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.