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 conceptualized and debated by philosophers, social theorists, and intellectuals more generally;
• to act as a sort of introduction to the ways in which these issues have been incorporated (sometimes—often—inaccurately) into different branches of the social sciences;
• to serve as a forum for reflection on the relationship between these issues and the concrete conduct of research, both your own and that of others.
That having been said, this is neither a technical “research design” nor a “proposal writing” class, but is pitched as a somewhat greater level of abstraction. As we proceed through the course, 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, both 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 generalizations 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 of the 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 the course we will draw on exemplary work from Anthropology, Economics, Sociology, Political Science; students will be encouraged to draw on their own disciplines as well as these others in producing their reflections and participating in our lively discussions.