What is social science?

What is social science?

Postby broken robot » Sat Oct 26, 2013 2:10 pm

EDIT: I've redacted the OP and removed some of the more colloquial language, just to make it more readable.

So having been around here for a bit and seen the kinds of arguments people often get into, I thought it would be good to start a thread with my weekly/whenever I feel like exploration of themes in social science. These are general rules also for debating politics and society. Without them it's too easy to get stuck in the same argumentative loop of "is human nature good? bad?" so consider this my contribution to the health and betterment of this forum's discourse.

Okay so to begin, let's first ask, what is social science? I'll answer the question later on in the essay, but first we need some historical and theoretical background. Marx, Max Weber, Emile Durkheim are considered the founders of social science. Basically in the 19th century Europe was undergoing major transformations, including the industrial revolution, new technologies such as the steam engine, demographic shifts including migration from rural to urban areas especially in England, and social and political upheaval such as the revolutions of 1848. Before this period people had thought about things from a philosophical/moral perspective. What does it mean to own property? What is the nature of political sovereignty, is it the right of a king? Think John Locke and others in England in the 17th century. On the German side, especially by the late 18th century Hegel was asking what is the motive force behind history? Is it the realm of thought and the self-conscious development of philosophical ideas? So again these were all philosophical questions, they weren't really asking on a basic level, how does society work, what is the significance of the existing social distribution of property, how is political power exercised in everyday matters (not how it's justified on a philosophical basis).

So Marx first comes along and he at first tries to use Hegel's philosophy to develop a different understanding. As he puts it, man, labor, and nature are in a relationship with each other but the existing capitalist system divorces people from the products of their labor and creates money as an alienated medium and measure of all things in society. So after he engages in philosophical debates in the 1844 manuscripts (what some authors refer to as "young Marx"), he’s ready to pursue politics. So he meets up with Engels and they write the communist manifesto in 1848. Again though, even though they're starting to look at historical developments, the emergence of the "bourgeoisie," and so on, Marx is still really interested in a kind of philosophical teleology that will lead to the liberation of man, etc. So eventually though Marx settles down and he tries to figure out how to actually study what he views as the exploitative relationships of capitalism. He starts going to the archives and reading up on industrial development in England at the time, Factory Acts, new laws, and so on. He starts reading English political economists, and he starts exploring the material basis of relations in society. Ultimately he comes up with a theory of class relations, how the economy works through labor's exploitation, and so on. Though he has a kind of philosophical method of presentation, he's really by this point changed the subject from abstruse debates among German philosophers and started to examine material relationships that define society, in this case class.

Now we get to another German fellow, Max Weber. Weber's reading Marx but he’s critical of Marx’s idea that everything is a product of the economy, that society is merely a reflection of relationships in the economic sphere. So Weber starts thinking about changes in Europe and he gets to thinking that religion might have played a role in the development of industriousness suitable to the rise of capitalism. He names this "The Protestant Ethic." Basically the protestant ethic is based on scrounging and saving in the belief that success in this life is a sign that you are in fact predestined to go to heaven (borrowing from Calvinism). So people work and work because they want to get good shit but also because they think it's a sign that they'll be saved. Before you know it though this ethic's really taken off and it's defined the whole nature and reason behind society, so eventually the actual religious belief falls away and all you have left are a set of orderly relationships, including the development of an impersonal bureaucracy. Weber was kind of ambivalent about the whole process, and he actually refers to the dissolution of religious reason behind the organization of modern society as the creation of an "iron cage." Basically we do things for very instrumental reasons and there's no longer any belief in a higher good that's animating society. In addition to his general analysis of capitalism’s ascent, he discussed relations of political power. He argued that whereas feudal ("paternalistic") relations relied on very personalistic ties between the king and other power holders--offices granted were for private accumulation--modern bureaucracy is based on impersonal features. You don't rise up in the government based on personality but rather based on your ability pass exams, qualify for certain positions, and so on.

Finally we get to a French man named Emile Durkheim. Durkheim is familiar with socialist thought prevalent during his time, particularly St Simon, Fourier, and others discussing the social effects of industrial revolution, and how society's becoming a bit too chaotic. So Durkheim starts wondering about how society is organized. Here's really where we get into social science in the sense that Durkheim really emphasizes this term. We are not just an aggregate of individuals. Rather society is a "thing" that transcends us. It has its own laws and functions, and these can be studied. Durkheim counterposes society to prevalent explanations that emphasized the role of psychology and individual motivations. He even proposed something like a historical theory that argues before industrial revolution, humans had corporate bonds based on "mechanical solidarity.” This means the whole thing just worked automatically, whereas now with the advent of capitalism and new technological changes we have the dissolution of these bonds. Durkheim referred to this stage as "anomie." It's as if people have lost all sense of meaning. So, he argues new relationships in society will have to be organized along "organic solidarity" and increasing specialization in the division of labor of society. At the same time the rise of industry has actually opened up more occupations for people, so Durkheim proposed the creation of unions and industrial organizations to coordinate all facets of production, again, a French version of “socialism.”

Okay so briefly reviewing the above, the three major thinkers, Marx, Weber, and Durkheim, were dealing with big changes happening in Europe in the 19th century. They realized philosophical discourse was inadequate to exploring these developments, still less relying on psychology or theories of human nature. They realized society had to be studied as a phenomenon with its own laws. They each differed though in how society is organized. For Marx obviously political economy and relations between labor and capital are crucial whereas for Weber for example its about cultural values, the effects of modern bureaucracy, etc. Each man grappled with understandings of power, agency, and collective social betterment. They did in their own ways want to see society improve, though Weber was kind of more neutral and studied in his approach (he never really came to a political position of his own). So this really gets us to the basis of modern social science, including relations between social theory and political practice. We're way past philosophy now and questions about "what is property?" (Locke). We're past the "self-conscious development of spirit" (Hegel). We are in social theory land. To be continued…
Last edited by broken robot on Sun Nov 03, 2013 12:01 am, edited 4 times in total.
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Re: What is social science?

Postby exploited » Sat Oct 26, 2013 3:02 pm

I think social science is going to be defined by actual science, more so than it ever has. How the brain works, how genes interact with the environment to produce "negative" and "positive" behaviour, the relationship between things like hunger and crime, or warm climates and violence, how people subconsciously determine who they will follow, group dynamics, etc.

Psychology and sociology will play big roles. Making up elaborate theories based upon large, even largely accurate, assumptions will be a thing of the past. We'll be able to catalogue personality types, assign attributes to them, and demonstrate how they interact with different personality types to produce "society." We'll finally be able to correlate phenomenon using actual science, instead of guesswork and unverifiable theories.

Fields like advertising and human resources have moved far, far beyond theory, and are now in the realm of actual science. Politics will catch up, it's only a matter of time.
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Re: What is social science?

Postby The Comrade » Sat Oct 26, 2013 3:23 pm

i love you mr. robot but i don't have the attention span to get through that, so let me just take a shot in the dark and tell me if i'm hot or cold.

you bring up three of the early thinkers of the social sciences and, i think, it's not so much what social science is, but how social science is.

in other words, the social sciences aren't exactly a what, but a process. you use sociology, psychology, and philosophy to measure human interaction and thought. of course, the first two have their own rigid, scientific basis, but that's more of a baseline for the actual observing. it's not an end in itself, like how biology is for example. you observe system in biology to figure out why the next part of the system happens until, eventually, you've observed and recorded the system in its entirety.

i don't think the social sciences are expected to realistically observe something as complex as human interaction and organization and conclusively say something about it that finishes the system.

my ears won't stop ringing so i can't f**k concentrate any more on this. but the social sciences are tools of explanation, not necessarily an ends in themselves. they're very application-heavy subjects. or something.
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Re: What is social science?

Postby broken robot » Sat Oct 26, 2013 3:52 pm

Ex, actually you can incorporate technological progress into an analysis of society, but it won't actually change the methods and underlying theory of social science. Social science precisely doesn't deal with "personality," as you put it that's something to do more with how companies understand consumers and tailor their products to meet their preferences. Social science would more be asking, how are companies in general part of the existing organization of capitalism.

Com, I am still experimenting with the format, haha. Now that I got the main stuff out I'll try and avoid posting more than two paragraphs. In terms of your point though yeah you're absolutely right that social science is never "finished" with the process of analysis. First, there will always be gaps in the literature. This doesn't exist:

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Second, social science always relies on generalizations, stereotyped characteristics of populations, etc. to select for and process large amounts of data. The question is what generalizations are analytically relevant to any proposed study, and that depends on the type of question you're asking. If for example I want to know about how capitalism works in 21st century US I might generalize about corporations, not caring if I'm talking about sears, gm, or abercrombie and fitch. But say I'm interested in how the apparel industry lobbies for and impacts trade preferences mandated by the US government and international institutions, I'd focus on abercrombie and fitch and a few other retailers. They would compose my definition of a company that's relevant to the study I'm undertaking. Hopefully that's relevant to what you've written.
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Re: What is social science?

Postby The Comrade » Sat Oct 26, 2013 3:58 pm

no, it is. they're subjects that need a question, but more importantly, they need a big question, or at least a broad one. they required a generalized question so as to provide the appropriate generalized response.

or to put it how i put it, they're subjects that need to be applied to other things to be relevant. they have no meaning in and of themselves for the most part.
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Re: What is social science?

Postby exploited » Sat Oct 26, 2013 4:45 pm

broken robot wrote:Ex, actually you can incorporate technological progress into an analysis of society, but it won't actually change the methods and underlying theory of social science. Social science precisely doesn't deal with "personality," as you put it that's something to do more with how companies understand consumers and tailor their products to meet their preferences. Social science would more be asking, how are companies in general part of the existing organization of capitalism.


That is historically how social science works, yes. What I'm saying is that it will be rendered irrelevant by advances in understanding the human psyche. What role the corporation or the government plays is grounded entirely in individual actions - if we can answer what causes a person to participate in "the rat race," for instance, what use is the theory of wage slavery? If we can understand how different personality types deal with having power, what use is designing a theory that describes the institutions of power?

Look at something like the study of advanced primates. We understand how primate power structures are formed because we understand how their brains work. We understand the social cues, how dominant individuals establish control, etc. With humans, we have tried to explain "society" from the top down (how do institutions effect the individual), whereas with primates we go from the bottom up (how does the interaction of individuals create the institutions). I think that social sciences will be moving towards the bottom up model because we are finally able to do that.
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Re: What is social science?

Postby The Comrade » Sat Oct 26, 2013 4:47 pm

the only way it could be rendered irrelevant is either determinism or a permanent freeze in human change.
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Re: What is social science?

Postby exploited » Sat Oct 26, 2013 4:56 pm

The Comrade wrote:the only way it could be rendered irrelevant is either determinism or a permanent freeze in human change.


I'd say it is already irrelevant. Our top-down theories haven't changed much. We've been talking about anarcho-syndicalism and communism and capitalism for two hundred years. The only changes we've made to those theories deals with integrating new scientific evidence.
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Re: What is social science?

Postby The Comrade » Sat Oct 26, 2013 4:59 pm

i'd say biology is irrelevant. we've been talking about cell structure for, what, 100 years now? old-hat.
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Re: What is social science?

Postby exploited » Sat Oct 26, 2013 5:26 pm

The Comrade wrote:i'd say biology is irrelevant. we've been talking about cell structure for, what, 100 years now? old-hat.


And there has been serious, quantifiable advances in our understanding of cell structure over the past hundred years.

There has been no similar advances in describing how institutions effect people (in the general sense that social science has always embraced). That shit is dead. Social science will evolve to describe how individuals form power structures, using actual sciences like neurology and group psychology, or it will continue to be almost totally irrelevant to how decisions are actually made in our society.

Even the most strident socialist is aware that his understanding of class inequality boons him nothing. It loosely describes how society functions, but it doesn't at all describe how individuals allocate their loyalty, or how genes predispose people to certain behaviours that the political system has to deal with (crime and violence, cooperation versus competition, that kind of thing), or how a person can come to influence vast numbers of people he has never met, etc.

These are questions that we are finally going to be able to answer, questions we could only guess at before (like the human nature debate).
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