Social Science, Epistemology, and Future Directions in Research

4 Oct

There is a schism that runs right in the middle of social science divvying up the field between the critical theorists and the positivists. Positivists aspire to model the success in natural science and hence tend to focus on the causality and statistical proof, according to Dr. Tang at the National Taiwan University. Critical school, on the other hand, starts from some starts from some philosophical axioms, for example, “social good” or “justice for all” or “maximizing social good.”

The approach by critical theorists is riven with difficulties due to the multiplicity of the philosophical starting points around which one can build theories. As one would expect, critical theory today has myriad “schools,” each based on different philosophical assumptions and each with, if one may say, their own geometry and calculus which works only in their own universe. Positivists circumvent the epistemological and other philosophical issues that dog the critical theorists by relying on the natural science model of doing research that stresses on coming up with a falsifiable hypothesis that can then tested either via experimentation or observation (within a representative randomized sample). Given the difficulty of defining and measuring useful variables in social science, positivists rely upon their own methodological axioms though a lot of research is currently underway to help refine the methodology.

The dichotomy in the field brings one to question how social science should ideally be conducted. The answer depends on what one expects from social science. One may argue that social science has ceded its primary responsibility of trying to resolve the dispute between different philosophical paradigms and wrestling with issues pertaining to the nature and future of society. Without the moral or philosophical grounding, a lot of research may seem like monkey work – repetitive and commercial applications aside utterly aimless. On the other hand, one may argue that quantitative work often illuminates how humans and society works and it is first important to understand both of them before we move on to the task of circumscribing their behavior in philosophy. I would argue that social science’s aims need to be a hybrid of both of the strands. Social science needs to continue to grasp with the important epistemological and philosophical questions that underpin our existence and provide direction in a way to where research is headed. At the same time, social science needs to be more pro-active in understanding humans and society.