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'Science' in the Social Sciences

9. ‘Science’ in the Social Sciences

Geology does not look anything like astrophysics, and genetics is a far cry from particle physics. Botany may share with psychiatry a classificatory impulse, but the similarity surely ends there. Computer science does not look much like medical science, and cognitive science does not remotely resemble classical mechanics. What, then, to make of the issue of "scientificity," if one can be allowed the use of such a neologism.

We now focus upon the central theme of this discussion: the role of the concept of science in the "social sciences." The "demarcation problem" in the philosophy of science, the central problem for Karl Popper and a host of his successors, was essentially one of formulating criteria to distinguish between genuinely scientific enterprises and failed contenders (e.g., astrology, alchemy, and, according to Popper, Freudian and Marxist theory) and other "pseudo-sciences."

Popper himself relied heavily upon one criterion for distinguishing between a genuine candidate for the status of a scientific proposition and other kinds of propositions which ought not to qualify, and that was his idea of "falsifiability," but this alone could not exhaustively characterize the nature of any and all scientific claims. Among the critical philosophers of the social sciences we have mentioned, it was probably A. R. Louch who, in his Explanation of Human Action (1966), went as far as to disparage even economics as simply a glorified form of double-entry book-keeping, abjuring the notion that economics was possessed of any genuine laws (notwithstanding claims for "the law of supply and demand", "Say’s law", and others). Today, this would seem to be a caricature of, for example, contemporary econometrics, but insofar as the criticism had bite, it raised the issue of what sort of animal comprises a "science" in the domain of studies of human-level phenomena which transcend human biology – sociology, social anthropology (contrasted to physical anthropology), economics, political "science", psychology (other than its physiological branch) and others. To the pantheon of the "social sciences" we have witnessed a proliferation of other contenders – library science, management science, nursing science, communication science, and so on. Their varieties of methodologies, substantive foci, and intellectual contents are huge, but then so are the varieties of established (even "establishment") natural sciences.

Louch, A. R. (1966). Explanation and human action. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.