Academic journal article Social Alternatives

Reflexivity, Strategy and the Social Sciences

Academic journal article Social Alternatives

Reflexivity, Strategy and the Social Sciences

Article excerpt


The various branches of science and philosophy all share a singular goal - a desire to understand the world and solving any 'problems' encountered. Both disciplines understand the need to respect the history of their discipline while not being enslaved by it going forward. Physical science has become so good at identifying, distilling, understanding and responding to problems that it is common nowadays for philosophers to study the ways in which scientists do this. This is the polar opposite of early philosophers of science who typically intended to formulate, on philosophical grounds, the 'best' or 'right' methods for scientific advancement. For example, Francis Bacon's inductive method of science was prescriptive; he proposed that scientists should gather lots of data and make unbiased inferences based on the patterns perceived (Bacon 1928). It was not until Einstein, Popper, Kuhn and Lakatos, that discussion started to move to a descriptive understanding of science itself. The discussion has gradually shifted from 'how should science be conducted' to 'how is science conducted'. As a result of this move away from the philosophical determination of a 'master principle' or general theory of science as such, much of the normative philosophical interest in science now focuses on the potential impacts of scientific inquiry on human life and wellbeing; a concern now regularly extended to animals and the environment at large.

Such concerns shape my essay, but with a deliberate focus on the social sciences. The move from prescription to description (and evolving ethical analyses) is less well justified in the social sciences in their present state, than with the physical sciences, and for two reasons. Firstly, it seems clear to many that the social sciences have not yet obtained the maturity of the physical sciences, so the possibility of moving from prescription to description is still premature. The second reason concerns the distinctive self-reference or 'reflexivity' of the social sciences. This occurs because the object of inquiry is the human agent, indeed the very same human agent who pursues scientific inquiry, and may consider its practical applications and its ethical implications.

Focusing on this reflexivity facilitates two productive projects: it helps gain an understanding of what it might mean for the social sciences to advance towards the kind of maturity already found in the physical sciences, and it helps us to better understand and appreciate the ethical questions and concerns surrounding the development and application of social scientific theories.


Reflexivity is already much discussed in the social sciences and in the philosophy surrounding them, and rightly so, for the conundrum of attempting to represent the very thing being investigated and doing the investigating is striking. Of course, some are tempted to avoid the issue - either by collapsing the social sciences into the physical sciences, or (a related move) exempting the social scientists from the human condition and laying claim to the View From Nowhere on the world - but either way, this is to deny human agency, the former that of the human subject of social scientific inquiry, the latter that of the inquirer themselves. The fact is that reflexivity and the social sciences co-constitute each other, so to properly pursue the social sciences we must take reflexivity onboard.

Methods of science and strategy

Let us introduce reflexivity and its place in the social sciences by looking first at Frank, Gilovich and Regan's experiments on the effect learning economics has on students. Frank noticed that there seemed to be a correlation between studying economics and what he calls 'uncooperative' behaviour (Frank et al. 1993: 15971). On the basis of experimental findings Frank proposed that the more one pursues or learns one's way into the contemporary - and primarily neoclassical - economics discipline, the more likely one was to behave in the way neoclassical economic theory 'described', in particular, self-interestedly. …

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