Demarcating Social and Natural Science?
February 17, 2014
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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.