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'Science' in the Social Sciences

8. Purposes of Social Research

At this stage, it may appear that our intellectual options are such that we must begin to distinguish between the purposes for which sociological research is conducted. Applied social research has mushroomed in recent decades, and much of its business is conducted beyond the walls of academe. Theoretically-driven studies in the social sciences are still largely the province of the Academy, although this is not to suggest that applied research never concerns itself with theoretical issues. Nonetheless, something of a division of intellectual labor has arisen, and since research objectives are always purpose-dependent, choices among paradigms of sociological work have become increasingly functions of investigators’ commitments either to policy relevance or to intellectual insight "for its own sake." Those who disparage the latter pursuit should remember that one of the greatest achievements in the history of the natural sciences – the theory of the evolution of the human species – has, in itself, no practical usefulness (unless we count things like its utility for Dawkins (2006) to bash religion!). On the other hand, even the most staunchly anti-positivist cannot but admire the achievement of, for example, Peter M. Blau and Otis Dudley Duncan in the production of their ground-breaking work, The American Occupational Structure (1967).

Some scholars have argued that the division of labor between "applied social researchers" and academic social scientists, although far from being a hard-and-fast distinction, is akin to that between, say, theoretical physics and engineering predicated upon its achievements, but this may be too grandiose an analogy given the current state of the social sciences. Further, it does not really capture the core intellectual issues at stake. Theoretical linguists are rarely, if ever, in the business of trying to instruct native speakers to speak "more grammatically" than many of them may do, while on the other hand there are many academically-based economists whose primary interest lies in producing results of use and interest to business people, entrepreneurs and government officials. Sociologists occupy a broad territory of inquiry, and some of them straddle the worlds of pure social theory and policy application, although very few do so successfully. The public intellectual with roots in sociology is more likely to morph into a political commentator than he is into a genuinely scientifically-driven arbiter of social problems. Indeed, it is still an open question as to whether anyone could legitimately claim the latter mantel which was, in fact, one of Durkheim’s leading ambitions for sociology.

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Dawkins, Richard (2006). The God Delusion. U.K.: Bantam Books.
Blau, Peter M. & Otis Dudley Duncan (1967). The American Occupational Structure. NY: John Wiley & Sons.