The Myth of Race and the Human Sciences

By Stanfield, John H., II | The Journal of Negro Education, Summer 1995 | Go to article overview

The Myth of Race and the Human Sciences

Stanfield, John H., II, The Journal of Negro Education

This article presents a critical assessment of two major schools of thought in the human sciences relative to the mythology of race: logical positivism and social realism. In reviewing both, it maintains that while confronting and resisting the intellectual substance of racist arguments of human scientists is essential, questioning the very nature of science as a way of knowing is even more necessary. It concludes with discussion of an alternative, emerging school of thought: science for the people as a means to facilitate the empowerment of the oppressed, who are usually viewed simply as "human subjects" for dominant-group analysis.

The human sciences are those paradigms, theories, methods, and substantive areas preoccupied with the empirical study of human beings in their physical and social habitats. They include the social sciences and the human concerns of the biological, genetic, and medical sciences. There are two ways of interpreting the history and the sociology of human sciences that have great bearing on the ways in which we come to understand the place of persons of African descent in the intellectual and policy frameworks these sciences produce: logical positivism and social realism


The first perspective, logical positivism, is the most traditional school of thought in the history and sociology of the human sciences. In the world view of historians who embrace logical positivistic perspectives, these sciences are products of the 18th-century Enlightenment era (Becker, 1932). As such, they are viewed as rational, value-free sources of knowledge acquisition. This unqualified objectivity the human sciences enjoy is made possible through the collection and analysis of measurable, quantifiable data. It was this Enlightenment view of science that resulted in intellectuals such as August Comte (1896) arguing in the early 19th century that it was possible to develop a totally rational society ruled by scientists who would be, of course, absolutely objective and thus free from bias.

The virtually sacred belief in logical positivism in the 19th and especially the 20th centuries was most apparent in the emergence and professionalization of the human sciences. Because human cultural bias is a more obvious intrinsic problem in the study of the human condition than in the investigation of the physical universe, logical positivism has over the years become, in the secular sense of the phrase, the "saving grace" of human scientists who have struggled for at least 150 years to legitimate their intellectual crafts in academic, policy, and popular cultural circles (Furner, 1975; Matthews, 1977; Small, 1895; Stanfield, 1985b). Logical positivism--and its incorporation into the paradigms, theories, and methods of scientific reasoning about human beings--delivered the human sciences from the hands of declining institutional religious powers in the face of an industrializing Europe and United States. It further legitimated distinguishing the work of human scientists from that of amateurs and those laboring in the social charities (Furner, 1975; Small, 1895). Some human sciences such as psychology, genetics, economics, and medicine have been relatively successful in using logical positivism as a legitimizing vehicle, while others such as anthropology, geography, and sociology have not been as fortunate (Gould, 1981; Mills,1959; Montagu,1942; Schwendinger & Schwendinger, 1974). Nevertheless, whatever the quality of the collective careers of the various human sciences, it has been the ideological value of logical positivism in a society and a world in which statistical analytical abilities are equated with intelligence and objectivity that maintained at least a minimal measure of legitimacy for the human sciences in general.

It has been the logical positivistic perspective in the human sciences as a whole that has legitimated the hegemonic authority of (usually) men and women of science to empirically demonstrate virtually anything they pleased as long as their instruments were and still are viewed as reliable and valid within the norms of their respective communities (Gould, 1981; James & Farmer, 1993; Montagu, 1942; Rossiter, 1982; Schwendinger & Schwendinger, 1974; Stanfield, 1985a, 1985b, 1993a, 1994a). …

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