Magazine article Monthly Review

Laws in Social Science Theory

Magazine article Monthly Review

Laws in Social Science Theory

Article excerpt

In "More on the Nature of the Soviet System," by Charles Bettelheim and Paul M. Sweezy (Monthly Review, December 1986), the topic of "Laws" is mentioned and dismissed with a few words. Yet, an understanding of the concept of (scientific) law, as it is applicable to the social sciences, is central to the debate on the nature of communist and capitalist societies.

The term "law" stands in the series "hypothesis, theory, law," the third term being the one used about a proposition when the relevant scientific community believes strongly in its contingent truth.

The confidence in a proposition's contingent truth derives from many sources, and is not confined to experimental evidence which, in any event, is denied to social sciences. For example, in mainstream economic theory, the law of variable proportions is accepted because it is a consequence of choosing a particular mathematical expression for a production function. The law of supply and demand is accepted because it is a derivative of an axiomatic system whose basic premise (that people maximize expected utilities) is either a definition or taken as self-evident. Neither law has empirical content. Most widely accepted ideas in economic theory, such as elasticity, consumption function, and monetary velocity are true in the sense that they are definitional concepts in a theoretical structure; their numerical values have to be determined in each application through econometric means, and it is simply unfortunate that different data samples yield different numerical values. There is virtually nothing in mainstream economic theory or econometrics which has properties of so fixed a character (analagous, in the natural sciences, to Avogadro's Constant or Planck's Constant) that makes it suitable as a means of making predictions.

There are, however, other social-science laws which command confidence because they appear to be verified by numerous observations, either cross sectional or longitudinal. For example, the law of demographic transition (that families will voluntarily reduce family size after reaching a certain, but unquantifiable, income level) is widely accepted among demographers. Many proposed historical laws, such as those advanced by Toynbee and Rostow, have not been well accepted because they are often violated in human history.

The seeming absence of firm laws or regularities with empirical (as contrasted with conceptual) content in social affairs derives from the fact that both individuals and societies have cognitive, and therefore, directive mechanisms, and that people have the capacity to learn and adapt their behavior to new circumstances. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.