Part I: The Current State of the Social Sciences
Science simply takes an inventory of what is. It’s a taking into
account of the status quo, that’s all science is.
“I can’t base what I’m going to be off of what everybody isn’t.”
~ Jay-z ~
This part is about Social Science. Social sciences include the various fields of study on the psyche and behavior of the human being (psychology) and society at large (sociology).
This part will start off by describing the dimensions of social science, the social science research process and the underlying perspectives on why social science is currently practiced in the way that it is practiced.
I find most social science to be interesting, informative and sometimes fascinating, but rarely inspiring and empowering.
I will share my perspective on why I find this to be so and I will point out the limitations of the current practices in the social sciences. I will provide new perspectives that I’ve found to be much more appropriate and useful for practicing Social Science.
(for clarity purposes and in case the reader might not be familiar with a term, I’ve also included an appendix (A) which includes some basic background terminology)
The aim of social science
The aim of social science (and science in general) is to maximize the validity of scientific knowledge. In order to acquire valid scientific knowledge, scientists do research. Mouton and Marais (1988) distinguish five dimensions to the activity of social science research:
a Sociological (s), an Ontological (o), a Teleological (t), an Empirical (e) and a Methodological (m) dimension.
The Sociological (s) dimension refers to the fact that social science research happens within a social context. There is a scientific community a researcher interacts with.
The Ontological (o) dimension refers to the study of being and reality. It also concerns the beliefs and assumptions researchers hold about what is real and what is not, beliefs about the nature, structure and status of social phenomena. These beliefs and assumptions profoundly affect the definition of research problems. Different schools of thought hold different beliefs and therefore practice differently. These are basically rooted in which paradigm people hold about reality.
The Teleological (t) dimension refers to the notion that Social Science is goal-directed, either at gaining a theoretical understanding about the world and predicting future events or at gaining practical knowledge on how to change human behavior, heal the ill and depressed or solving social problems.
The Empirical (e) dimension refers to the idea that statements, in order to be valid and scientific, have to approximate social reality as closely as possible. This means that the words and sentences of scientific text have to accurately reflect what is going on in the actual world (reality).
The Methodological dimension refers to the type of research that is being conducted by scientists. It also refers to the decisions researchers make concerning what models they use and what type of research design and measurements they employ. In the social sciences, ideas on methodology focus on objectivity in order to ensure that methods gather valid data.
These five dimensions are all represented in the following quote:
“Social sciences research is a collaborative (s) human activity in which social reality (o) is studied objectively (m) with the aim (t) of gaining a valid (e) understanding (t) of it.” (Mouton et. al., 1988)
So to sum up all these dimensions, Social science research:
- Happens within a social community of scientists (s)
- Is about social reality (o)
- Uses measures that focus on objectivity (m)
- Has as a main goal (t) to understand social reality
- Produces knowledge that is as valid (e) as possible
The Research Process
When a scientist does Social Science research, there is a series of steps he usually goes thru. This is the process from which all scientific knowledge is acquired, so it’s important to have an idea of what actually goes on when a scientist does research.
I’ve integrated these steps from various resources (Mouton et. al., 1988; Bryman, 2004; Field, 2009; education experience) and I’ll describe them here. I’ll separate each step by numbers.
The scientist usually makes an initial observation (1) or has an idea that stimulates him into wanting to do research. On the basis of this observation and already existing scientific knowledge on the subject, he generates a theory (2). To make the theory testable by research, the scientist writes out hypotheses (3) and distinguishes the significant variables involved. After this, he creates or seeks out measures (4) that are suitable to measure the variables involved. Then, he starts measuring subjects and collecting data (5). When the data are collected, they get analyzed (6) and the hypotheses are put to the test. When the results of the analysis are complete, the scientist draws conclusions (7), integrates the findings with the theory and suggests ideas for future research.
In describing the dimensions and process of Social science research, I have given the reader an idea of what Social science research is and how it works and operates. I’m going to spend the rest of this Part-I examining these foundational ideas and values, and elaborating on what the implications of practicing research like this are. These implications concern the nature of the knowledge that Social science produces and how that scientific knowledge impacts REAL people in everyday life.
Understanding the world (reality)
One of the aims of science is to understand the world (and in the case of social science: social reality). I believe that science initially arose out of the curiosity of man. We (human beings) wanted to understand the world around us better, so we could interact with it in a more effective way. In an evolutionary sense, being able to understand reality and predict events more effectively would increase the amount of valuable resources we had available and thus, the likelihood of survival.
The more science uncovered, the more valuable resources we started to enjoy. Just think about everything in your life that you value that science helped to make possible (electricity, transportation, medicine, infrastructure, etcetera). A lot of good stuff that all came from man’s curiosity of wanting to explore and understand the world he lives in. The findings in physics and other sciences have led to huge contributions in this way.
Social Science, being a relatively younger science, has led to much fewer contributions in my estimation. Social Science has always been looked down on by the other sciences, as its measures usually aren’t as clear-cut as those in, say Physics.
I think this is because Social Science has tried to mimic the values of its older science cousins. In the following sections, I will point out how holding similar values as the older sciences can have major drawbacks for Social Science. I also want to suggest that Social Science has great potential (yes, greater potential than the other sciences), if practiced differently.
Appendix A: Basic Terminology
This appendix includes some basic definitions that I’ve used in the previous section, and will also use in the rest of the book.
An integrated set of ideas that attempts to explain a certain (set of) phenomena. Theories can help us to understand why certain things happen the way they do.
A concept is a linguistic symbol (a word) for a distinguishable aspect of reality. The word refers to a ‘thing’ in reality. With a concept we can communicate about the thing with others and build understandings about it cognitively (mentally).
A variable is something that changes among different exemplars, instances or settings.
A measure is a way to quantify something or to determine the quality of something.
A statement which suggest a possible way the world is or works. It is usually written down in such a way that it easily translates in variables which can be measured and tested.
Validity refers to the degree to which a statement accurately represents or approximates reality.
A paradigm is a worldview, it is a perspective of a person on what the world is like and how the world works.
All assumptions, beliefs, concepts and ideas about things in the world are embedded in an overarching worldview (paradigm).
Next post drops at Wednesday January 4th 2012 on the topic of Objectivity & Causality
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