Philosophy of social science

Philosophy of social science

Philosophy of social science considers the nature of confirmation and explanation in the social (or human) sciences, such as history, economics, and sociology. Philosophers of social science are often concerned with the differences and similarities between the social and the natural sciences (see natural science).


Social sciences aim to understand human societies through scientific explanations.

The philosophical analysis of scientific explanations starts from the relevant key concepts including theory, action, facts, rationality, agency, interpretation, etc. It also contains philosophical analysis of methodologies including realism, empiricism, positivism, instrumentalism, functionalism, structuralism, interpretivism, phenomenology.

Émile Durkheim sought to define social sciences as those that attend to a special sort of fact, which he called a social fact. In his book "The Rules of Sociological Method" he said that a social fact can be recognized by "the power of external coercion which it exercises or is capable of exercising over individuals, and the presence of this power may be recognized in its turn either by the existence of some specific sanction or by the resistance offered against every individual effort to violate it."

Within the philosophy of social science, of course, that definition or any other is up for debate. What Durkheim meant to highlight, though, were the formal sanctions such as law, the informal sanctions such as shunning, and the norms of society that both sorts of sanction enforce.

A competing account of the subject matter of the social sciences is found in Max Weber's "Economy and Society" in which he proposed that "social action", in a technical sense, is the fundamental building block of social phenomena or, as Durkheim would say, social facts. Weber emphasized the understandability of social phenomena when considered at the level of the individual human beings involved.

A contemporary work in the philosophy of social science that takes up the debate between Durkheim and Weber is Margaret Gilbert's "On Social Facts". Drawing on insights from Durkheim, Weber, and a third founder of sociology, Georg Simmel, she argues that central social phenomena including social norms and social groups in a central sense are a matter of joint commitment.

Epistemology and methodology

In any discipline, there will always be a number of underlying philosophical predispositions in the projects of scientists. Some of these predispositions involve the nature of social knowledge itself, the nature of social reality, and the locus of human control in action. [Cote, James E. and Levine, Charles G. (2002). Identity formation, Agency, and Culture, Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.]

One main and lasting crisis has been the debate over positivism and phenomenology. In the former, the research focus has been an attempt to find overarching, universal laws to social behavior and history. In the latter, by contrast, the emphasis is on empirical study itself -- that is, making accurate descriptions of social reality in terms of the experience of the persons involved, regardless of whether they fit a grand theory or explanation. These two forms have tended to lend themselves to favor either quantitative or qualitative methods, respectively. In addition to these two orientations, there is a third outlook: a kind of social rationalism, which makes use of axiomatic presuppositions in order to explain social reality, and which approaches research data with complex logical and mathematical modeling.

One underlying problem for the social psychologists is whether their studies can or should ultimately be understood in terms of the meaning and consciousness behind social action, as with folk psychology and as with the mainstream social sciences in general, or whether more objective, natural, materialist, and behavioral facts are to be given exclusive study. This problem is especially important for those within the social sciences who study qualitative mental phenomena, such as consciousness, associative meanings, and mental representations, because a rejection of the study of meanings would lead to the reclassification of such research as non-scientific. Influential traditions like psychodynamic theory and symbolic interactionism may be the first victims of such a paradigm shift.

The underlying philosophical issues lying in wait behind these different positions have led to commitments to certain kinds of methodology which have sometimes bordered on the partisan. Still, some researchers have indicated a lack of patience for overly dogmatic proponents of one method or the other. [Slife, B.D. and Gantt, E.E. (1999) Methodological pluralism: a framework for psychotherapy research. Journal of clinical psychology, 55(12), pp1453-1465.]

Two persistent themes in the philosophy of the social sciences, and which directly affect social studies, have been the structure-agency debate (see structure and agency), and the related arguments over determinism and free will.

ee also

* Social sciences
* Social facts
* Philosophy of history
* Philosophy of economics
* Political philosophy
* Philosophy of psychology
* Interculturalism





* [ Philosophy of the Social Sciences]

External links

* [ Philosophy of social sciences] (Daniel Little's article for the "Cambridge Encyclopedia of Philosophy")
* [ Philosophy of social sciences] (Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy Online)

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