Access to the full content is only available to members of institutions that have purchased access. If you belong to such an institution, please log in or find out more about how to order.


Social science, contemporary philosophy of

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-R014-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved August 14, 2020, from

Article Summary

Some philosophers think that the study of social phenomena must apply methods from natural science. Researchers should discover causal regularities (whenever C operates, E occurs) and fit them into systematic theories. Some philosophers hold that social phenomena call for an entirely different approach, in which researchers seek to interpret fully the meaning of people’s actions, including their efforts to communicate and cooperate. On this view, the nearest that researchers will come to regularities will be to discover rules (whenever the situation is S, everyone must do A). The nearest that they will get to systematic theories will be systematic expositions of rules, like the rules of a kinship system.

Besides the naturalistic school and the interpretive school, the philosophy of social science harbours a critical school. This finds researches endorsed by the other two schools shot through with bias. It inclines to agree with the interpretive school in resisting naturalistic methods. However, its charges against naturalistic researches extend to interpretations. For interpretations may give untroubled pictures of societies in deep trouble, or picture the trouble in ways that serve the interests of the people who profit from it, for example, by leaving current rules about taking workers on and laying them off unquestioned. Here the critical school may itself use naturalistic methods. If it contends that ignoring ways of reassigning authority over employment increases the chances of private enterprises’ retaining their present authority, the critical school is talking about a causal connection. There is no rule that says anyone must increase the chances.

Yet the researches sponsored by the three schools are complementary to the degree that researches into regularities and into rules are complementary. Settled social rules have counterparts in causal regularities, which may be expressed in similar terms, although the evidence for regularities need not include intended conformity. Some regularities are not counterparts of rules, but involve rules notwithstanding. If the proportion of marriages in Arizona ending in divorce is regularly one-third, that is not (as it happens) because one-third of Arizonans who marry must divorce. Yet marriage and divorce are actions that fall under rules.

The three schools do more than endorse studies of rules or regularities. The critical school denies that any study of social phenomena can be value-free, in particular on the point of emancipating people from the oppressions of current society. Either researchers work with the critical school to expose oppression; or they work for the oppressors. The interpretive school brings forward subjective features of human actions and experiences that overflow the study of rules. These features, too, may be reported or ascribed correctly or incorrectly; however, the truth about them may be best expressed in narrative texts more or less elaborate.

Postmodernism has generalized these themes in a sceptical direction. Every text can be read in multiple, often conflicting, ways, so there are always multiple, often conflicting, interpretations of whatever happens. Every interpretation serves a quest for power, whether or not it neatly favours or disfavours an oppressive social class. Such contentions undermine assumptions that the three schools make about seeking truth regarding social phenomena. They do even more to undermine any assumption that the truths found will hold universally.

The assumption about universality, however, is a legacy of the positivist view of natural science. Positivism has given way to the model-theoretic or semantic view that science proceeds by constructing models to compare with real systems. A model – in social science, a model of regularities or one of rules – that fits any real system for a time is a scientific achievement empirically vindicated. Renouncing demands for universality, the philosophy of social science can make a firm stand on issues raised by postmodernism. It can accept from postmodernists the point that scientific success happens in local contexts and only for a time; but resist any further-reaching scepticism.

Citing this article:
Braybrooke, David. Social science, contemporary philosophy of, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-R014-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2020 Routledge.

Related Searches



Related Articles