Said Simon

My thoughts as a Secular Humanist and student of politics

Demarcating Social and Natural Science?

I’m going to copy a question and my response to it from a conversation on the philosophy of science subreddit, because it may be of interest to the sort of people likely to read my blog (hypothetical people for the most part, I’m sure).

What do you think demarcates social science from hard science? Is this difference qualitative or quantitative. Could this definition or the demarcating line be changed as science progress?

I smart just a little bit at the suggestion that what I am doing is ‘soft’, but I do not think that qualitative-quantitative captures the difference at all. This is first because to quantify something is simply to describe it through maths instead of ordinary language, so that you can perform a more sophisticated set of logical operations on it, like statistical analyses. What this means is that quantitative data/analysis is no less qualitative; it just describes and facilitates the study of qualities in a different sort of way. I bitch about this all the time to my colleagues, incidentally. Second is that many social scientists employ rather sophisticated quantitative analyses, using techniques like structural equation modeling, in their valiant struggles for satisfying covering-law explanations of the social world. Third, there are plenty of scientists, such as all these geologists whose articles I copy-edit, who do not use a lot of maths, but whose descriptions and classifications are highly systematic and rigorous.

I think that all science is, generally, an attempt to clarify and resolve problems of our experience with the world. The way scientific solutions are distinguishable from, say, religious solutions are, I think, because of the particular social dynamics of the scientific community; viz., extreme attention to rigour and reasoned justification, and a way of producing knowledge that is non-partisan and not immediately technical (that is, it’s about building better models of the world, not that such models can’t then help us change the world). By this token, I don’t think that chemistry and political science are essentially different kinds of science.

But I do think that there is a useful demarcation, and that is whether or not the scientist is studying the world of meanings. I mean, all science is a world of meanings, because all science involves representing the world through symbolic systems. But social scientists are engaged in the study of meanings as their explananda, and this brings in a set of ontological problems (for example, agency and free will) and epistemological problems (for example, what Giddens called the double hermeneutic: the fact that we are engaged in the interpretation of interpretation itself). These problems are why social scientists are engaged in a constant state of methodenstreit and why we will probably never reach the settled nature and predictive capacity that natural sciences have.

It also makes certain critical aspects of social science more salient. That is, we are more saliently able to critique policy or discuss matters of value and their relationship to ethics. It’s actually a pity that political science departments tend to feature little engagement between their empirical/scientific and normative students; political theory tends to be a major part of most big pol sci departments but those theorists go off and do their own thing, in marked contrast to sociological theorists, who are far more engaged with the empirical work carried out by practicing social scientists.

4 responses to “Demarcating Social and Natural Science?

  1. LFC February 18, 2014 at 1:48 am

    It’s actually a pity that political science departments tend to feature little engagement between their empirical/scientific and normative students; political theory tends to be a major part of most big pol sci departments but those theorists go off and do their own thing, in marked contrast to sociological theorists, who are far more engaged with the empirical work carried out by practicing social scientists.

    My impression — picked up at second hand and I could be wrong — is that, in the U.S. at any rate, you can’t get a job in a sociology dept nowadays primarily as a sociological theorist — if you’re interested in theory you also have to ‘do’ something else (there might be exceptions to this, but not many). Whereas in pol sci, as you say, political theory is a separate thing and the theorists are off in their own corner much or most of the time. This probably has something to do w how the academic cultures of the disciplines have evolved; a recent book by Joel Isaac, Working Knowledge, might be instructive on this at least for the U.S. context, but I haven’t read it (and have no immediate plans to). But thought I’d mention it anyway.

    • Said Simon February 18, 2014 at 6:05 pm

      Thanks for the book recommendation. I don’t know much about the professional situation for sociological theorists, but I do know that the trend for sociological theory right now is to engage with empirical problems rather than to remain entirely in the domain of meta-theory or ontology or whatever. The reason why this is not the case in pol sci may have to do with difficulties in traversing the is-ought distinction, but I also think it has a lot to do with the self-perception of political theorists as not really engaging in a social science. This puts me in an odd position of being a political science department, having an interest in social and political theory, but doing my fields in IR and Comparative because I have almost no overlap with the kind of theory that most of the theorists are interested in doing. Or at least, in teaching about. Meanwhile I could probably take the comp for sociological theory next week and score a (narrow) pass. I am very happy with my department overall, but it frustrates me that my discipline does not have much too much professional and pedagogical space for scholars with my particular research interests.

      • LFC February 19, 2014 at 10:35 pm

        My sense is that there are at least a small number of political theorists who try to engage with empirical problems, say, those who work on global distributive justice and related issues (some of them are philosophers by discipline, e.g. Mathias Risse, T. Pogge). But even a lot of that work probably remains on a fairly abstract level.

        I don’t know what the pol. theorists in your dept like to teach exactly, but it sounds as if you are doing the right thing in focusing on IR and Comparative. I had a sort of weird education in the sense that my undergrad degree (from a long time ago) was interdisciplinary, not in a pol sci dept, and my grad program (somewhat more recent, as I did other things in between) was also not a typical pol sci program (my degree says IR, not political science); and, though the curriculum has since been changed, when I went through the program it did not do a good job of covering the classic lit. on comparative politics. Consequently there are books that virtually every pol sci type of my generation probably had to read (e.g. Huntington’s Political Order in Changing Societies) that I was never assigned anywhere. It’s on my shelf and I’ve dipped into it, but that’s only b/c I think it “should” be on my shelf, not because I had to read it in a course. I suppose Dahl’s Who Governs? or Allison’s Essence of Decision or Hartz’s Liberal Tradition in America are other examples of pol sci ‘classics’ I never had to read. Well, I’d better stop before this comment becomes completely irrelevant to anything.

  2. Said Simon February 19, 2014 at 10:44 pm

    You’re speaking to some of the similar sorts of disciplinary identity crises that I’ve been grappling with. My BA was in ‘International Studies’ and my MA, in ‘War Studies’, so I find myself in a Political Science department for the first time. The process by which I am being socialised into its particular mode has been interesting to think about, but not always particularly comfortable. This is one of the reasons why I am generally satisfied with a comparative politics subfield: it is in many respects the kernel of the discipline. And Dahl does feature significantly in the syllabus, thankfully.

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