com/threads/einstein-the-farmer-and-the-cows.79325/

    • It is not so much a question of insisting on one story being true as of insisting that the sun, rivers, animals, discrimination, oppression, child abuse, etc., etc, are real things that cannot be reduced to social constructs. I find ontological social constructivist theories that insist the world in itself is nothing but a socially constructed totality without anything really existing beyond these social constructs utterly absurd.

      • Oui, mais on peut tout comprendre et tout pardonner, et en même temps donner à tous ce qu’ils désirent …
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        In other words disconnect society entirely from the real world in Virtual Realities and such. So they eat Impossible Meats and tell stories about it instead of killing cows. They invest in financial markets that are disconnected from provisioning, so provisioning can be done for reasons other than profit. You get higher returns in financial markets (r > g), so if you provision, you do it as a hobby because you enjoy it. You share standalone self-provisioning technology, which markets don’t invent because profit motivation biases corporate innovation towards centralized production and subscription-selling models. If you give the greedy what they want using digital bank balances or virtual realities or meat substitutes, they can get out of the way of true knowledge advance …

  2. Any social science that does not declare that our capitalistic society is a class-society, and that class struggle – mostly by the capitalist class – has be part of any heuristic project is ideology pure and simple. Like claiming that “unemployment depends on rigid social institutions or adaptations to European economic aspirations to integration”. Unemployment comes from the capitalists striving to use fewer workers per produced unit and from the capitalist striving to keep wages down by forcing the proletarians to compete for the too few jobs. What coud be defined as rigid social institutions is NAIRU and the privatization of the central banks.


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