Install the app

Install this application on your home screen for quick and easy access when you’re on the go.

Just tap Share then “Add to Home Screen”


Install the app

Install this application on your home screen for quick and easy access when you’re on the go.

Just tap Share then “Add to Home Screen”

Your subscription could not be saved. Please try again.
Your subscription to the ECPR Methods School offers and updates newsletter has been successful.

Discover ECPR's Latest Methods Course Offerings

We use Brevo as our email marketing platform. By clicking below to submit this form, you acknowledge that the information you provided will be transferred to Brevo for processing in accordance with their terms of use.

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

Course Dates and Times

Monday 5 – Friday 9 August 08:00 – 08:45

This is a free supplementary course. You must register and pay for a one- or two-week course to qualify for attendance. To book, check the box when registering.


Robert Adcock

American University

The social sciences have long been concerned with the epistemic status of their empirical claims. Unlike in the natural sciences, where an evident record of practical success tends to make the exploration of such philosophical issues a narrowly specialised endeavour, in the social sciences, differences between the philosophies of science underpinning the empirical work of varied researchers produces important and evident differences in the kind of social-scientific work that they do.

Philosophy of science issues are, in this way, closer to the surface of social-scientific research, and part of being a competent social scientist involves coming to terms with and developing a position on those issues.

This course provides a survey of important authors and themes in the philosophy of the social sciences, concentrating in particular on the relationship of the mind to the social world and on the relationship between knowledge and experience; you will have ample opportunities to draw out the implications of different stances on these issues for your concrete empirical research.

Instructor Bio

Robert Adcock teaches at the School of International Service at American University in Washington DC.

His interests focus on the politics and sociology of knowledge, the transatlantic history of the social sciences and their relationship to liberalism, and the philosophy and methods of the social sciences.

Robert is the author of Liberalism and the Emergence of American Political Science: A Transatlantic Tale (Oxford University Press, 2014), and was the co-editor of Modern Political Science: Anglo-American Exchanges since 1880 (Princeton University Press, 2007).

He also edited the newsletter of the Qualitative and Multi-Method Research organised section of the American Political Science Association from 2011 to 2014.

This course is a broad survey of epistemological, ontological, and methodological issues relevant to the production of knowledge in the social sciences. The course has three overlapping and interrelated 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 act as an introduction to the ways in which these issues have been incorporated (sometimes—often—inaccurately) into different branches of the social sciences;
  • to be a forum for reflection on the relationship between these issues and the concrete conduct of your own and others' research.

That said, this is neither a technical 'research design' nor a 'proposal writing' course, but is pitched as a somewhat greater level of abstraction. As we proceed, however, you should try not to lose sight of the fact that these philosophical debates have profound consequences for practical research. Treat this course as an opportunity to set aside some time to think critically, creatively, and expansively about the status of knowledge: that which you have produced and will produce, and that produced by others.

The 'science question' rests more heavily on the social sciences than it does on the natural sciences, for the simple reason that the evident successes of the natural sciences in enhancing the human ability to control and manipulate the physical world stands as a powerful rejoinder to any scepticism about the scientific status of fields of inquiry like physics and biology.

The social science have long laboured in the shadow of those successes, and one popular response has been to try to model the social sciences on one or another of the natural sciences; this naturalism forms one of the recurrent gestures in the philosophy of the social sciences, and we will trace it through its incarnation in the Logical Positivism of the Vienna Circle and then into the 'post-positivist' embrace of falsification as the mark of a scientific statement.

Problems generated by the firm emphasis on lawlike generalisations through both of these naturalistic approaches to social science lead to the reformulated naturalism of critical realism, as well as to the rejection of naturalism by pragmatists and followers of classical sociologists like Max Weber.

Finally, we will consider the tradition of critical theory stemming from the Frankfurt School, and the contemporary manifestation of that commitment to reflexive knowledge in feminist and post-colonial approaches to social science.

While not an exhaustive survey of the philosophy of the social sciences, this course will serve as an opportunity to explore some perennial issues of great relevance to the conduct of social-scientific inquiry, and will thus function as a solid foundation for subsequent reading and discussion—and for the practice of social science.

Throughout, we will draw on exemplary work from anthropology, economics, sociology and political science; you are encouraged to draw on your own discipline as well as these others to inform your reflections.

This course presumes no prior detailed familiarity with the philosophy of social science, beyond that gained by any practicing social scientist in the course of meeting the challenges associated with the conduct of her or his research project. The course does, however, presume a willingness to think of social science as a philosophical rather than just a technical endeavour.

A course in basic European philosophy during one’s university experience would be a plus, although the reading of a couple of good survey books like Richard Bernstein’s The Restructuring of Social and Political Theory or Ian Hacking’s The Social Construction of What? are advised as a refresher in any event.

The vocabulary introduced and developed in The Conduct of Inquiry in International Relations, second edition (Routledge, 2016) will inform the course lectures.

Each course includes pre-course assignments, including readings and pre-recorded videos, as well as daily live lectures totalling at least two 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 two 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
1 The Philosophical Backdrop

How we got here: the European Enlightenment and Vienna Circle logical positivism

2 Neopositivism

The thing we usually and mistakenly call 'positivism' nowadays

3 Realism

The reality of undetectables

4 Analyticism

The helpful ordering of empirical actuality

5 Reflexivity

Knowing as a function of positionality

Day Readings

Carl Hempel
'The Function of General Laws in History'
In Aspects of Scientific Explanation and other essays
New York: Free Press (1965), pp. 231–44


Karl Popper
'Conjectural Knowledge'
In Objective Knowledge
Oxford: Clarendon Press (1979)


John Searle
The Construction of Social Reality
New York: Free Press (1996), Chapters 1–2


Max Weber
'The "Objectivity" of Social-Scientific and Socio-Political Knowledge' 
auf Deutsch if possible, otherwise the translation in Sam Whimster’s The Essential Weber isn’t too bad.


Raymond Geuss
The Idea of a Critical Theory
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (1981)

Software Requirements


Hardware Requirements

Please bring your own laptop.


Recommendations provided on request.