Reflections…, part 2

For some people social science will appear as something fundamentally different from natural science. It is, after all, not possible to detect any underlying “laws” in society in the same way that natural laws can be detected. And the principles we might actually uncover do usually not need much scientific effort; “folk psychology” is often enough.

The most extreme view ought to be the rejection of all pretentions to explain any causal links. Instead, the focus is, so to speak, to make social phenomena understandable, to grasp and interpret them. In its most pure form the result might be a “thick” description of something, in the way that an anthropologist might strive to understand and describe a certain culture, without any pretentions to find any law-like generalities in human behavior. This view, focused on understanding, is most prevalent in case studies, and interviews are often used as primary sources.

History, too, is often distinguished by a lack of pretentions to uncover general hypotheses about human action. There is, however, a difference in that not all historians regard their discipline as a “science”, in its strict meaning; and sometimes history is classified as an art, rather than a science, although its “weight” or “value” is usually not diminished by this. One could say the same about the academic study of literature, a discipline which extremely rarely attempts to describe or explain any human generalities.

Still, it is interesting that in some places – I am mostly thinking about Sweden here – the latter discipline is called  “literature science” (litteraturvetenskap). This might easily lead one into some linguistic quagmires, where it is difficult to find out whether all things that are labeled “science” do really have much in common. It is possible that all that remains is an “institutional” definition: what people do at universities is science – even if the activity itself is marked by vast differences regarding methods and aims when it comes to different departments.

So how should one find one’s bearings in all this? Should one simply refrain from any attempts to define what science really is (or ought to be), or should one try to find some common criteria that must be met in order for something to be called a science – something like the positivist idea about general causal hypotheses? The question is, perhaps, most burning when a lot of science is financed through the public purse. We do, after all, want out tax money to go to “legitimate” science and our universities to retain a decent ranking compared to universities in other countries. Think, for instance, about the debate that raged some years ago when Lund University was about to appoint a professor (for an endowed chair) in parapsychology, or the constant debates surrounding a discipline like gender studies (or “gender science”, as it is called in Sweden).

For my part, I think that some basic criteria (developed further in part 3) should be fulfilled in order for something to qualify as a science; and one consequence of this might be that some research programs at Swedish universities should be discontinued. At the same time, I do not think that all separate studies that are produced at universities need to contain strictly scientific hypotheses; but it should still be clear in which way these “unscientific” studies are smaller pieces of a larger picture which, in turn, is a scientific endeavor.

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