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Knowing and the Known: The Philosophy and Methodology of the Social Sciences

Patrick Jackson

American University

Patrick Thaddeus Jackson is Professor of International Studies, and Director of the AU Honors Program, at the American University in Washington, DC.

His award-winning book The Conduct of Inquiry in International Relations was published by Routledge in a second, revised edition in 2016.

At present he is working on projects on explanation in the social sciences, theological responses to climate change, and the theory and methodology of Max Weber.

Patrick's personal website

Twitter icon  @profptj

Course Dates and Times

Monday 15 ꟷ Friday 19 March 2021
2 hours of live teaching per day
15:00 ꟷ 17:00

Prerequisite Knowledge


Short Outline

This seminar-type course provides a highly interactive online teaching and learning environment, using state of the art online pedagogical tools. It is designed for a demanding audience (researchers, professional analysts, advanced students) and capped at a maximum of 12 participants so that the Instructor can cater to the specific needs of each individual.

What is this course about?

In the social sciences generally, we have well-established vocabularies for discussing theory and method; we have an ample lexicon for expressing substantive claims about the world, and for talking about various tools and techniques that we use in evaluating those claims.

What we do not have in the same level of detail are vocabularies for discussing methodology, understood here as the logic of any particular inquiry: why we might want to use particular techniques for answering particular questions, what kind of questions we might ask about particular research topics, and in general the epistemic status of our knowledge-claims.

By considering some of the key works in the philosophical tradition that contributed more or less directly to our present conceptual inheritance, alongside some works that challenge that tradition or stand outside of it, this course aims to construct a more adequate lexicon for discussing these methodological issues.

Who is this course for? 

All practicing social scientists are, so to speak, practical philosophers of science, in that our accounts of how scientific knowledge ought to be produced shape how we do our work whether or not we are explicit about our philosophical commitments.

Studying these debates about the status of knowledge can enhance any type of empirical research and can help any researcher become better able to articulate the connections between their questions and their methods.

The goal here is not for everyone to become a philosopher of science, but for everyone to better appreciate the ways that philosophical commitments underpin their practical scholarly work.

ECTS Credits

3 credits Engage fully with class activities
4 credits Produce an essay in which you conceptualise your research from at least two different perspectives that we have canvassed during the course

Long Course Outline

Key topics covered

For various historical reasons, the social sciences – especially in the English-speaking world – have been dominated by neopositivism for decades.

Indeed, neopositivism, with its commitment to the elucidation of nomothetic generalisations through a procedure of hypothesis-testing across multiple cases, is all too often mistaken for 'the scientific method,' crowding out other approaches to knowledge-production.

The epistemic interests of neopositivist research are then mistaken for the goals of science per se, despite the fact that neopositivism doesn’t capture the actual practice of physical sciences like physics terribly well.

The result of this methodological monoculture is that we do not really understand what even neopositivism is, let alone what alternatives to neopositivism might look like.

We will begin by excavating the roots of neopositivism in the European Enlightenment, and in the Vienna Circle of logical positivists whose work provides the proximate point of departure for most contemporary discussions of these issues.

We will then turn to a consideration of three prominent alternatives to neopositivism (realism, pragmatic analyticism, and critical reflexivity) and how they cash out the problem of knowledge differently.

Throughout, I will emphasise the practical implications of the philosophical commitments that constitute different approaches, and how they inform different kinds of empirical work.

How the course will work online

For each of the five class days, I will prepare a lecture that sets the stage for the day’s readings. That lecture will be available for asynchronous viewing before the scheduled class session.

Each class day will feature a synchronous discussion session, in which we will interactively ponder and engage with the day’s readings.

Finally, for each day, each member of the class will be required to post a post-discussion reflective entry on the class discussion board, ruminating on the day’s discussion and connecting it to their own work.

Additional Information


This course description may be subject to subsequent adaptations (e.g. taking into account new developments in the field, participant demands, group size, etc). Registered participants will be informed in due time.

Note from the Academic Convenors

By registering for this course, you confirm that you possess the knowledge required to follow it. The instructor will not teach these prerequisite items. If in doubt, contact the instructor before registering.