'Science' in the Social Sciences

9. ‘Science’ in the Social Sciences

The harder question has been the second in our list: the problematics of "meaning" and "meaningfulness." How can a social science handle objectively social and behavioral phenomena which are constituted by the intelligibility which they have, and without which they are not even recognizable? Again, Winch’s use of the later work of Wittgenstein can guide us here. Consider the following distinction: what something means to me (or to you, or to him or her, etc.) is not identical to what it means or, more simply, i.e., in the sense that it can be shared with others.

Example 1

I was born and raised in Liverpool, England. The personal significance (in this sense of ‘meaning’) of ‘Liverpool’ is wholly idiosyncratic to me (but also perhaps to many others): it would encompass having visited the Cavern Club where the Beatles first performed, it would encompass the arrival of African-American sailors at the docks holding vinyl records of Stax and Motown artists which they would sell to local record retailers, and so forth.

However, what ‘Liverpool’ means simpliciter is (roughly) that it is the name of a large port city in the upper northwest of England. In other words, we can distinguish two sense of ‘meaning’, one sense is that of ‘personal significance’ (of interest to biographers, but not to social scientists), and the other sense is that of, to borrow a phrase from phenomenological philosophy, ‘intersubjective’ intelligibility, which has nothing to do with idiosyncratic meaning but everything to do with socially-shared meaning. And it is the latter which alone concerns the social scientist. To put it bluntly, intersubjectivity is as close as we social scientists can approximate to the ‘objectivity’ of natural phenomena. Does this preclude us from the mantel of ‘science’? If so, from the mantel of which science?

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