Teaching Social Sciences Research Paper

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The concept of a social science is at once more elastic and ambiguous than that of natural science, for the content of the latter is essentially fixed by the properties of matter and energy in various degrees and combinations. Accordingly, the first task facing teachers of the social sciences is to make clear the grounds on which events and processes are taken to be social, and then identify the subject matter that defines a given discipline within the social sciences. Both of these objectives can be met only approximately and in ways influenced by seasonal shifts in perspective, as well as by developments in other and not always kindred specialties within the social sciences. These provisional solutions to problems of definition and classification serve as an introduction to comparably vexing and interrelated problems of explanation, measurement, modes of inquiry and standards of theoretical adequacy. The following sections consider these and related issues.

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1. Defining The Social Sciences

The so-called unity of science was a primary objective of that positivism that was heralded in the Enlightenment and developed systematically during the first half of the twentieth century. Taking the subject matter of any and every science to be that which is in principle observable, positivists found no principled argument against the possibility of subsuming even the most complex social phenomena under general laws. Illustrative of this perspective is Hempel’s Aspects of Scientific Explanation (1965) in which such diverse fields of inquiry as psychology, history, and economics are judged to be amenable to scientific study and (ultimately) reducible to scientific laws.

Formidable arguments have been arrayed against this perspective based on what is taken to be unique to genuinely social phenomena. Dray (1957) rejected positivistic attempts to equate explanations in history with those in science. Unlike the phenomena of science, historical events are singular, are shaped and defined by specific participants, derive their essential features from the plans and purposes of these participants, and are subject to various but equally compelling and coherent explanatory accounts. Indeed, what makes an event ‘social’ in the first instance is just this constellation of personalities and purposes interacting in ways that are neither mechanical nor replicable.

The ‘Battle of Waterloo’ may be used illustratively. Consider first the nature of an event that qualifies it as a ‘battle’ rather than, say, a gang-war or a riot. An event takes on the character and proportions of a battle only insofar as it is a military action with clear political or economic or religious ends; only insofar as it is organized for these ends by persons in authority. Authority itself is grounded in complex social, legal, and cultural foundations, to be exercised in recognized ways, and to be retained or lost according to certain standards of conduct. Such a battle then becomes decisive, in just the way that Waterloo was decisive, to the extent that it yields consequences beyond the time and space within which the battle itself is waged. It becomes historical to the extent that these consequences then shape later and even larger political destinies, including those of nations that may not even have existed at the time of the decisive battle. There is no ‘Battle of Waterloo’ in the historical sense unless there is Napoleon, the delicate state of Anglo–European affairs in the wake of the French Revolution, the prospect of England’s sea power, in the event of victory over Napoleon, supporting a great expansion of imperial influence, etc.

On a very small scale, the same considerations would apply to star-crossed lovers such as Romeo and Juliet. Their story is not indifferent to complex familial rivalries, to cultural values and ideals, to the unique bond that formed between them. Understanding Juliet’s suicide is not achieved by studying suicides and reaching some general conclusion, e.g., unhappy persons see no cause for better days sometimes take their own lives. Rather, Juliet’s actions become intelligible only under a set of descriptions unique to her life and her time.

In light of such considerations, it has been argued that the understandings to be sought within the social sciences must be drawn from a domain distinctly different from that in which merely physical interactions take place. The domain in which social phenomena occur is social owing to features not revealed by any of the prevailing physical or merely natural conditions. Thus, the very idea of a social science is constructed on grounds removed from those staked out by physics or biology (Winch 1958).

To these very counters, however, there are positivistic rejoinders and these, too, must be dealt with if students are to be informed as to the ongoing and keen disputes surrounding research and theory in the social sciences. After all, suicides are not random events, and battles tend to be won and lost for reasons historians are able to discern. This much alone suggests the operation of forces or principles that (ultimately) should give rise to scientific explanations of such events. What is important as regards the teaching of the social sciences is the recognition that these metascientific issues are central, not peripheral, to the agenda of the social sciences. The position one takes on them effectively dictates the sorts of events chosen for study, the method of inquiry, the nature of the explanations that will be taken to be successful, and the character of the more general theory that grounds such explanations.

Even as debates such as these unfold, specialists work with undaunted energy on problems that retain their interest no matter how the social sciences are defined. A more or less common sense standard is adopted with which to identify a problem as ‘sociological,’ ‘historical,’ ‘economic,’ ‘psychological,’ ‘political’, ‘cultural.’ One can instruct students on, e.g., ‘Issues in Post-Soviet Society,’ without taking a firm stand on whether (ultimately) the issues in question will be settled by subsumption under a general law. The issues are understood to be social in virtue of their grounding in a society recently liberated from an oppressive regime and now attempting to establish new and effective practices and institutions. Similarly, a course serving as an ‘Introduction to Medieval Studies: The Age of Dante’ is able to record and respect the artistic genius of Dante even as the themes of the Divine Comedy are shown to be influenced by medieval philosophy and wider currents of medieval thought. For all practical purposes, then, a field of inquiry is defined as ‘social’ when the dominant influences are interpersonal, when the salient occurrences reflect social aims and purposes, and when the causal factors are not readily or even plausibly rendered in physical–natural terms.

2. Classifying The Social Sciences

If social psychology is defined as the study of interpersonal influence, how does it differ from sociology? Also, if one of the major sources of influence is culture itself, how are sociology, anthropology, economics, social psychology, and (cultural) history to be distinguished? Following the model of the great German research universities of the nineteenth century, doctoral programs have been developed to provide training in ever narrowing fields of specialization. As a result, the questions raised above tend to be answered by referring to just such specialized training. What makes a field of study anthropology rather than, say, social psychology is that it is populated by anthropologists and, as such, is examined and developed by methods of inquiry and standards of explanation of a distinctly ‘anthropological’ nature. In general, the anthropologist would seek to explain the nature and purpose of enduring customs within the given community; the social psychologist, the manner in which such prevailing customs influenced relationships between and among those living within the community; the economist, the manner in which such customs worked to the material advantage of the participants, perhaps especially in their relationships with trading partners, etc.

If this were all there was to the matter, there would be no substantive difference between teaching and training. Specialists devoted to a set of issues would simply undertake to train the next generation of workers who would then dutifully add to the data-base and seek evidence to ‘verify’ current speculations. The venture would be faithful to the received methods but, in the sense intended by Francis Bacon, would yield some fruit, but rather little light.

Surely one who examines the effect of trade on personal wealth must understand that ‘wealth’ may be construed in significantly different ways from one cultural enclave to another. A society made up of those who share the values of Henry James would regard as wealthy all who could ‘satisfy the needs of the imagination.’ It is a truism that the value of wealth depends on how its deployment or use operates at the level of lives individually lived and mutually influential. This, in turn, is related to core values and beliefs, often of a religious or transcendent or aesthetic nature, not reducible to coins of the realm. The point, of course, is the obvious one: specialized fields of inquiry tend to explain little beyond the artificially contracted domain within which the accepted methodology is (allegedly) applicable. Robust and plausible explanations then, require movement beyond such narrowly worked fields to a distance allowing a wider perspective and a deeper understanding. Those likely to find such a vantage point have been educated and not just trained.

3. Methodologies

Anthropological and cultural studies are dominated by field research that does not permit systematic control and manipulation of factors judged to be related causally to the events of interest. This does not mean that such studies are devoid of measurement per se; only that the mode of inquiry is not experimental. Sociological and social psychological research includes both experimental and field studies. The prevailing ethos within the social sciences favors the experimental mode of inquiry, a preference seemingly indifferent to the fact that experimental findings bear little relationship to the actual social phenomena they seek to explain or ‘model.’ The preference itself records a lingering attachment to scientific positivism.

Statistics is a methodological feature of experimental social science. A separate chapter in intellectual history is called for if students are to recognize the adoption of statistical standards of proof and the quite limited sense in which these standards are ‘objective’ (Daston 1994; Polanyi 1985). The commitment to general laws is per force at the expense of the individuated events giving rise to the collective. Inescapably the possibility is ever present that resulting general laws describe none of the participant-events and therefore explain none of them. To the extent that the general law thus derived is a model of anything, it may be a model of the data rather than of the social reality that was the instigating source of the inquiry.

More recently the mounting criticism of mainstream statistical methods has led to a liberalization of methods and to modes of inquiry more realistically connected to social beings in their actual complex and various interactions. So-called ‘discourse analysis’ avails itself of the relatively unconstrained reports of persons engaged in social practices. It is assumed that language itself, the bearer of meaning, reveals the essential nature of those joint ventures that define the social. So, too, with narratological methods of inquiry where participants themselves explain the dynamics of their social participations. If such nonmainstream methods can now claim only a little by way of discovery, they can claim much more by way of revealing the limitations and narrowness of the conventional alternatives.

4. Explanation

However defined, a ‘science’ (social or natural) offers itself as a set of practices and principles capable of explaining events in the real world; events in the world of social interactions, e.g., which would include bartering, voting, warring, cooperating, deceiving, assisting. But what does it mean to say that such occurrences and undertakings have been explained ? Any adequate preparation of those who would advance or just comprehend the social sciences must reserve a central place for the issue of explanation itself. It is, after all, explanation that is the goal or end for which specialty fields are created, defninitions are crafted, methods are adopted.

Within the natural sciences, an event is judged to be explained when its occurrence can be predicted by or subsumed under a general law. Thus, the tendency of massive objects to move toward the center of the earth is explained by the universal law of gravitation. An object’s ‘falling’ is but an instance of the law such that, if the law is true, the ‘falling’ is but a logical deduction.

The question thus arises as to whether this is the right model of explanation for the social sciences. Is the best explanation of Jack and Jill marrying, one (ultimately) grounded in a causal law of which this particular marriage is but an instance? Or, instead, are significant social undertakings tied not to causal laws, but to idiosyncratic purposes? Are social phenemona accounted for best by reasons explanations rather than causal explanations?

Students, to be prepared to understand the nature and the implications of such questions, are best served by studying special topics within philosophy devoted to just these matters. The fields of philosophy of social science, philosophy of psychology (Robinson 1985) and metaphysics include close examinations of what it means to explain events and, indeed, what it is that qualifies an occurrence as an ‘event’ of the relevant sort (Davidson 1980; Mele 1992).

5. Theoretical Adequacy

The social sciences now, owing to the relentless specialization within each of them, can claim a number of well-developed microtheories. This same specialization has, it would seem, retarded progress at the level of macrophenomena and, even more obviously, at the level of reality itself. As used here, ‘level of reality’ refers to the indisputable fact that actual persons seldom are moved by unitary motives toward stable and singular goals, attentive to but one set of environmental cues, and in a fashion rigidly determined by prevailing cultural standards and local meanings. Indeed, such a person would be a candidate for therapy. In teaching the novice or even the advanced student the methods and prevailing theories in any of the social sciences, it becomes important to distinguish between theories (more or less) supported by findings, and those (more or less) supported by the warp and weave of lives actually lived. Too often the ‘findings’ arise from methods of inquiry so inextricably bound to theoretical presuppositions as to achieve no more than a rediscovery of the presuppositions themselves. What William James dubbed ‘the psychologist’s fallacy’ might be applied generously across the social sciences. James’s version refers to the adoption of an experimental method—say the use of a memorydrum in a paired-associate study of memory—that virtually guarantees the form the targeted process will take, e.g., subjects remember terms that have been associated with other terms! Where a general theory assumes that the prime motive to action is economic, and where the modes of inquiry leave little room for any influence other than economic influences, there will result nothing but jejune ‘verifications.’

Before the age of specialization, what would be understood as social science was the speculative field occupied by humanistic scholars and philosophers, by writers in law and politics, by designers of buildings and even entire cities. A ‘social’ science stood as a systematic inquiry into the social conditions that thwart or realize human potentialities; social conditions including but not limited to parental guidance, systems of law, literature and the arts, material means, modes of employment, religious teachings, and institutions. For Plato and Aristotle, the social and the political were inseparable, and the person was understood to be powerfully shaped by both. A developed ‘social’ science then, presupposed a civic or political science, itself based on a defensible if imprecise theory of human nature. What the ancient accounts lacked in precision they make up for in breadth, integration, and realism.

At present, and in light of prevailing standards and habits, the social sciences offer no comparably realistic and integrative theory of social life. This is one, but not the only, or even the principal, reason why major figures in the history of philosophy continue to attract the attention of those seeking such integrations. These same major figures are usefully consulted in the teaching of social scientists, if only to alert them to the nature of systematic and integrative thinking on matters of social consequence.


  1. Daston L 1994 Classical Probability in the Enlightenment. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ
  2. Davidson D 1980 Essays on Actions and Events. Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK
  3. Dray W 1957 Laws and Explanation in History. Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK
  4. Hempel C 1965 Aspects of Scientific Explanation and Other Essays. Free Press, New York
  5. Mele A 1992 Springs of Action. Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK
  6. Polanyi M 1985 Personal Knowledge. University of Chicago Press, Chicago
  7. Robinson D 1985 Philosophy of Psychology. Columbia University Press, New York
  8. Winch P 1958 The Idea of a Social Science. Routledge, London
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