Science and Social Science: An Introduction

Science and Social Science: An Introduction

Science and Social Science: An Introduction

Science and Social Science: An Introduction


Is social science really a science at all, and if so in what sense? This is the first question that any course on the philosophy of the social sciences must tackle. In this brief introduction, Malcolm Williams gives students the grounding that will enable them to discuss the issues involved with confidence. He looks at: * The historical development of natural science and its distinctive methodology * the case in favour of an objective science of the social which follows the same rules * The arguments of social constructionists, interpretative sociologists and others against objectivity and even science itself * recent developments in natural science - for instance the rise of complexity theory and the increased questioning of positivism - which bring it closer to some of the key arguments of social science. Throughout, the book is illustrated with short clear examples taken from the actual practice of social science research and from popular works of natural science which will illuminate the debate for all students whatever their background.


Science and social science have been uneasy bedfellows. Investigators of the social world are divided between those who are convinced that what they do is science, those who are convinced it is not (and do not call themselves scientists) and those who are uncertain. My own position is sympathetic to the first group in that I believe that scientific social science is both possible and desirable. But that does not make me uncritical of science generally, or of social science that claims such credentials. The orientation of this book is, then, critically pro-science.

This book is an introduction to science and social science and is such in two senses:

It is an introduction to some of the key issues that divide advocates of science in social science from those who oppose it. Mainly, however, it is an introduction to science for those concerned with investigating the social world as students or professionals, as theorists or researchers. This does, however, beg the question of why such people would want to know about science?

My answer to this is twofold. First, it is because the status of social science is so contested it is important to know what science is in the first place. Only then can an informed view be taken. Historically I do not think this has been the case for most students of social science. Their experience has so often been an exposure to science and scientific method in the form of an uncomfortable mix of critical reflection on philosophical issues in science and science taken neat in the form of statistics. The two rarely connect and mixed messages and confusion ensue. Moreover, for many, the social sciences have been a haven from (in George Steiner’s words) ‘the murderous gadgetry of the age’ (Steiner 1989: 49), or at least from the machismo of mathematics and the laboratory. So many enter social science because they are critical of the social order and part of that social order is science and its emergent technology. This may, or may not, be combined with a distaste for the supposed intellectual certainties purveyed by science. In other words so many social scientists begin as ideological or intellectual rebels. Science, as understood in this way, is not an obvious destination. In this book I want to present an opposite view: . . .

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