Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Philosophy of Social Science and the Graduate Student

by , Understanding Society:

Is there any reason to think that a course in philosophy of social science can be helpful for a graduate student in sociology or political science (or education, public health, or public policy)?

Is this part of philosophy a useful contribution to a PhD education in the social sciences?

I think there are several reasons to support this idea. I believe that a good course in this area can help the aspiring researcher extend his or her imagination and modes of inquiry in ways that can make the first years of research particularly fruitful. In what ways is this so? There are several, in my view.

First, though, I must confess that it wasn't always so. The courses I took in philosophy of science and philosophy of social science as an undergraduate were in fact stultifying and discouraging rather than eye-opening and expanding.

There was the idea that the nature of "science" had been settled by the Vienna Circle, that there was an all-encompassing model for explanation and justification (the hypothetico-deductive method), and that the significant problems facing young social scientists had to do with forming adequate concepts and finding ways of operationalizing these concepts to test them against the world of observable data.

Essentially, then, the work of the social scientist was simply to fill in the blanks in a schema that had already been prepared (I'm thinking in particular of two textbooks, Hempel (Philosophy of Natural Science) and Rudner (Philosophy of Social Science)).

And the anti-positivist reaction to this kind of philosophy of science wasn't much more helpful. Kuhn, Lakatos, Feyerabend, and Hanson pointed out the shortcomings of the theory of science contained in logical positivism. But they didn't have much to say that was very specific or helpful when it came to the task of formulating theories and hypotheses that would serve to explain social outcomes.

So, I wouldn't have said that the typical course in philosophy of science in the 1980s was particularly valuable for the young researcher either. But the situation in this field changed in the 1990s and after.

Most important, many philosophers who took up the philosophy of social science embraced the idea that the field needed to be developed in tandem with the real problems of research and explanation that sociologists and political scientists grappled with.

PSS could not remain an apriori discipline; instead, the philosopher needed to gain expert understanding of the disputes and problems that were under debate in the disciplines of the social sciences (this switch occurred even a little earlier in the philosophy of biology and philosophy of psychology). Philosophers needed to work as peers and colleagues with social scientists.

And once philosophers began to step away from the dogmas of received formulations of philosophy of science, they began to ask new questions. What is a good explanation? How does social causation work? What is a causal mechanism in the social world? What kind of thing is a social structure? How do structures maintain their causal properties over time? How do individual actors contribute to social causation?

These are all questions that are intertwined with the ordinary reasoning that talented sociologists and political scientists are led to through their own efforts at theory formation. And philosophers found helpful mid-level locations from which to address questions like these in ways that made substantive contributions to the concrete work of social research and inquiry.

Here are some concrete results.

Philosophers have worked productively to help arrive at better ways of treating social causation. They have clarified the nature of social causal mechanisms. They have brought new clarity to questions about the relationships among levels of social and individual activity. They have highlighted the centrality of the idea of microfoundations.

They have helped to dissolve the apparent contradiction between structural causation and actor-centered social processes. They have problematized the assumptions we sometimes make about social kinds and social generalizations. They have directed new attention to the ways that we characterize the actor in the social world.

And it seems to me that each of these kinds of insights makes a difference to the researcher in training.

So, indeed, it makes good sense to offer a challenging course in the philosophy of social science to PhD students in the social sciences.

This isn't because there is a new set of verities that these young researchers need to master. Rather, it is because the nature of the current discussions in the philosophy of social science parallels very nicely the process of theory formation and development that we would like to see take place in sociology and political science.

We would like to see the exercise of intelligent imagination by social researchers, unconstrained by the dogmas of methodology or ontology that a discipline is all too ready to provide.

The social world is strikingly and permanently surprising, with novel conjunctions of processes and causes leading to unexpected outcomes. we need new ways of thinking about the social world and the social sciences, and philosophy of social science can help stimulate some of that thinking.

Here are the books I'll be discussing in my graduate course in philosophy of social science this semester:

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