Objectivity in the social sciences

What is objectivity in social science? What might be meant by the claim that a given theory represents an objective scientific analysis of a range of social phenomena? Debate over the objectivity of social science has often combined a variety of separate theses:

  1. There are social facts that are independent of the concepts and theories of the scientist which the theory is intended to uncover–that is, that there is an objective social world. (ontological objectivity)
  2. It is possible for a theory of a given range of social facts to be well-grounded on the basis of the right sorts of reasons (empirical and theoretical adequacy). (epistemic objectivity)
  3. Social facts are independent of the states of consciousness of participants.
  4. Scientific inquiry can be value-free and interest-neutral.
  5. Scientific inquiry tends to converge around a consensus among all researchers over the properties of the world as a result of further empirical and theoretical research.

Thesis (1) contradicts conceptual relativism. Thesis (2) contradicts a family of underdetermination arguments within the philosophy of science. Thesis (3) divides materialist social science from interpretation theory and verstehen sociology. Thesis (4) upholds the position that it is possible to exclude value commitments from the conduct of science. And thesis (5) asserts that science progresses towards a higher degree of agreement among researchers.

We may dispense quickly with (4). It is unquestionably true that scientific research is interest-relative: what particular features of the social system, what aspects of action, and what causal processes, are selected for scrutiny and explanation, are dependent on the interests–both intellectual and moral–of the investigator. Further, it is plain that scientific reasoning presupposes a set of normative commitments–for example, to the primacy of empirical evidence over religious authority. But Weber’s treatment of this issue is convincing; these points do not diminish the objectivity of science in “‘Objectivity’ in Social Science” (The Methodology Of The Social Sciences). Once having defined the program of research, it is still possible to arrive at an objective analysis of the subject matter.

Thesis (1) represents a general metaphysical view of the social world, in that it asserts the mind-independence of various kinds of social processes, structures, etc. Scientific researc attempts to identify underlying processes, structures, mechanisms, and the like, whose properties explain the observable data. This goal presupposes that social phenomena are the result of a set of causally ordered, objective social processes which the social scientist can discover and map out. (Call this the realism component.) (It might be noted that (1) does not commit one to methodological holism. The objective social facts referred to may well supervene upon facts about individual actions.)

Thesis (2) represents the view that scientific theories are put forward as being justified on the basis of a “scientific method” and not simply personal advocacy, political bias, or one’s value perspective. There need to be objective procedures in terms of which to compare competing theories and to provide empirical and logical arguments favoring one such theory over its competitors. (Call this the justification component.)

Thesis (5) represents the view that scientific inquiry progresses towards consensus among members of a given research community, and that this consensus is best explained on the hypothesis that the consensus theory is true, and has been arrived at through reliable procedures of scientific inquiry. (Bernard Williams describes this view briefly in Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy, chapter 8.)

Various combinations of these components of objectivity in social science are possible. For example, Weber appears to affirm (1) and hold that there are social facts; he denies (3), asserting that these facts are “subjective” in the sense that they depend essentially on the states of mind of the persons whose meaningful behavior constitutes them; and he accepts (2), holding that it is possible to offer theoretically and empirically well-grounded descriptions of these facts (Weber, Methodology, chapter 2). Nelson Goodman appears to contradict (1), maintaining that there are as many social worlds as there are schemes of concepts in terms of which to organize and describe experience (Ways of Worldmaking). Such a view is forced to reject (2) as well, since it maintains that there is no uniquely best theory of the world. It would be possible to reject (1) while maintaining (2)–that is, to hold that there is a best social scientific theory of a given range of social phenomena, but deny that such a theory describes an independently existing set of social facts. (For example, Hilary Putnam’s anti-realist arguments might illustrate this combination.)

The form of objectivity of social science that I want to defend affirms (1) and (2). Concerning thesis (3), I hold that there is no need to choose between “material” and “subjective” features of the social world. Some social facts may be constituted by the meanings attributed to them by participants, while others may be meaning-independent. And finally, I maintain that the procedures internal to various social science disciplines are sufficient to produce the sort of convergence of theoretical beliefs described in thesis (5) in most concrete historical and social science debates.

2 Replies to “Objectivity in the social sciences”

  1. I highly recommend Theodore Porter’s Trust in Numbers: The Pursuit of Objectivity in Science and Public Life if you haven’t come across it. Porter examines the pursuit of objectivity through quantification in a variety of interesting empirical cases, principally in France and the US in the 19th and 20th centuries. He distinguishes “mechanical objectivity”, or the ability to make seemingly unbiased, impartial decisions (which often relates to the ‘routine’ application of quantitative decision rules) and ‘disciplinary objectivity’, which has to do with disiciplinary consensus (connected to your points 4 and 5). He deals less with objectivity in the sense of “access to truth”, though he touches on it a bit conceptually. The discussion of the history of cost-benefit analysis is superb (one of the middle chapters). I recommend it!


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