The philosophy of social science is the study of the logic, methods, and foundations of social sciences such as psychology, economics, and political science. Philosophers of social science are concerned with the differences and similarities between the social and the natural sciences, causal relationships between social phenomena, the possible existence of social laws, and the ontological significance of structure and agency.
Comte first described the epistemological perspective of positivism in The Course in Positive Philosophy, a series of texts published between 1830 and 1842. These texts were followed by the 1848 work, A General View of Positivism (published in English in 1865). The first three volumes of the Course dealt chiefly with the physical sciences already in existence (mathematics, astronomy, physics, chemistry, biology), whereas the latter two emphasised the inevitable coming of social science. Observing the circular dependence of theory and observation in science, and classifying the sciences in this way, Comte may be regarded as the first philosopher of science in the modern sense of the term. For him, the physical sciences had necessarily to arrive first, before humanity could adequately channel its efforts into the most challenging and complex "Queen science" of human society itself. His View of Positivism would therefore set-out to define, in more detail, the empirical goals of sociological method.
Comte offered an account of social evolution, proposing that society undergoes three phases in its quest for the truth according to a general 'law of three stages'. The idea bears some similarity to Marx's view that human society would progress toward a communist peak. This is perhaps unsurprising as both were profoundly influenced by the early Utopian socialist, Henri de Saint-Simon, who was at one time Comte's teacher and mentor. Both Comte and Marx intended to develop, scientifically, a new secular ideology in the wake of European secularisation.
The early sociology of Herbert Spencer came about broadly as a reaction to Comte. Writing after various developments in evolutionary biology, Spencer attempted (in vain) to reformulate the discipline in what we might now describe as socially Darwinistic terms (although Spencer was a proponent of Lamarckism rather than Darwinism).
The modern academic discipline of sociology began with the work of Émile Durkheim (1858–1917). While Durkheim rejected much of the detail of Comte's philosophy, he retained and refined its method, maintaining that the social sciences are a logical continuation of the natural ones into the realm of human activity, and insisting that they may retain the same objectivity, rationalism, and approach to causality. Durkheim set up the first European department of sociology at the University of Bordeaux in 1895. In the same year he argued, in The Rules of Sociological Method (1895): "[o]ur main goal is to extend scientific rationalism to human conduct... What has been called our positivism is but a consequence of this rationalism." Durkheim's seminal monograph Suicide (1897), a case study of suicide rates amongst Catholic and Protestant populations, distinguished sociological analysis from psychology or philosophy.
The positivist perspective, however, has been associated with 'scientism'; the view that the methods of the natural sciences may be applied to all areas of investigation, be it philosophical, social scientific, or otherwise. Among most social scientists and historians, orthodox positivism has long since fallen out of favor. Today, practitioners of both social and physical sciences recognize the distorting effect of observer bias and structural limitations. This scepticism has been facilitated by a general weakening of deductivist accounts of science by philosophers such as Thomas Kuhn, and new philosophical movements such as critical realism and neopragmatism. Positivism has also been espoused by 'technocrats' who believe in the inevitability of social progress through science and technology. The philosopher-sociologist Jürgen Habermas has critiqued pure instrumental rationality as meaning that scientific-thinking becomes something akin to ideology itself.
In any discipline, there will always be a number of underlying philosophical predispositions in the projects of scientists. Some of these predispositions involve the nature of social knowledge itself, the nature of social reality, and the locus of human control in action. Intellectuals have disagreed about the extent to which the social sciences should mimic the methods used in the natural sciences. The founding positivists of the social sciences argued that social phenomena can and should be studied through conventional scientific methods. This position is closely allied with scientism, naturalism and physicalism; the doctrine that all phenomena are ultimately reducible to physical entities and physical laws. Opponents of naturalism, including advocates of the verstehen method, contended that there is a need for an interpretive approach to the study of human action, a technique radically different from natural science. The fundamental task for the philosophy of social science has thus been to question the extent to which positivism may be characterized as 'scientific' in relation to fundamental epistemological foundations. These debates also rage within contemporary social sciences with regard to subjectivity, objectivity, intersubjectivity and practicality in the conduct of theory and research. Philosophers of social science examine further epistemologies and methodologies, including realism, critical realism, instrumentalism, functionalism, structuralism, interpretivism, phenomenology, and post-structuralism.
Though essentially all major social scientists since the late 19th century have accepted that the discipline faces challenges that are different from those of the natural sciences, the ability to determine causal relationships invokes the same discussions held in science meta-theory. Positivism has sometimes met with caricature as a breed of naive empiricism, yet the word has a rich history of applications stretching from Comte to the work of the Vienna Circle and beyond. By the same token, if positivism is able to identify causality, then it is open to the same critical rationalist non-justificationism presented by Karl Popper, which may itself be disputed through Thomas Kuhn's conception of epistemic paradigm shift.
Early German hermeneuticians such as Wilhelm Dilthey pioneered the distinction between natural and social science ('Geisteswissenschaft'). This tradition greatly informed Max Weber and Georg Simmel's antipositivism, and continued with critical theory. Since the 1960s, a general weakening of deductivist accounts of science has grown side-by-side with critiques of "scientism", or 'science as ideology'. Jürgen Habermas argues, in his On the Logic of the Social Sciences (1967), that "the positivist thesis of unified science, which assimilates all the sciences to a natural-scientific model, fails because of the intimate relationship between the social sciences and history, and the fact that they are based on a situation-specific understanding of meaning that can be explicated only hermeneutically … access to a symbolically prestructured reality cannot be gained by observation alone."  Verstehende social theory has been the concern of phenomenological works, such as Alfred Schütz Phenomenology of the Social World (1932) and Hans-Georg Gadamer's Truth and Method (1960). Phenomenology would later prove influential in the subject-centred theory of the post-structuralists.
The mid-20th-century linguistic turn led to a rise in highly philosophical sociology, as well as so-called "postmodern" perspectives on the social acquisition of knowledge. One notable critique of social science is found in Peter Winch's Wittgensteinian text The Idea of Social Science and its Relation to Philosophy (1958). Michel Foucault provides a potent critique in his archaeology of the human sciences, though Habermas and Richard Rorty have both argued that Foucault merely replaces one such system of thought with another.
One underlying problem for the social psychologist is whether studies can or should ultimately be understood in terms of the meaning and consciousness behind social action, as with folk psychology, or whether more objective, natural, materialist, and behavioral facts are to be given exclusive study. This problem is especially important for those within the social sciences who study qualitative mental phenomena, such as consciousness, associative meanings, and mental representations, because a rejection of the study of meanings would lead to the reclassification of such research as non-scientific. Influential traditions like psychodynamic theory and symbolic interactionism may be the first victims of such a paradigm shift. The philosophical issues lying in wait behind these different positions have led to commitments to certain kinds of methodology which have sometimes bordered on the partisan. Still, many researchers have indicated a lack of patience for overly dogmatic proponents of one method or another.
Social research remains extremely common and effective in practise with respect to political institutions and businesses. Michael Burawoy has marked the difference between public sociology, which is focused firmly on practical applications (though see e.g. Thibodeaux, 2016), and academic or professional sociology, which involves dialogue amongst other social scientists and philosophers.
Structure and agency forms an enduring debate in social theory: "Do social structures determine an individual's behaviour or does human agency?" In this context 'agency' refers to the capacity of individuals to act independently and make free choices, whereas 'structure' refers to factors which limit or affect the choices and actions of individuals (such as social class, religion, gender, ethnicity, and so on). Discussions over the primacy of structure or agency relate to the very core of social ontology ("What is the social world made of?", "What is a cause in the social world, and what is an effect?"). One attempt to reconcile postmodern critiques with the overarching project of social science has been the development, particularly in Britain, of critical realism. For critical realists such as Roy Bhaskar, traditional positivism commits an 'epistemic fallacy' by failing to address the ontological conditions which make science possible: that is, structure and agency itself.
A General View of Positivism (Discours sur l'ensemble du positivisme) was an 1848 book by the French philosopher Auguste Comte, first published in English in 1865. A founding text in the development of positivism and the discipline of sociology, the work provides a revised and full account of the theory Comte presented earlier in his multi-part The Course in Positive Philosophy (1830–1842). Comte outlines the epistemological view of positivism, provides an account of the manner by which sociology should be performed, and describes his law of three stages.Antipositivism
In social science, antipositivism (also interpretivism and negativism) is a theoretical stance, which proposes that the social realm cannot be studied with the scientific method of investigation applied to Nature, and that investigation of the social realm requires a different epistemology. Fundamental to that antipositivist epistemology is the belief that the concepts and language that researchers use in their researches shape their perceptions of the social world they are investigating, studying, and defining.Bachelor of Social Science
The academic undergraduate degree of Bachelor of Social Science (B.Soc.Sc. or B.Soc.Sci.) requires three to four years of study at an institution of higher education, primarily found in the Commonwealth of Nations.
It can be distinguished from standard other undergraduate degrees as the Bachelor of Social Science is only focused on theory, social statistics, quantitative and qualitative social research, the philosophy of social science and the scientific method.Critical realism (philosophy of the social sciences)
Critical realism, a philosophical approach associated with Roy Bhaskar (1944–2014), combines a general philosophy of science (transcendental realism) with a philosophy of social science (critical naturalism) to describe an interface between the natural and social worlds.Individualism and Economic Order
Individualism and Economic Order is a book written by Friedrich Hayek. It is a collection of essays originally published between the 1930s and 1940s, discussing topics ranging from moral philosophy to the methods of the social sciences and economic theory to contrast free markets with planned economies.Methodological individualism
In the social sciences, methodological individualism is the principle that subjective individual motivation explains social phenomena, rather than class or group dynamics which are (according to proponents of individualistic principles) illusory or artificial and therefore cannot truly explain market or social phenomena. Methodological individualism is often contrasted with methodological holism.Philosophical anthropology
Philosophical anthropology, sometimes called anthropological philosophy, is a discipline dealing with questions of metaphysics and phenomenology of the human person, and interpersonal relationships.Philosophy of geography
Philosophy of geography is the subfield of philosophy which deals with epistemological, metaphysical, and axiological issues in geography, with geographic methodology in general, and with more broadly related issues such as the perception and representation of space and place.Philosophy of psychology
Philosophy of psychology refers to the many issues at the theoretical foundations of modern psychology.Philosophy of the Social Sciences (journal)
Philosophy of the Social Sciences is a peer-reviewed academic journal that covers philosophy of social science. Its editor-in-chief is Ian C. Jarvie (York University). The journal was established in 1971 and is currently published by Sage Publications.Political philosophy
Political philosophy, also known as political theory, is the study of topics such as politics, liberty, justice, property, rights, law, and the enforcement of laws by authority: what they are, if they are needed, what makes a government legitimate, what rights and freedoms it should protect, what form it should take, what the law is, and what duties citizens owe to a legitimate government, if any, and when it may be legitimately overthrown, if ever.
In a vernacular sense, the term "political philosophy" often refers to a general view, or specific ethic, political belief or attitude, about politics, synonymous to the term "political ideology".
Political philosophy is a branch of philosophy. Within political science, a strong focus has historically been placed on the role of political philosophy (also known as normative theory), moral philosophy and the humanities, although in recent years there has been increased focus to political theory based on quantitative methodological approaches as well as economic theory, the natural sciences and behaviouralism.Positive statement
In the social sciences and philosophy, a positive or descriptive statement concerns what "is", "was", or "will be", and contains no indication of approval or disapproval (what should be). Positive statements are thus the opposite of normative statements. Positive statement is based on empirical evidence. For examples, "An increase in taxation will result in less consumption" and "A fall in supply of petrol will lead to an increase in its price". However, positive statement can be factually incorrect: "The moon is made of green cheese" is empirically false, but is still a positive statement, as it is a statement about what is, not what should be.Rationality
Rationality is the quality or state of being rational – that is, being based on or agreeable to reason. Rationality implies the conformity of one's beliefs with one's reasons to believe, and of one's actions with one's reasons for action. "Rationality" has different specialized meanings in philosophy, economics, sociology, psychology, evolutionary biology, game theory and political science.
To determine what behavior is the most rational, one needs to make several key assumptions, and also needs a logical formulation of the problem. When the goal or problem involves making a decision, rationality factors in all information that is available (e.g. complete or incomplete knowledge). Collectively, the formulation and background assumptions are the model within which rationality applies. Rationality is relative: if one accepts a model in which benefitting oneself is optimal, then rationality is equated with behavior that is self-interested to the point of being selfish; whereas if one accepts a model in which benefiting the group is optimal, then purely selfish behavior is deemed irrational. It is thus meaningless to assert rationality without also specifying the background model assumptions describing how the problem is framed and formulated.Situational analysis
Situational analysis (or situational logic) is a concept advanced by Popper in his The Poverty of Historicism. Situational analysis is a process by which a social scientist tries to reconstruct the problem situation confronting an agent in order to understand that agent's choice.
Koertge (1975) provides a helpful clarificatory summary.
First provide a description of the situation:
''Agent A was in a situation of type C''.
This situation is then analysed
''In a situation of type C, the appropriate thing to do is X.''
The rationality principle may then be called upon:
''agents always act appropriately to their situation''
Finally we have the explanadum:
''(therefore) A did X.''Sociological theory
Sociological theories are statements of how and why particular facts about the social world are related. They range in scope from concise descriptions of a single social process to paradigms for analysis and interpretation. Some sociological theories explain aspects of the social world and enable prediction about future events, while others function as broad perspectives which guide further sociological analyses.Structure and agency
In the social sciences there is a standing debate over the primacy of structure or agency in shaping human behaviour. Structure is the recurrent patterned arrangements which influence or limit the choices and opportunities available. Agency is the capacity of individuals to act independently and to make their own free choices. The structure versus agency debate may be understood as an issue of socialization against autonomy in determining whether an individual acts as a free agent or in a manner dictated by social structure.Theory and History
Theory and History: An Interpretation of Social and Economic Evolution is a treatise by Austrian school economist and philosopher Ludwig von Mises. It can be thought of as a continuation in the development of the Misesian system of social science. In particular, it provides further epistemological support for his earlier works, esp. Human Action. Most notably, Mises elaborates on methodological dualism, develops the concept of thymology – a historical branch of the sciences of human action – and presents his critique of Marxist materialism.
Furthermore, Mises puts forward a theory of knowledge and value. He later explores and critically analyzes paradigms of thought like determinism, materialism, dialectic materialism, historicism, scientism, positivism, behaviorism and psychology. He argues that these schools of thought – some politically motivated, others blinded by dogmatism – have committed epistemological and methodological blunders and are not conducive to a scientific understanding of human behavior.
Economist Murray Rothbard considered Theory and History to be Mises's most overlooked work.Thick description
In the social science fields of anthropology, sociology, history, religious studies, human-centered design and organizational development, a thick description results from a scientific observation of any particular human behavior that describes not just the behavior, but its context as well, so that the behavior can be better understood by an outsider. A thick description typically adds a record of subjective explanations and meanings provided by the people engaged in the behaviors, making the collected data of greater value for studies by other social scientists.
The term was introduced by the 20th-century philosopher Gilbert Ryle. Anthropologist Clifford Geertz later developed the concept in his The Interpretation of Cultures (1973) to characterise his own method of doing ethnography (Geertz 1973:5-6, 9-10). Since then, the term and the methodology it represents has gained currency in the social sciences and beyond. Today, "thick description" is used in a variety of fields, including the type of literary criticism known as New Historicism.Verstehen
Verstehen (German pronunciation: [fɛɐˈʃteːən], literally: "to understand"), in the context of German philosophy and social sciences in general, has been used since the late 19th century – in English as in German – with the particular sense of the "interpretive or participatory" examination of social phenomena. The term is closely associated with the work of the German sociologist, Max Weber, whose antipositivism established an alternative to prior sociological positivism and economic determinism, rooted in the analysis of social action. In anthropology, Verstehen has come to mean a systematic interpretive process in which an outside observer of a culture attempts to relate to it and understand others.
Verstehen is now seen as a concept and a method central to a rejection of positivistic social science (although Weber appeared to think that the two could be united). Verstehen refers to understanding the meaning of action from the actor's point of view. It is entering into the shoes of the other, and adopting this research stance requires treating the actor as a subject, rather than an object of your observations. It also implies that unlike objects in the natural world human actors are not simply the product of the pulls and pushes of external forces. Individuals are seen to create the world by organizing their own understanding of it and giving it meaning. To do research on actors without taking into account the meanings they attribute to their actions or environment is to treat them like objects.