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Research is scientific if and only if it follows a procedure known as scientific method. A received view of this method has evolved in the seventeenth century as a synthesis of ideas of Bacon, Boyle, and Newton. Roughly, scientific method consists of indiscriminate observations of regularities, gathering information on repeatable phenomena, and using it as a sound basis for theorizing. Scientific method is, then, a talisman for success. Accordingly, researchers strive to show that their work conforms to scientific method—to the point of distortion. Yet, famously, all guarantees of success in research are worthless. Plato declared that the validity of ideas depends on their pedigree. Tradition offers only two views on the source of ideas: It is intuition—intellectualism, apriorism (Plato)— or it is observation—empiricism, inductivism (Aristotle). Question: Where should thinking or observing begin? No answer. Reliance on both thought and experience as sources of knowledge is impossible, as they may mismatch; yet their judicious use as procedures is possible: Apriorism admits experience as hints; inductivism admits hypotheses as temporary scaffolding.
The promise of success that scientific method grants depends on the unlearning of prejudices. Sir Francis Bacon, the father of the modern scientific method and a precursor of the Enlightenment, was the first to realize that preconceived opinions distort observation, as they invariably confirm themselves; reliable observations come from unbiased minds. So he recommended relinquishing all preconceptions. This is radicalism; it bespeaks utter rationality. The classical rationalists of the Age of Reason viewed humans as utterly rational, with reason as free of local (individual) differences. Their theories ignored these differences; their economic theory concerned only free trade; their political theory deemed the state as taking care of the contracts, including those between ruler and subject; religion they viewed as private, independent of any established church. Social researchers thus viewed individual conduct as purely rational and as yielding to individually endorsed motives exclusively. Thus, their views on scientific method embody a view of humanity as rational and the individual as preceding society.
The received view of scientific method remained excessively rationalist, radical, ahistorical, individualist, and liberal. To date it dominates the natural sciences, economics, and behaviorist and Freudian psychology. After the failure of the French Revolution, the dominant view within social studies had history as its paradigm, and its agenda largely aimed at shunning radicalism by presenting political theory historically, deprecating democracy and science. As views on scientific method differed, so views differed as to whether social studies start with individuals and reach the study of the social whole or vice versa. This was then a backlash against radicalism. Its prime initiator was Georg Friedrich Wilhelm Hegel, who traced the roots of French revolutionary terror to the Enlightenment’s dismissal of social authority as resting on prejudice. Scientific method is inapplicable to society, he declared, since societies have historical roots; there is no social prediction even though nations are subject to historical laws. Schelling, Hegel, and others, developed new methods, variants of which some twentieth-century thinkers embraced, especially Henri Bergson and Edmund Husserl. Following Hegel’s claim that the methods of the natural and social sciences diverge, Wilhelm Dilthey suggested that whereas the natural sciences employ deductive explanations, the social sciences employ empathy. (Karl Popper endorsed this distinction, incidentally: His theory of explanation—situational logic—encompasses both models, and allows for reference to both individuals and institutions.) Hegel’s methodology is still popular among those who ignore scientific method. Conspicuous among his twentieth-century followers are Gabriel Marcel, Paul Ricouer, Martin Heidegger, Hans-Georg Gadamer, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Jacque Derrida. They all adopted variants of Husserl’s method. Heidegger preferred poetic truth to scientific truth. Gadamer endorsed Hegel’s objection to the Enlightenment movement’s sweeping dismissal of prejudice. He recommended the study of texts, not of facts, hoping that certitude is achievable there, with wider conclusions. Derrida objected: There is no one certain way to read a text. Gadamer was adamant, expressing preference for Aristotle’s text on physics over modern ones. Sartre first accepted scientific method and endorsed behaviorism. As he was later impressed with psychoanalysis, he gave up both. (Incidentally, Popper considered both violations of the rules of scientific method, as he rejected the received view.)
Hegel also influenced adherents to science, including Henri de St. Simon, Auguste Comte, John Stuart Mill, and Karl Marx. They sought the scientific historical laws that permit predictions. Marx stressed that scientific method sanctify his predictions, rendering them incontestable. (Not all his followers share his respect for science.) Does the use of scientific method validate Comte’s theory of the three stages of history or Marx’s view of history as propelled by the class struggle? Is dissent a challenge to their scientific credentials? Or did prejudice distort their use of scientific method? These are difficult questions.
William Whewell, a significant nineteenth-century transitional figure, dismissed the fear of prejudice. He contested Bacon’s proposal to empty our minds of preconceived opinions, declaring all ideas preconceived. He trusted rigorous tests to eliminate error. Bacon promised that empty minds will follow scientific method and produce true theories; Whewell denied that: We need hypotheses; occasionally, researchers hit upon true ones and verify them empirically, he said. His view won popularity among physicists while social thinkers followed Mill.
Marx challenged the individualist, ahistorical economics with his historical prediction: As markets must be increasingly unstable, capitalism will give way to social-ism—probably through civil war. At the end of the nineteenth century, Emile Durkheim and Max Weber, known as the fathers of modern sociology, circumvented him and shifted the debate away from history back to the other question that Hegel had raised: Which is primary, the individual or the social whole? Their writings on society and on scientific method ignore historical laws.
Durkheim’s starting point was the claim that some “social facts” are observable (such as conformity to laws). This is hard to comprehend, but clearly, he wanted to broaden classical individualist methodology to make it recognize collective entities. He steered between Hegel’s view of social forces and Marx’s view of economic forces. He considered national cultures to be the glue that maintains collectives; in particular, religion is society’s representation or celebration of itself.
Durkheim valued individual contributions to culture, as he admired science. Does his view of culture allow for this? He left this question open. Hence, as a response to Hegel, his theory is incomplete. His attention lay elsewhere: He insisted that a culture coheres with its society. He invented functionalism, the view that social wholes are coherent. A clear counterexample to this is crime: It is dysfunctional. He suggested that crime has a function: to remind society of the law. This does not block the counterexample: The need for violent reminders bespeaks incoherence. Once functionalism incorporates dysfunctional aspects, it becomes trivial and abandons coherence. Durkheim was inspired by Claude Bernard’s observation that cold-blooded animals are more adapted to the environment but less energetic than warm-blooded ones. He applied this to the division of labor: High specialization enables a striking worker to bring society to a halt and forces it to cohere (organic solidarity). This is too vague to be open to criticism.
Weber rejected “one-sided materialism”—in allusion to Marx—and ascribed social values to ideas. His studies identify typical value-systems of typical members of various classes and societies. Unlike classical individuals who represent humanity in general, Weber’s typical individuals represent subcollectives. His theory of scientific method thus steers between classical individualism and collectivism. To emphasize his reluctance to say whether societies are real, he called it “individualism of method.”
Georg Simmel (a contemporary of Durkheim and Weber, but influential only after World War II) suggested that individual and society are equally primary, so that conflict is never totally avoidable. Karl Popper suggested considered action as strictly individual but within social contexts—situational logic—thus achieving a view that is in the traditional individualist mode, without being radical. This opens the road for new kinds of explanation— especially for actions aiming at institutional reform.
Popper’s suggestion rests on his groundbreaking description of scientific theory as (not proven but) testable, namely, refutable. For success, this is necessary but insufficient: There is no guarantee. Scientific truth is then not the truth, but the best available approximation to it. This closes the debate comparing the rules for natural and social studies. For explanations in the social sciences to be refutable, they should center on individual actions.
Science is now increasingly seen as the search for answers to interesting questions that are open to criticism.
Another development is of the systemist outlook: Both individual and society are systems of sorts (Mario Bunge). How is action at all possible? This question is outside the domain of social studies; these take actions as given and center on their unintended consequences (Hayek)—especially actions intended to improve society. Systemism is incomplete without a theory of scientific method. Some variant of Popper’s theory is an obvious candidate. This, however, is a matter for future discussions of scientific method adequate for social studies. The starting point of any such study has to be an examination of the history and sociology of the social sciences, especially of the question, what do we owe to the diverse school of thought of the past and to their august members?
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