An Essay in the Philosophy
of Social Science
by Peter Meyer Written November 1999
1. Is social science really a science?
Social science may be defined (broadly) as the rational and systematic study of human society in all its forms with the aim of arriving at an enduring understanding, acknowledged as such by a broad consensus of researchers, of social phenomena.
One of the properties which is necessary to a science is that the activities of its practitioners results in a substantial body of organised "knowledge". One of the qualities of what qualifies as "knowledge" is that there is a broad consensus among interested parties concerning this "knowledge". Thus if social science did not arrive at an enduring understanding of social phenomena, acknowledged as such by a broad consensus of researchers, it would fail to qualify as a science.
As an initial attempt to define "science" one might say that it is the collective activity, and the enduring results of that activity, in which the aim is to describe, analyse and understand (in a way which is intelligible to any person with the necessary mental abilities and training) a particular field of empirical phenomena (its qualities, properties, nature and anything else about it which captures our attention and interest), and if possible to predict accurately the development of systems within this field from particular states or in response to particular changes.1
However, this definition would exclude mathematics from the realm of the sciences. Mathematics has been called "the queen of the sciences". Two of the qualities which justify the inclusion of mathematics among the sciences are (i) that the activity of mathematicians results in enduring knowledge and (ii) that mathematics (unlike philosophy) is not characterized by enduring disagreements among its practitioners.
Mathematicians may be inclined to view a particular mathematical hypothesis either as true or as false, but it is recognized by all mathematicians that this matter can be decided only by the discovery of a proof of the hypothesis or the discovery of a counter-example to it (although there is the possibility that some concepts may be refined in this process2). Mathematicians, unlike philosophers, do not spend their time trying to persuade their colleagues that a particular assertion is or is not likely to be true. They seek proof or disproof. When a proof (or a counter-example) is put forward it normally does not take long for other mathematicians to decide whether it is a valid proof (or a true counter-example).
Philosophy, on the other hand, although a rational activity, is not a science because there is no consensus regarding how disagreements may be resolved, other than continued discussion and debate, which, as experience shows, frequently do not lead to a resolution of disagreement.
These considerations show that (i) rationality is not sufficient to qualify an area of investigation as a science and (ii) it is not necessary for a collective activity to be called a science that its subject matter consists in emprically observable phenomena (i.e., phenomena observable by the outer senses), but rather that (iii) what is necessary is that it is practiced in such a manner that disagreements can be resolved (by those with the intellectual ability required to grasp the problem and the skills to investigate) and do not typically become merely entrenched competing opinions.
The property described in (iii) is called "objectivity". In other words, for a field of investigation to be considered a science its results must be such that, if true, they can be verified by similarly qualified investigators, and if false, this can be revealed by the checking of the work by others. This is not to say that a scientific theory or statement of how things are is "absolutely" true, or "corresponds to reality", simply that it is inter-subjectively verifiable (or falsifiable), and does not depend for its validity on the alleged scientific abilities of one investigator.3
Thus it is not necessary for social science to emulate the methods of the natural sciences in order to be considered a "science". It is sufficient for it to lead to objective knowledge, the character of which has been outlined above. Whether it does so is another question, which we shall consider later.
2. What is society?
All humans are born into a society of one form or another, and live within society, but their view is usually just that of their immediate surroundings, and their intellectual understanding of the society they live in is usually derived from what they read in the newspapers.
When we attempt to characterise society from a more "scientific" viewpoint we may say that society is an assembly (enduring over time) of individual organisms, each with some degree of awareness and autonomy, interacting in usually complex ways and producing artefacts and forms of organisation which in turn influence and constrain their experience and their actions.4
Social scientists may differ in the degree to which they make use of (or even acknowledge) the autonomy and awareness of the individuals in a society in their descriptions and explanations of social phenomena, but that a society consists of such individuals cannot be denied without destroying the distinction between what social scientists study and what natural scientists study.5
3. Does scientific knowledge accord with objective reality?
Most scientists tacitly assume that they study something which is independent of their inquiry, which has an existence in itself, and has pre-existing properties which are revealed by their inquiry.6 The problem with this is to identify this "reality", with which scientific knowledge is supposed to accord, other than by some process of "scientific" inquiry itself. If reality is what is known by means of scientific inquiry, then it is tautologous to say that scientific knowledge accords with reality.7
Reality is what is intersubjectively verifiable, and enduringly so. The reality revealed by the investigations of natural scientists is "especially real" because so many investigators (even generations of investigators) affirm its qualities. Anyone, it is said, with the proper ability to learn and the proper training can confirm what it says in the textbooks of physics, chemistry and biology.8
As regards social science in particular, there is less agreement than in natural science as to what constitutes social reality (as distinct from the reality of human individuals and the material objects that they produce). Emile Durkheim attempted to distinguish social science from other forms of science by drawing attention (as he supposed) to a special kind of "fact", a "social fact", which he held to be different from the kinds of facts studied in the natural sciences. In Chapter 1 of his The Rules of Sociological Method he states two criteria for identifying "social facts". Firstly:
"A social fact is to 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."([Dur],p.10)
According to this definition, gravity is a social fact, since it coerces individuals to remain on the ground and resists their attempts to fly by their own efforts.
At the end of Chapter 1 he restates this as:
"A social fact is every way of acting — capable of exercising on the individual an external constraint." ([Dur], p.13)
Since gravity is not a "way of acting" this excludes gravity. But who or what is it that acts? Presumably people. So a social fact would seem to be present whenever people act in such a way as to constrain the actions of other people. Of course, they do so by virtue of occupying space, since we cannot walk through solid objects. So does Durkheim mean that people constrain others by intention? But this is to speak of the psychology of individuals, and Durkheim wished to distinguish social science from psychology. Presumably Durkheim is referring to customs, laws and traditions which individuals ignore at some risk.
The second criterion Durkheim gives for the presence of a "social fact" is:
"Every way of acting which is general throughout a given society, while at the same time existing in its own right independent of its individual manifestations." ([Dur], p.13)
But does it make sense to speak of anything "existing in its own right independent of its individual manifestations"? To take an example from Durkheim's own work, can we say that suicide exists "in its own right" apart from particular instances of suicide?
Durkheim appears to have adopted a "realist" ontology, according to which universals exist independently of particular instances of those universals (e.g. "red" existing as something distinct from things which are coloured red). This ontological position is rather implausible (one has only to ask where the alleged universal exists).
Nevertheless there is a sense in which customs and traditions exist over and above the actions of individuals which may be said to exemplify them, for example, the custom and tradition of marriage. Yet even if one denies that there is an entity of some kind distinct from the individual instances of marriage, marriage is not simply the collection of those instances. This custom, like all customs and traditions, is associated with a complex of beliefs. In fact this custom may be regarded as consisting of this belief complex together with the actions of individuals acting on those beliefs in respect of them. Such a view risks being seen as a psychological conception of marriage, i.e., a reduction of the "fact" of marriage to instances of individual belief and consequent action, and thus is inconsistent with Durkheim's wish to distinguish social science from psychology.
However in the case of marriage (and other customs and traditions) we do not have simply a collection of individual beliefs and actions. Rather we have a belief complex which is instantiated in many individuals and persists over time. It consists in individuals, in fact most individuals in society, believing more-or-less the same thing as their contemporaries and as those who went before them and those who succeed them, and acting in ways implied by this belief complex, that allows us to identify "marriage" as something distinct from individual instances of marriage and individual instances of belief. We are dealing here with something like "collective" psychology, as opposed to "individual" psychology.
So we might say that a quasi-Durkheimian conception of social science is that it is the study of human psychology as it manifests itself not in individual beliefs and actions but in the beliefs and actions of large numbers of (indeed, most if not all) people in a society, while recognizing that this formulation may not have been acceptable to Durkheim because of his wish to draw a clear distinction between social science and psychology.
Durkheim's philosophical realism seems to have led him to objectify this "collective psychology" as a "collective consciousness" or a "group mind", a position which is not viewed sympathetically by most late 20th Century social scientists, and the examination of which need not detain us here.9
Social reality, it seems, is what social researchers discover when they seek to understand society in a way that makes sense to their colleagues, provided they can agree on what they discover and that this agreement persists over time. Thus it cannot be said to exist independently of the collective activity of social researchers, yet it exists independently of individual social researchers.
4. Weber on the origins of modern capitalism
Max Weber, unlike Durkheim, did not feel the need to legitimate the study of society by establishing its credentials as a science (at least, one modelled on the natural sciences). Weber's approach to the study of society is more akin to that of the historian than to that of the anthropologist, but is not purely descriptive. He draws upon psychology, not as a science, but as sympathetic understanding of the mental worlds of people living in various times and places.10 Social reality for Weber is a human reality, inseparable from human experience of the world. It is true that the economic and historical details are necessary for an understanding of society at a particular time and place, but their true significance lies in how these things were experienced by the people who lived among them, and what they thought of their world and of themselves, and how this guided their decisions and their actions and formed their mode of life. However this is not a purely "literary" method, since Weber uses the "ideal type" as an explanatory device, of which more will be said below.
In The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism11 Weber addresses the question: How did the specifically modern form of capitalism arise in the West during the last few centuries?12 Weber notes that capitalism, in the sense of material acquisitiveness, maximization of wealth and the use of it to create further wealth, for the sake of the enjoyment thereof, predated Western civilization and has long existed in various forms in non-Western societies. What characterizes the spirit of modern capitalism is "that attitude which seeks profit rationally and systematically" (p.64). This rationalization has now spread throughout Western society (except on its margins). Or rather, those who believe they run society have attempted to impose this rationalization upon it, despite resistance from those who dislike the curtailment of their liberty that this entails.
How did this situation arise? Weber attempts to show that its origins are in fact religious, despite the fact that it initially seems implausible that modern capitalism, which has no time for spiritual values (unless the public perception of a concern therewith contributes to profits), could have its origin in religion. But Weber succeeds in making this claim plausible. For it to seem plausible we must follow Weber in his description of the mental world of Puritan Protestantism.
In Chapter 4, Part A, of The Protestant Ethic Weber presents his "ideal type" of Calvinist belief, remarking that "we can only hope to understand their [i.e. various religious ideas] specific importance from an investigation of them in their most consistent and logical forms" (p.98).
According to Weber it is specifically in Calvinism, rather than Protestantism as a whole, that the spiritual basis of modern capitalism is to be found, and within Calvinism the specific doctrine of predestination (and the effects thereof). According to this doctrine each soul is either saved or damned from its beginning, as ordained by God, with no possibility of altering its fate, either by faith, by works or by the sacraments of the Church.
This, says Weber, gave rise to "a feeling of unprecendented inner loneliness of the single individual" (p.104). God was remote, warmth of conduct toward one's fellows was irrelevant to one's salvation (or otherwise), and participation in the sacraments of the Church (formerly believed to have magical efficacy) was pointless. Yet the question of whether one was among the saved or the damned was the overarching question of one's life. How was one to know?
Although, as Calvin taught, there was no way to know by a person's actions that they were among the elect, some actions would certainly mark a man as among the damned. Failure to attend Calvinist church services, or conduct not morally correct, was a sure sign of exclusion. Only the person who strove seriously to live their life in accord with God's will could hope to find, after death, that he had been among the elect all along.13
This led to the rationalization of salvation, i.e., the conscious planning of one's day-to-day behaviour so as to maximise the likelihood that one was, indeed, among the elect. The alternative was too horrible to contemplate.
In characterizing his ideal type of Calvinist mentality Weber writes:
"The world exists to serve the glorification of God and for that purpose alone. ... But God requires social achievement of the Christian because He wills that social life shall be organized according to His commandments, in accordance with that purpose." (p.108)
Thus labor becomes a duty to God. The laborer is called by God to perform his duty of work. Thus came to prominence the idea of "the calling" in the sense of "vocation" (or in more modern terms, "profession"). Protestant asceticism legitimated "the exploitation of this specific willingness to work [hard], in that it also interpreted the employer's business activity as a calling."(p.178).
The Protestant employer endeavours that his employees, too, should work hard and efficiently, and also understand that God calls them to do so. "The treatment of labour as a calling became as characteristic of the modern worker as the corresponding attitude toward acquisition of the business man."(p.179) "... intense worldly activity ... alone disperses religious doubts and gives certainty of grace."(p.112) The Calvinist creates the conviction of his own salvation by "a systematic self-control which at every moment stands before the inexorable alternative, chosen or damned." (p.115) In contrast to Catholicism, Calvinism taught the application of this methodical self-control within worldly life, indeed, it taught the necessity of proving one's salvation by one's conduct in the world.
For the Calvinist mentality this world does not exist for the enjoyment thereof but rather for the glorification of God. For the Puritan asceticism is a virtue because enjoyment of worldly things is a dereliction of duty, using for selfish purposes what truly belongs to God alone.
While the methodical self-control and rationalisation practiced by the Protestant increases his success in worldly life, as measured principally by success in business, rational asceticism demands that the profits therefrom are not to be enjoyed, but rather are to be reinvested for the sake of (as we now say) "building up the business" and achieving further success. Gradually, by rational means, "market share" is increased, with the aim that eventually a level of control over the outer world will be reached which mirrors the control over the inner world. This obsession with control is one of the characteristics of modern capitalist society, the leaders of which attempt to control both people and natural resources, and to exploit both "efficiently".
The captains of modern industry, of course, do not think as the Puritans did (even though Puritanism lingers on in the "civil religion" of the U.S.A.). What Weber tried to show was how the Puritan mentality provided one of the essential conditions for the rise of modern capitalism. Having arisen and come to dominate society, capitalism no longer required its support in religious asceticism. But the mental attitudes which made the ascendancy of modern capitalism possible persist in its underlying assumptions, such as that hard work is a virtue, material prosperity is a sign of the superior man, and that he who does not wish to work (whether or not the work available is perceived as boring and pointless) is somehow reprehensible (as the Puritans earlier regarded someone who failed to do their duty to God). "The Puritan", says Weber, "wanted to work in a calling; we are forced to do so." (p.181)
Thus Weber tells a story that gives us insight into our own lives, shows us how aspects of our lives are rooted in specific historical antecedents. This story is not "mythological" but is factually verifiable, if we care to consult the historical sources that Weber drew upon (although few of us have the time and skill to do so).
5. Concluding remarks
In his The Sociological Imagination C. W. Mills wrote that sociological reseach has tended to move in three general directions:
(i) A theory of history, an encyclopedic endeavour, concerned with the whole of man's social life, at once historical and systematic. (Weber is one of the best examples of this school of inquiry.)
(ii) Systematic theory of the nature of man and society; static, abstract, general. (Here Talcott Parsons is the prime example.)
(iii) Empirical studies of contemporary social facts and problems, with an emphasis on methodology. (Much of modern American sociology.)
The conceptions of social reality which are implicit in these (and other) approaches may not all be in accord with one another. Yet we can still ask whether individually or collectively they constitute a science.
When we look at the research of social scientists, do we find (as in mathematics) that hypotheses can be verified or refuted as a result of a collective examination by those qualified to do so? Or do we find (as in philosophy) that there is ongoing dispute and little agreement?
The situation is not so bad as in philosophy but it is also not so good as in mathematics and natural science. A sociologist of the stature of Weber may propose an explanatory hypothesis, such as that certain aspects of modern capitalism can be understood as arising from certain religious values dominant at some phase of recent social history, and other sociologists may disagree (although there is widespread acknowledgement that Weber's explanation is both correct and valuable). But it is not the sort of explanation which can be shown to be true beyond doubt. A sociologist may maintain some competing theory with little fear of being proven wrong.
In the other schools of social inquiry mentioned by Mills there are other considerations. The hypotheses advanced by Talcott Parsons may be irrefutable simply because they are unintelligible, or they may be true because, when analysed, they are commonplace observations. Such hypotheses neither explain nor lead to knowledge.
The empirical studies, largely based on interviews, may generate masses of data suitable for statistical analysis, but in the end lead to few conclusions of any significance for an understanding of society (although the results may be of interest to politicians and bureaucrats who wish to regulate society more to their liking).
Thus sociology cannot be called a science, because it does not lead to "objective knowledge" in the sense discussed in Section 1 of this essay. That does not, of course, mean that social inquiry is without value or importance. The example of Max Weber's inquiry into the religious foundations of modern capitalism shows that a sociologist of his capabilities can arrive at results which are not only significant for sociology as a field of research which aims at the rational comprehension of human society but which also are of value for understanding our own lives.
[Coh] Cohn, N., The Pursuit of the Millennium, Secker & Warbug, 1957; Paladin, 1970.
[Dur] Durkheim, E., The Rules of Sociological Method, transl. S. A. Solovay and J. H. Mueller, The Free Press of Glencoe, 1938
[Mil] Mills, C. Wright, The Sociological Imagination, Oxford U.P., 1959, Penguin Books, 1970.
[Sch] Schwartz, A. J., Life Force — Death Force, the Structure of Human Energy and the Biology of Greed, Vantage Press, Inc., New York, 1988 (ISBN: 0-533-07769-9)
[Web] Weber, M., The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, translated by Talcott Parsons, Routledge, 1992
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