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Philosophy and Methodology of the Social Sciences

Course Dates and Times

Friday 2 March
13:00–15:00 and 15:30–17:00

Saturday 3 March
11:00–12:00 / 13:00–14:30 and 15:00–16:30

Benjamin Herborth

Rijksuniversiteit Groningen

Why should political scientists bother to engage with fundamental issues in philosophy of science and methodology?
Should we not leave that to specialists, in particular philosophers of science themselves?

To answer in the negative and to demonstrate the value of both for the study of politics, this short course aims to introduce and discuss core themes in philosophy of science so that it becomes apparent how they are very much at play in everyday research practice.

Why Care? Philosophy of Science and Political Science Research
This session will prompt a discussion of how theory, methodology and research practice are connected in your work.
Who Wants to be a Positivist?
This session will prompt a discussion of what kinds of knowledge claims you make in your research.
Critical Theory and Empirical Research
This final session will encourage you to think about how your knowledge production is inextricably political.

Instructor Bio

Benjamin Herborth is Assistant Professor at the Department of International Relations and International Organization, History and Theory of International Relations, at the University of Groningen. His research interests include

  • social and political theories in and of international relations
  • critical theory and international politics
  • philosophy of the social sciences and reconstructive methodology
  • the politics of security.

Cutting across these research interests is the belief that the field of International Relations, having a strong tradition of reifying both political spaces and political subjects, provides an excellent site for theorizing both.

Benjamin's recent work has appeared in Review of International Studies, International Studies Review, International Theory and the Journal of International Relations and Development. In 2017 Cambridge University Press published Uses of the West: Security and the Politics of Global Order (edited with Gunther Hellmann).

This course is a broad survey of epistemological, ontological, and methodological issues relevant to knowledge production in the social sciences. The course has three overlapping objectives:

  • To provide you with a grounding in these issues as they are conceptualised and debated by philosophers, social theorists, and intellectuals more generally
  • To introduce some of the ways in which these issues have been incorporated (all too often incompletely or inaccurately) into the social sciences
  • To promote reflection on how these issues relate to your own empirical research

This is neither a technical research design nor a proposal writing class. As we proceed through the course, however, you should come to appreciate the consequences of philosophical debates for your own research practice. You are encouraged to approach this course as an opportunity to think critically, creatively, and expansively about the status of social scientific knowledge, both that which you have produced and/or will produce, and that produced by others.

The 'science question' rests more heavily on the social than the natural sciences, for the simple reason that the successes of the natural sciences in enhancing the human ability to control and manipulate the physical world offer an effective rejoinder to scepticism regarding the scientific status of fields such as physics and biology. The social sciences have long laboured in the shadow of these successes. One response has been to try to model the social sciences on one or another of the natural sciences, or more specifically, on one or another philosophical account of knowledge production in those sciences. This naturalism forms one of the recurrent moves in the philosophy of the social sciences. We will engage it, both in its incarnation in the Logical Positivism of the Vienna Circle, and in the more widespread embrace of falsification as a demarcation criterion for science. Problems generated by the emphasis on law-like generalisations in these naturalistic approaches to social science subsequently informed both the reformulated naturalism of critical realism, and the rejection of naturalism by followers of classical sociologists like Max Weber. Finally, we consider the tradition of critical theory with its commitment to an emancipatory form of knowledge production.

While not an exhaustive survey of issues in the philosophy of the social sciences, the course offers an opportunity to explore perennial issues of great relevance for the conduct of social science research, the methodological training of new social scientists, and the aspirations of many social scientists to move from the commonplace that our work somehow can make a difference to a reflexive awareness of the politics of social research. The course should thus serve as a solid foundation for subsequent reading and reflection.

The course will be organised into three sessions, each of which combines a discussion of core themes at the intersection of philosophy of science, methodology, and political science with an invitation to reflect on how these core themes play out in your own research.

The course requires an open-minded curiositiy, especially with an eye to the fundamental philosophical and political issues at stake in any form of social research. Good books to zoom in on the topic include:

Richard Bernstein, The Restructuring of Social and Political Theory

Ian Hacking, The Social Construction of What?

Each course includes pre-course assignments, including readings and pre-recorded videos, as well as daily live lectures totalling at least three hours. The instructor will conduct live Q&A sessions and offer designated office hours for one-to-one consultations.

Please check your course format before registering.

Online courses

Live classes will be held daily for three hours on a video meeting platform, allowing you to interact with both the instructor and other participants in real-time. To avoid online fatigue, the course employs a pedagogy that includes small-group work, short and focused tasks, as well as troubleshooting exercises that utilise a variety of online applications to facilitate collaboration and engagement with the course content.

In-person courses

In-person courses will consist of daily three-hour classroom sessions, featuring a range of interactive in-class activities including short lectures, peer feedback, group exercises, and presentations.


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 at the time of change.

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, please contact us before registering.

Day Topic Details
Friday Why Care? Philosophy of Science and Political Science Research
Saturday morning Who Wants to be a Positivist?

Each of these sessions will be split into two blocks. In the first blocks I will introduce and we will discuss core themes based on the assigned readings. In a second block we will discuss how these themes are at play in your own research.

Saturday afternoon Critical Theory and Empirical Research
Day Readings

Patrick Thaddeus Jackson, The Conduct of Inquiry in International Relations, ch. 1–3

Jens Bartelson, A Genealogy of Sovereignty, ch. 1–3

Saturday morning

Carl Gustav Hempel, The Function of General Laws in History

Max Weber, The ‘Objectivity’ of Social Science and Social Policy

Saturday afternoon

Theodor W. Adorno, Sociology and Empirical Research

Pierre Bourdieu, 'A Lecture on the Lecture' (inaugural lecture at the Collège de France)

Jacques Rancière, The Ethics of Sociology

Software Requirements


Hardware Requirements