Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Analysis on “The Social Sciences in the Last Two Hundred Years”

           The very reason why we trace back the historical evolution of social science specifically in the last two hundred years is because the period shows how so-called social science is established as distinct field of study and systemized in terms of methodology. History of social science is no doubt more than two hundred years because the speculation on social matter had already begun by ancient philosophers like Plato and Aristotle. Therefore, it is quite important to grasp the implication of the author in setting specific period time to be discussed in dealing with social science more profoundly.

As mentioned above, social science already marked its beginning in ancient time. However, we have to note that after fall of Roman Empire and as Church has become dominant power in the continent, the intellectual activities in seeking for knowledge remained stagnant during the medieval time as the emphasis was solely given to God under the authority of church. People during that time were discouraged in seeking knowledge about nature and attempting to explain the world around them. Rather they were just forced to passively accept religious account on the world.

             This invulnerable wall blocking people from path to the knowledge began to break since Renaissance movement. As humanistic spirit of the ancient Greek and Roman was restored among people in Europe, and the emphasis was gradually given to human being. Sooner beginning in 16th century, radical development in science took place and we call this scientific revolution. In 17th Century, Cartesian dualism was imbued to the people that they began to see the nature as object to be explored and observed. And of course the best way to do that was found in skepticism. Thus the author puts it, the latter half of the seventeenth and the first half of the eighteenth centuries were period of triumph of natural science that in reached its peak as science. In contrast to the triumph of natural science, social science remained stagnant that during this period only few contributions were made in the field.  

             It was in the mid-eighteenth century that the interest in social science arose again. This was in short due to change in pattern of the social fabric. Mid-eighteenth century to the nineteenth century was the transitional period of socio-economic system. Capitalism, rising middle class, civil revolutions and industrialism had brought radical changes in society. New form of socio and economic institutions thus became the object of critical analysis due to the problems and social ills out of them. Here we get the clue why the author has set the time scope of 200 years in dealing with social science. The latter half of 18th century was the threshold to the full-scale development of social science.

             That the revival of interest in social science started from criticism of new form of social, political and economic institutions gives us clue to find out method used during the time. The social scientists, facing newly existing order paid attention to the principle of a natural order of society from which the existing order was compared and contrasted. This was “comparative method.” The various data about social order were gathered to measure the existing society. And this was quite effective yardstick to measure existing institution. The theories of government based on natural order in group of human beings suggested by Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau were not based on empirical research but those profound analyses on natural order became firm ground for social science and the object of comparison to which any existing social and political institution could be compared.

             Here I would have to stress the significance of comparative method in social science. The subject matter in social science itself is far more complex than that of natural science. That is why social scientists dealing with history, society, economy, politics and culture were fully satisfied with the methodology of natural science as only genuine way of attaining knowledge. Subject matters dealt in social science are not solely objective but very particular from time to time and place to place. Due to this particular characteristic of subject matter in social science, many of social scientists, and philosophers in 19th century to 20th century made an attempt to break away from natural science in terms of methodology. They necessarily distinguished eklaren from verstehen and what is needed in human science was verstehen, understanding. But matter of generalization still remains important because knowledge that is only particular with no sense of general point is in fact useless. One of the most important tasks of social scientists thus to find out generalized true and knowledge out of particularity. The best approach to this task I believe is comparative method. The theoretical basis of comparative method admits the particularity of individual objects but by comparing them from one another, one can draw relatively generalized conclusion out of particular knowledge. So I would believe this was one notable break-through of social science.

             Moreover, the comparative method opened the way to the theory of progress of mankind. It wasn’t difficult for social scientists to notice improvement and refinement of existing civilization when compared to those of ancient ones. Though, definition of the term ‘progress’ may have been different among the scholars that some scholars might have judged existing civilization as deteriorated in terms of spirit or other immaterial matter, the theory of progress with Darwinian theory of evolution made tremendous influence on development of social science.

             In 19th century, social science proceeded to another stage of development. The author points out three distinct features of social science during the time: 1) elaboration and sharp definition of various discipline in relation to one another; 2) social science became recognized as independent and 3) attempts to elaborate methods. Each field in social science established its own system and structure and become specialized. The author reveals the tree condition upon which specialized field in social science is established 1) recognition of a set of new problem; 2) collection of data which will allow generalization and 3) official recognition of the new discipline. Through these stages, the specialized social science were actively developing. However, it must be noted that specialization of each field in social science was not for the sake of specialization and being independent from general stream of social science. Active attempts to provide synthesis and unification out of specialization of tasks in social science were made between 19th Century and 20th Century.

             This attempt to unification faced several hindrances. Lack of common conceptual apparatus was one difficulty encountered by social scientists. Especially different terminology and conceptual definition among scholars hampered theoretical generalization. Clannishness of many social scientists was also one great obstacle to an effective synthesis of social science. But all these hindrances can be overcome by steadfast effort among social scientist and realization of their specialized field in the context of whole picture of the study of man and society.

             Examining the history of social science, we could also find that development of social science has the same pattern through which natural science also passed. The first stage would be recognition of a set of related problems. Interchange of ideas can lead to elaboration of a set of generalizations. The second stage would be conscious attempt to perfect methods of research in the respective discipline. In the third stage, the theoretical rivalries tend to be submerged in the efforts to elaborate propositions bridging the difference. Hegelian dialectics can explain the third stage. There are conflicting or cooperating theories in each field of social science. What we have to note is that antithesis goes against not everything about thesis. What the author is emphasizing in this chapter is that conflict occurs over not on fundamental theories but on the matter of application and perspective on the theory. And those rivalries and conflict can often lead to betterment of theory when synthesized. Anyhow, the direction of social science for the past two hundred years is set to be optimistic with the influence of Darwinian theory of evolution which led to the theory of progress.

I appreciate the discussion of the author on history of social science in the past two hundred years that I believe the temporal scope of the discussion is quite adequate. One thing I was sorry about discussion was there was no sufficient account on the methodological shortcomings of social science compared to the natural science and the effort of social scientists and philosophers to compensate them.

Perhaps, social science, compared to natural science will never reach the point of perfect system and structure in terms of methodology and the process of drawing conclusion because there is no theory or assumption applicable to every social phenomenon. The subject matter of social science is indeed complex and full of mysteries in some sense. So many interrelationships exist between factors and there is uncountable number of variables behind a single social phenomenon. That is why in social science, active specialization is still taking place. The range of social science is far more extensive than that of natural science.

Unsolved questions and uncertainty in social science will still remain. However as the author says there is “greatest promise for further progress in all fields of social science lies in the mutual cross-fertilization of the various disciplines.” Specialization and unification of various disciplines in realm of social science would assure the development of social studies. And I would have to agree with the author’s last remark “greater integration of the social sciences, each will a well-developed theoretical system of its own, holds out the hope that Comte’s dream of a generalized science of man and society may be achieved in practice.” Yes, indeed endless conflict and cooperation between different fields of social science will achieve it.     

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