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Can human studies, e.g., sociology and psychology, be properly scientific? Since the mid-nineteenth century, philosophers and social scientists have debated this question more or less continuously. It has periodically assumed considerable urgency, indeed become a focus of attention within the disciplines, as new influences on these subjects were felt or as new models of science itself were developed. Indeed, the complexity and potential obscurity of the issue is already evident. There is an implied equation, ‘human studies are are not science,’ in at least two variables. There has been considerable debate, at least since the 1850s, about what kinds of role human studies might play. Likewise, what is required for a discipline to be scientific has also been a matter of continuing controversy. As Peter Manicas put it (1987, p. 168), ‘neither ‘‘science’’ nor, a fortiori, the branches of the social sciences are ‘‘natural kinds’’.’ Notice, furthermore, that the variables are not entirely independent of one another. What human studies practitioners have aspired to has itself been influenced by what they think about the desirability and the possibility of making their enterprises genuinely scientific. Similarly, though perhaps to a lesser extent, what has counted as scientific has reflected the actual practices of, inter alia, students of sociology and psychology. To approach this question, a suitably sophisticated taxonomy of possibilities is therefore required.

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1. Some Taxonomic Distinctions And A Definition

If human studies are to count as scientific, then what it takes to make a science must first be considered.

1.1 Modality

First, empirical and normative approaches to this question need to be distinguished—roughly, ‘What are the sciences like?’ and ‘What should the sciences be like?’ Of course, these two questions cannot be treated in isolation, especially in view of the widely accepted maxim that ‘Ought implies can.’ This maxim means, in this instance, that those subjects whose scientific status is being assessed cannot sensibly be required to attain some excellence unless, of course, paradigms of scientific achievement have themselves attained this excellence. With these points in mind, the question about human studies can be understood in this way: given what human studies are like, do they or can they conceivably measure up to whatever normative standards of excellence the best scientific disciplines do measure up to?

1.2 Focus

Of course, there are other issues about what it takes to make a science. The question of focus is perhaps the most important. Science and nonscience can be distinguished either in terms of their products or in terms of their processes. This fundamental distinction divides pre-and post-Kuhnian conceptions of science. Whereas before Thomas Kuhn’s epochal work The Structure of Scientific REvolutions (1970), science was distinguished from nonscience by the kinds of statements the two discourses produced, or, more importantly, by the status of these statements relative to epistemic standards of confirmation, generality, or objectivity, after this work, science was increasingly distinguished from nonscience in terms of the activities of its practitioners. Obviously, it will make a difference which of these criteria is deemed more appropriate. On the product conception, it might count against the scientific pretensions of sociology and psychology, for instance, that the more robust results in these subjects lack the kind of generality that robust results typically display in paradigm, ‘hard’ sciences such as physics and chemistry. But perhaps this lack of generality is irrelevant if a process criterion is adopted. Perhaps sociologists and psychologists obtain their less general findings by the same technical means and methods that natural scientists use in producing more general or more stable results.

1.3 Scope

Finally, there is the issue of scope. Roughly speaking, wide and narrow understandings of the sciences can be distinguished. On the narrow reading, it is the concrete and specific particularities of the paradigm sciences that provide criteria for judging other candidate sciences. Typically, the paradigm sciences are laboratory based, involve heavy reliance on statistical techniques of data analysis, and produce results in the form of highly confirmed differential equations relating measurable variables. On the narrow criterion, then, to count as a science, any other discipline must also exhibit these specific features. On the other hand, a wide approach to the issue requires of candidate sciences merely that they exhibit some abstract and high-level virtue which is shared by paradigm scientific achievements—that they permit the attainment of objectivity, for instance. A wide approach to the issue is probably indicated; at the concrete and specific level of technique and theory, there is enough variation within the paradigm sciences to rule out any narrow approach.

In considering whether human studies are scientific, an approach which is normative, process oriented, and wide in its scope should therefore be adopted. The question will be, in other words, whether it is possible that human studies be conducted in such a way that they might achieve whatever levels of objectivity in their procedures as are attainable in the paradigm sciences. (The issue is phrased in this way to permit the rather complicated judgment (likely to be favored by ‘postmodernists’) that human studies can achieve the same degree of objectivity as paradigm sciences, but that neither can achieve the kind of ‘objectivity’ that was previously thought to be characteristic of paradigm, natural sciences such as physics.)

1.4 Objectivity

To assess the scientific status of disciplines such as sociology and psychology, the objectivity of their procedures must, on this account, be assessed. But what is objectivity? Of course, there may be no more determinacy on this matter than on some others which have already been alluded to. Just as ‘science’ does not designate any natural kind, neither does ‘objectivity’; it will be a matter of persistent debate what counts as objective. Some preliminary observations can nevertheless be offered.

First of all, transcendental and nontranscendental accounts of objectivity can be distinguished. In the transcendental account, objectivity in investigative activities has been attained when and only when all that is specific to the situation in which they are undertaken, including the personalities of the investigators, has been eliminated from them. Individuals who are otherwise dissimilar must, on this account, conduct themselves in some common way when they examine the objects of their investigations. (When scientists have managed to specify methods for the replication of results, some approximation to this ideal may have been achieved.) They know how to tell others who differ from them how to negate the effects of these differences and thus achieve the same results as they have. Objectivity, on this account, consists of transcending local circumstances by eliminating all factors which vary from one situation to another.

Of course, philosophers and others working under the rubric of ‘postmodernism’ have widely repudiated this ideal. True transcendence of local circumstances is not possible, it is not desirable, and, indeed, it is not even necessary for a form of objectivity (that is worthy of being pursued) to be attained. Objectivity requires not that local differences be eliminated, but, rather, that they be exploited in order to discover, where this is possible, a point of convergence of otherwise very different perspectives. According to this account, objectivity is attained when an individual is able to affirm from his or her own perspective a system of propositions that can likewise be affirmed from the otherwise different perspectives of such other individuals whose agreement matters (see Rorty 1989).

2. Why The Issue Matters

Why should it matter whether human studies are or are not scientific, especially if there is little agreement about the concepts in terms of which the issue is defined. Discussing the so-called ‘interpretive turn’ in human studies, Geertz (1993, p. 8) put the point this way: ‘Whether this [development] is making the social sciences less scientific or humanistic study more so (or, as I believe, altering our view, never very stable anyway, of what counts as science) is not altogether clear and perhaps not altogether important.’ There are, in fact, at least three reasons why it matters whether human studies are considered scientific.

2.1 Institutionally

The scientism of its public culture, i.e., the privilege that is granted to scientific disciplines and their methods and results, is one prominent characteristic of modernity. Science has immense, though perhaps no longer undisputed, cognitive authority, and plays an influential role in defining as well as creating the world which human beings inhabit. If human studies succeed in gaining recognition as scientific subjects, then they too could hope to exercise this kind of authority. Foucault, typically, puts the matter the other way around (1980, p. 85): ‘What types of knowledge do you want to disqualify in the very instant of your demand: ‘‘Is it a science?’’ Which speaking, discoursing subjects of experience and knowledge do you want to ‘‘diminish’’ when you say: ‘‘I who conduct this discourse am conducting a scientific discourse, and I am a scientist?’’ Which theoretical-political a ant garde do you want to enthrone in order to isolate it from all the discontinuous forms of knowledge that circulate about it?’

2.2 Heuristically

Whether sociologists and psychologists see themselves and are seen by others as scientists will, of course, influence the conduct of their enquiries and the kinds of products they aspire to deliver. As Geertz (1993, p. 8) put it, the issue is ‘who borrows what from whom.’ Do human studies borrow techniques of observation, experimentation, and data manipulation from ‘hard’ sciences such as chemistry and biology, or do they, instead, look to other disciplines for their techniques or their standards of objectivity?

Indeed, this issue is part of a long-standing debate. In the late nineteenth century, the crucial questions were about the Geisteswissenschaften—are they concerned with understanding or with explanation? Can they articulate general psychic and/or social laws or must they, instead, confine themselves to the accurate description and contextualization of concrete and specific incidents (Windelband’s nomothetic vs. idiographic conceptions)? In the middle of the twentieth century, the key issue was the cognitive status of social scientific generalizations and, indeed, their very possibility in the face of innumerable obstacles and points of difference from paradigm ‘hard’ sciences. At the end of the twentieth century, the question is whether interpretation, with all its vicissitudes, constitutes a more central method for human studies than law based explanation, and, indeed, whether interpretation itself is possible in a sufficiently ‘objective’ manner to permit the judgment that human studies are, perhaps in some extended sense, scientific.

2.3 Morally

How human studies are conceptualized may have profound moral significance. This point is dependent on the previous two. Suppose human studies are modeled on the ‘hard’ sciences and that success in doing so is conspicuous enough so that these subjects gain the kind of cognitive authority that some of their practitioners have long aspired to. In this case, ideas about the human situation that are moral and cultural foundations of our longest-standing and most deeply embedded traditions are at risk of being undermined. Putnam (1978, p. 63) put it this way: ‘[S]uppose our functional organization became transparent to us. Suppose we had a theory of it, and we could actually use this theory in a significant class of cases. What would happen to us? … Would it be possible even to think of oneself as a person? … [T]he development of that sort of knowledge of ourselves and each other would modify our natures in ways that we cannot predict at all. Every institution we now have: arts, politics, religion—even science—would be changed beyond all recognition.’

2.4 Some Positions

Whether human studies can be scientific is therefore too important a question simply to ignore. And, of course, it has not been ignored. Philosophers, social scientists, and others have, in fact, taken a number of positions on this question. Before proceeding with more substantive matters, a threefold primary distinction among these positions should be considered. In the middle of the twentieth century, the most common position, though not so designated until later, was naturalism. According to this doctrine, there is nothing methodologically or theoretically distinctive about human studies in relation to paradigm, natural sciences. In particular, social and natural scientists legitimately share both aspirations (to discover and confirm general laws covering specific phenomena) and techniques (operationalization of variables, controlled experimentation, and statistical analysis of its results).

Both earlier and later than this period, however, a very common, perhaps even the most common position was interpretivism. According to this doctrine, human studies are distinguished from paradigm, ‘hard’ sciences both in their aspirations and in their techniques. Social scientists should not try to emulate the paradigm sciences narrowly construed (see Sect. 1.3); they should strive, instead, to interpret human social and psychic phenomena, and should employ the techniques of hermeneutics, broadly construed, to achieve this.

Finally, towards the end of the twentieth century, though also but to lesser degrees at earlier periods, ‘scepticism’ about the social sciences has been an increasingly influential position. On this account, laws of human being cannot be discovered, nor can properly objective interpretations of what human beings do be provided. Although the results of sociological or psychological research are often presented in the form of statements of knowledge, they are not entitled to this status, and must be understood in some other, less exhaulted way.

Sceptical positions may be either local or global. Global scepticism, often associated with the work of Jacques Derrida, repudiates all claims to determinate and methodologically adequate knowledge of human phenomena. Local scepticism adopts such a dismissive attitude only to certain claims, e.g., those which have been derived in some specific way or from some specific social position. (For instance, Marxists might be skeptical in this local sense about the claims produced by mainstream, and hence in their view ‘bourgeois’ sociology or psychology. Similarly, feminists are often skeptical about the claims of mainstream and hence in their view ‘patriarchal’ social science.)

3. Impediments To Human Studies Being Scientific

That the legitimacy of human studies has so long been a matter of discussion is prima facie evidence that the investigation of human phenomena is not straightforward. What, then, are some of the reasons why it might not be possible to have a genuinely scientific approach to human social and psychic phenomena?

3.1 Preinterpretation

Theorists otherwise as diverse as Peter Winch, R. G. Collingwood, and Alfred Schutz have pointed, in distinguishing human studies from science per se, to the fact that students of human phenomena work, whereas paradigm scientists do not work, with materials that already have meaning and significance (see, e.g., Winch 1958, p. 87). There are strong and weak versions of this point. On the weak version, students of human phenomena must always rely, methodologically, on the objects of their research in ways in which paradigm scientists need not. Saying what is going on is preliminary to saying why it is happening, and hence to any scientific explanation. But what is going on, socially or psychically, must be understood, in Geertz’s phrase, ‘from the native’s point of view.’ How the subject understands what is going on determines the description of what is going on. On the strong version, once scientists have characterized ‘the native’s point of view,’ they have discovered all that they need to or can know about the objects of their investigation. In either case, what paradigm scientists do and what human studies practitioners do is very different. The latter seem forced to rely on the subjective perspectives of the objects of their research.

3.2 Instability

There are three, inter-related factors which make it unlikely that sociologists and psychologists will be able to develop stable, objective accounts of the phenomena they take an interest in.

First, there is the historicity of both the subjects and the objects of human studies research. When Gadamer (1975, p. 204) asks ‘Is not the fact that consciousness is historically conditioned inevitably an insuperable barrier to reaching perfect fulfilment in historical knowledge?’ he articulates this fundamental difficulty: neither scientist nor subject ‘stands still,’ and hence what the one should say about the other changes as they themselves change. Paradigm, natural sciences, on the other hand, typically deal with statements of ‘timeless’ generality.

Second, in human studies relations of representation are subject to reflexivity in a way that is not common in the sciences per se. What practitioners say about human phenomena influences how their subjects enact or react to these phenomena, and hence often under- mines the claim, necessary if objectivity is sought, that scientists have accurately represented the behavior of their subjects. (Practitioners have, instead, caused or persuaded subjects to act so that their behavior conforms to the practitioners’ descriptions of it.) To mid-twentieth century philosophers, this possibility was best known under the heading ‘reflexive predictions’ (self-defeating and self-confirming ‘prophecies’), but the crucial points have since been generalized extensively. Of course, as Lyotard (1984, p. 57) rightly points out, reflexivity must not be understood in too one-sided a way. It is not just that sociologists and psychologists can create the objects of their investigations; it is, as well, that these objects can, strategically, resist the characterizations which practitioners attempt to fit them with. This too is an impediment to the achievement of objectivity as it is usually conceived.

Finally, there is radical indeterminacy about the objects of investigation. This point is an ontological not an epistemological one. It is not that, in some or perhaps many cases, scientists cannot tell when they have characterized some phenomenon accurately. It is, rather, that there may be no sense, in these cases, to the very idea of accurate characterization. Typically, this means that there are, in the human domain, no fixed objects with well-defined characteristics for scientists to (try to) represent. In its more familiar forms, this point is, of course, an obvious development of Dilthey’s observations about the ‘hermeneutic circle.’ It has been much emphasized by Derrida (1978) and others of his school. Specifically, if interpretation takes place against and in terms of a background that is not ‘given’ but must itself be an object of interpretation, then every interpretation has the form, not of an objective (if possibly incorrect) description, but, rather, of a (performative) proposal to see the situation in one of the many ways in which it could (as) legitimately be seen. There is on this account insufficient interpretive stability to warrant attributions of objectivity.

3.3 Complexity

The economist Hayek (1978, 26f) has long emphasized the peculiar kind of complexity which human studies practitioners must try to deal with. Such ‘organized complexity’ resists reduction either to deterministic or to statistical models that might be appropriated from the ‘hard’ sciences. The behavior of a social aggregate often cannot, in other words, be reduced to the sum or product of the behavior of its individual parts, nor can it be adequately understood by characterizing its statistical properties (as the behavior of an aggregate of gas molecules might be understood, for instance). Notice, furthermore, that there may be moral and prudential (as well as practical) reasons for refusing to reduce this complexity in ways standard in the ‘hard’ sciences, i.e., by ‘experimentalizing’ it. So, while scientists might be able to ‘standardize’ individual agents in an experimental setting so that their interactions there can be understood deterministically or statistically, there are moral objections to exporting these conditions to extra-experimental settings. Indeed, there may be prudential reasons for not using these techniques of standardization in ‘naturalistic’ settings—as is implied, of course, by Hayek’s own analysis of the market. In particular, adequate functioning of a complexly organized whole may depend precisely on its individual elements not being standardized. In either case, there are thus limits to the objectivity (actually the ‘ecological validity’) of the results that might be obtained in laboratory settings.

3.4 Interim Conclusion

All these impediments manifest themselves, of course, in a simple fact: there is, especially compared with paradigm ‘hard’ sciences, a conspicuous lack of progress in human studies. In particular, multiple and opposed paradigms persist in human studies, especially in any area of investigation which is likely to be of broadly ‘political’ interest and concern. As Geertz (1993, p. 4) has said, ‘calls for ‘‘a general theory’’ of just about anything social sound increasingly hollow, and claims to have one megalomanic. Whether this is because it is too soon to hope for unified science or too late to believe in it is, I suppose, debatable. But it has never seemed further away, harder to imagine, or less certainly desirable than it does now.’

4. Alternative Conceptions Of Human Studies

It may not make sense to compare sociology and psychology to the ‘hard’ sciences. How, then, are they to be conceptualized … and hence institutionalized? There are a number of possibilities. (Manicas’s cautionary note still applies, of course; if ‘science’ isn’t a natural kind, then no more is ‘literature’ or any of the other disciplines with which human studies might be compared.)

4.1 Literature

If human studies cannot properly be compared to the ‘hard’ sciences, perhaps a comparison with literature and other forms of potentially edifying narrative or practical discourses is more appropriate. This, certainly, is the opinion of a wide range of late-twentieth century theorists, including Geertz, Charles Taylor, Gadamer, and others. Geertz, for instance, advocates (1993, p. 6) that we ‘turn from trying to explain social phenomena by weaving them into grand textures of cause and effect to trying to explain them by placing them in local frames of awareness … .’ Of course, it might seem, to practitioners, that such a heuristic reorientation (see Sect. 2.2) would reduce the likelihood that human studies might have significant institutional influence (see Sect. 2.1). However, it needs to be borne in mind that the institutional influence of sociology and psychology is rather patchy (this is made clear in utilization studies), and that literature still forms the basis for highly influential mass-media representations and analyses of the human situation.

Another related possibility is this. While sociology and psychology do not or cannot provide an objective account of human phenomena, they can and do provide a variety of potentially important perspectives on these phenomena, and thus enable human beings to orient themselves more productively to them, especially by giving them frameworks for understanding these phenomena. In this vein, Rorty (1982, p. 247) draws a contrast between scientistic goals of prediction and control, on the one hand, and, on the other, practical goals of developing ‘descriptions which help one decide what to do.’ Since deciding what to do depends on values and other normative elements, and since there is widespread and apparently irreducible diversity in relation to these elements, the kind of ‘practical knowledge’ that nonscientistic forms of psychology and sociology might provide will not, of course, satisfy the most demanding requirements of objectivity.

4.2 Critique

There is a subtle difference, but an important one between the view that human studies offer edifying perspectives on or frameworks for the interpretation of human phenomena (see Sect. 4.1) and the view that they offer a basis for critique and the advocacy of change. In the latter half of the twentieth century, critical theorists (e.g., Habermas), genealogists (e.g., Foucault), feminists, and advocates for other marginalized groups (see Seidman 1994) proposed and in some cases made progress in achieving a ‘takeover’ of human studies activities and institutions. Across this spectrum techniques which have some claim to being ‘antiscientific’ (Foucault 1980, p. 83) are widely employed. In particular, practitioners of critique shift the focus from showing how what is, socially, is an intelligible consequence of its causal antecedents to showing how what is, socially, represents the highly contingent realization of practices and structures to which there are clear, achievable, and desirable alternatives. As Foucault says (Rabinow 1984, p. 46): ‘[T]his critique will be genealogical in the sense that it will not deduce from the form of what we are, what is impossible for us to do and to know; but it will separate out, from the contingency that has made us what we are, the possibility of no longer being, doing, thinking, what we are, do, or think. It is not seeking to make possible a metaphysics that has finally become a science; it is seeking to give new impetus, as far and wide as possible, to the undefined work of freedom.’ It is not, then, a matter of objective representation, but, rather, of politically effective analysis of the possibilities for change. (This is, of course, an extension of Karl Marx’s 11th thesis on Feuerbach: ‘Philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.’)

4.3 Disciplines Or Ideologies

There are (see Sect. 3.3) moral and prudential disincentives to investigating human phenomena experimentally and, a fortiori, to ‘exporting’ into ‘naturalistic’ settings those conditions in which objective, reproducible experimental effects have been obtained. This has not, of course, stopped such things from happening and, indeed, it is the main conclusion of Foucault and others of his school that human studies have played a key role in this process, and, in particular, that they have contributed to the production of a ‘disciplinary society’ in which individuals are governed via their consent, i.e., through the ways in which they are made into ‘subjects.’ Although Jurgen Habermas disputed much that Foucault wrote and did, he was at one with him on this point. Habermas (1994, p. 54) says, for instance: ‘It is no accident that these sciences, especially clinical psychology, but also pedagogy, sociology, political science, and cultural anthropology, can, as it were, frictionlessly intermesh in the overall technology of power that finds its architectural expression in the closed institution. They are translated into therapies and social techniques, and so form the most effective medium of the new, disciplinary violence that dominates modernity.’

That human studies are ‘disciplines’ is one way of capturing their importance and their negative impact on the lives of ordinary people; that they have functioned ideologically is another way of making this point. Perhaps the most important issue here is the way in which human studies have been recruited by other powerful institutions to serve the specifically political interests of those institutions while seeming to provide a nonpolitical analysis, a value-neutral ac- count of contemporary social conditions. The idea of expertise has played an important role in this development. Insofar as social and psychic problems can be modeled on purely technical problems, solutions can be offered and consumed on a purely technical basis, and the reality of their dependence on fundamentally political matters can remain inaccessible to consciousness.

5. Conclusion

Should human studies plausibly aspire to scientific status? This remains questionable, as it has long been. Can they realistically aspire to such a status? This too is questionable. Perhaps Rorty (see Sect. 4.1) is right to suggest that human studies have aspired to too much, that their two main goals are disjoint and hence cannot both be achieved under the same methodological or institutional auspices. In this case, practitioners would perhaps be wise to disentangle their various objectives, and adjust their ‘aspiration levels’ (Simon 1996, p. 30) to more realistic goals. Or perhaps an even more radical adjustment of aspirations and disciplinary cultures is called for. Certainly Toulmin thinks so. Toulmin (1992, p. 193) says: ‘The task is not to build new, more comprehensive systems of theory with universal and timeless relevance, but to limit the scope of even the best-framed theories, and fight the intellectual reductionism that became entrenched during the ascendancy of rationalism … [thus reinstating] respect for the pragmatic methods appropriate in dealing with concrete human problems.’ On this account, human studies are to be understood more on the model of ad hoc tools for a variety of perhaps incommensurable human purposes, and not, as in their ascendency in the mid-twentieth century, as sciences with all the cognitive and institutional entitlements which are associated with that sometimes honorific term.


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