The Framework of the Social Sciences

What do you think?

How well does the current framework of natural sciences work for the social sciences?

Should we be confined to looking for laws of nature in order to understand human behavior and social interactions?

Can you see a fundamental problem when we turn the microscope of objective observation back upon ourselves? Could we just be seeing a show that we are putting on for the camera? Seeing what we want to see or expect to see?

I often remark that life requires subjective participation so science cannot be our life. But what does this mean when we are making ourselves the object of our scientific investigations?

Any thoughts on this from our social scientists?

P.S. Remember the expectations for gracious dialogue. It would be natural in this topic for the social scientists to assume an instructional and authoritative role. But it would be nice to keep down the pejorative tones so the moderators don’t get upset.

When I was thirteen years old, my headmaster made a most astute observation on my school report. He said that there are two kinds of subjects: exact subjects such as Maths and Physics on the one hand, and others which he described as concerning “the vagaries of humans and other living beings.” The two generally require very different approaches.

In the exact subjects, you’re dealing with precise quantities, and systems that behave in predictable and repeatable ways where cause and effect can be clearly identified. Interpretations of the data are usually specific, precise and unambiguous. On the other hand, in the “vagaries” subjects, you are dealing with quantities that are much less precise, and systems with far more variables and unknowns that are difficult or even impossible to predict, where cause and effect are often much less obvious. Consequently, you tend to focus much more on statistics and trends, often with wide distributions. The data are usually much more open to interpretation, with much greater scope for disagreement and debate as to what exactly is actually going on.


I am reminded of when even the natural sciences were pretty much limited to observation. We could catalogue the stars and the species but didn’t really know what they were or how they came to be. After all, that is what we are doing with statistics in the social sciences and it also underlines how much more imprecise and difficult the observations are.

But this is one of the reasons it is difficult for me to find fault with those resorting to evolution and naturalistic methods for the social sciences. It may be grasping at straws but when even the straws are hard to find, what else is there to do?

But our conversation in the other thread made me wonder if the social science didn’t need a completely different framework, a different definition of science itself. It sure seems to me that the line between philosophy/theology and the social sciences is a harder one to draw and maybe we are even drawing more of line than we should be.

On the other thread(s) where ‘naturalism’ seemed so contentious, the distinction between philosophical naturalism and methodological naturalism might have been helpful to have made explicit. I think was inferred by some but not another.

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