This paper was originally written for a Philosophy of Science course I took, where I was extremely contrary and insisted on bringing sociology into every discussion.
In April of 2013, two Canadian immigrants were arrested in connection to an alleged terrorist plot. Many wondered what conditions could cause individuals to plan to commit violent crime. Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper was asked to relate his thoughts about how this question could be answered. In response, Harper stated that now was not the time to “commit sociology” (Cohen 2013). In the U.S., other social sciences have come under fire as well. Political Scientists have found their National Science Foundation funding cut, unless the research being conducted promotes “national security or the economic interests of the United States” (American Political Science Association). In February, the American Sociological Association released a report titled “Sociology Is a STEM Discipline” in response to concerns about universities cutting social science requirements (Hillsman 2013). These three examples all illustrate the strains placed on social sciences as they are forced to live up to heightened expectations that their “hard science” or “natural science” counterparts never face. It is difficult to imagine an elected official stating now is not the time to “commit physics” to discover the direction of a bullet exiting a gun, or for policy makers to cut funding to chemistry projects that do not result in medical discoveries, or for universities to cut general education requirements that include biology. This paper will show that the social sciences fall into the category of simply “science,” and should therefore be held to the same expectations as all sciences—no more, and no less.
In order to accomplish this goal, I will take three steps. First, I will construct a definition of science which is comprehensive, yet does not exclude those things we already consider science. I will do this by examining a number of definitions of science relayed by philosophers of science. I shall examine each definition for its strengths and weaknesses, and remove definitions which necessarily exclude parts of science that are not under dispute. Second, I will compare this definition of science to the aims, goals, and practical application of sociology. I have chosen to examine sociology as a representative of the social sciences both for my familiarity with its workings, and because it represents both the good and the bad of the social sciences. With its checkered past, sociology has created many of the tools we hold dear today, and is often turned to when an example of social science work is needed. Finally, I will consider a strong objection to the definition of science I will develop. This objection declares that my definition remains too broad to accurately capture the subtle nuances of with it means to be, and to not be, a science.
I will begin by constructing a suitable definition of science. I will begin with a broad definition of science and gradually narrow until it is clear that the definitions discussed must exclude those things which we already consider science such as physics, biology, and chemistry. Munson defines science most broadly when he discusses medicine. He claims that “the internal aim of science is the acquisition of knowledge and understanding of the world and the things that are in it” (494, original emphasis). There are few who would argue with this statement. It does not make any claims to truth, and remains suitably broad so as to include all the sciences. However, it is so broad that one can easily argue that philosophy and other things that would never desire to be science can fall under this label.
Next, we move to Kuhn who agrees that science attempts to find out some truth about the world (although not “Truth” which is an impossible, and in fact undesirable, aim). It is the means by which science acquires this truth that is important for Kuhn. Science—to borrow a social science phrase—must go through a cycle of “boom and bust.” Scientists develop strong paradigms which explain enough about the world to be extremely fruitful and useful tools in puzzle solving. They then implement these paradigms during the boom phase before finally cracks begin to show. Many scientists will still cling to the old paradigm; however, eventually a new one will emerge that explains enough things more accurately that it is accepted over the old paradigm. This new paradigm produces a new booming stage of puzzle solving. The acceptance of a single paradigm is vital in obtaining a “mature science.” At this stage, scientists do not question their methods and paradigms and in fact reproduce paradigm indoctrination, which Kuhn views as a functional aspect of science. As Kuhn describes it, this cycle’s necessary nature is difficult to trifle with. However, it is possible to dispute the use of paradigms using examples from biology and the study of evolution which involve multiple paradigms that cannot be combined adequately. I shall therefore revise Kuhn’s statement of science to say that a specific, singular paradigm is not what makes a science, rather it is a set of agreed upon mini-paradigms which, taken together, produce a complete set of methods for that science.
However, this definition still remains broad, begging to be refined. This is where the problem in constructing an adequate definition of science arises. Here, it becomes easy to turn to Machlup who appears to offer a very logical and correct definition of science. He claims that science must have the follow characteristics:1. Invariability of observations
2. Objectivity of observations and explanations
3. Verifiability of hypotheses
4. Exactness of findings
5. Measurability of phenomena
6. Constancy of numerical relationships
7. Predictability of future events
8. Distance from everyday experience
9. Standards of admission and requirements
I shall not address the problems with all of these statements in this short paper. Suffice to say that many of his claims concerning characteristics of science are also characteristics of social science (e.g. measurability of phenomena, where he has clearly never heard of the term “statistically significant”). Other statements do not seem to derive logically from what a science must be (e.g. distance from everyday experience, which must exclude any science which endeavors to be approachable and understandable). Further, several of his statements of what science is appear to be incorrect (e.g. exactness of findings, which demands a grand theory that no science has truly obtained). Suffice to say that the sciences, at the very least, attempt to obtain each of the nine characteristics, but often fall short. Because of this his statements must, unfortunately, be watered down to more general statements that still include the types of science we are not disputing.
In addition to these statements about science, it is also clear that philosophers of science are making subtle, yet important, assumptions about the amount a particular science covers. These assumptions require that each science focus only on a small area of study at a time, such as Kuhn’s individual “puzzles” to solve. Even though these sciences may have theories that claim to be holistic, they also subscribe to numerous mini-theories that allow for practical workarounds for problems, specific statements about particular phenomena, and ease in computation. In other words, when discussing Einstein’s physics paradigm, Kuhn necessarily obscures physics’ complicated micro-level work which requires the development of small theories for everyday application. Other philosophers make similar leaps. Thus, it is clear that each science has sub-sciences within its discipline, each concerned with its own small corner of the world.
Based on these statements about science, it is clear that science is any enterprise which involves systematic study of a portion of the world to gain a deeper understanding or expanded knowledge of that portion, and which uses methods that are so accepted by the enterprise that they go unquestioned. Further, its final aim is to reach a high degree of certainty about statements made concerning that portion of the world. Notice that this definition does not require science to be more than it is. It does not require science to obtain complete certainty or truth, only a high degree of certainty—and even then it is only an aim, not a requirement. Further, the aim of science is to expand knowledge about a portion of the world we are not adequately knowledgeable about. This statement does not require that said knowledge be practical. It is this definition which forms my knowledge throughout the concluding sections of this paper.
This definition of science clearly allows for the inclusion of sociology into its ranks. Sociology has chosen to study how humans, as a group, function to create societies. There are many smaller branches of sociology which study things such as educational attainment, race, gender, popular culture, and many other things. Sociology does so in a systematic way, using methods that have been tried by others in the field including content analysis, surveys, and interviews. To be sure, sociology is often expanding and redefining what it means to be systematic, however many other sciences face similar expansions. In the field of sociology there are a handful of basic theories which are unquestioned, such as conflict theory and symbolic interaction, and serve as the basis for other derivative theories, such as the social distance scale and the concept of “doing gender.” Finally, sociology attempts to reach a high degree of certainty about the areas it explores, generally through a repetition of data discovery and a general statistical significance in robust findings. In summation, sociology easily fits under this definition of science.
However, an objection to this claim rests on the idea that this definition remains too broad to adequately capture what it truly means to be a science and a non-science. It is true that one can make an argument that such fields as literature studies could fall under this label. Literature studies often discuss a small portion of the world—perhaps as small as a single stanza or phrase—in order to expand our knowledge of that portion beyond simply words on a page. Further, their methods are generally accepted and consistently reproduced in training new literature studies students. One may also attempt to argue that literature studies attempts to gain a high degree of certainty about that section of the world they are studying—however, this is where I think the analysis goes foul. Literature studies quickly becomes less a matter of certainty and more a matter of perception. It is easy to say, in literature studies, that one individual is perfectly able to interpret a given work differently from another, with no ill effects on the discipline. However, in the social sciences and hard sciences such a difference in interpretation is disputed and the singular, highly-certain statement is reproduced.
Further, this exercise relies on the principle that there is some subtle nuance to what makes a science that cannot be adequately qualified or quantified. This nuance seems to be the driving force behind many discussions of what it means to be a science, as philosophers are left with an icky feeling when they consider the social sciences and natural sciences standing side by side. It is certainly fine to say that the definition of science holds some subjective aspect; however that is not what our authors have admitted. In their attempts to qualify science these philosophers have necessarily excluded many of the things they would readily call science. If this is true—that science holds some sort of “you know it when you see it” quality—then it must be admitted and discussed openly. Until then, the definition of science must include the social sciences.
In this paper I have discussed a definition of science which includes many aspects such as narrowness in focus, undisputed methodology, and a desire for a high degree of certainty in findings. This definition is supported by statements from a variety of authors, and from statements about certain sciences we do not worry about. Based on this definition sociology, as an exemplar of the social sciences, earns a place among those things we call science. Despite objections that the definition remains too broad, or omits certain subjective qualities, sociology remains a science steadily onward.
American Political Science Association. 2103. “American Political Science Association Advocacy.” APSA: networking a world of scholars. http://www.apsanet.org/advocacy/
Cohen, Tobi. 2013. “String of terror incidents no reason to ‘commit sociology’: Stephen Harper.” Ottawa Citizen.
Hillsman, Sally. 2013. “Sociology Is as STEM Discipline.” American Sociological Society: From the Executive Officer. http://www.asanet.org/footnotes/feb13/vp_0213.html