Social Science Essays

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Social science
 is the area of study concerned with movements in society and human behaviours. “Social science” is commonly used as broad term to refer to a variety of fields outside of the natural sciences. These can include anthropology, economics, political science, sociology and psychology. The scholars in social science can use complex terms which are abstract and antiquated which are difficult to relate to. 

Emile Durheim, Karl Marx and Max Weber are typically cited as the principal architects of modern social science by this definition. Positivist social scientists use methods resembling those of the natural sciences as tools for understanding society, and so define science in its stricter modern sense. Interpretivist social scientists, by contrast, may use social critique or symbolic interpretation rather than constructing empirically falsifiable theories, and thus treat science in its broader sense.

Comte’s positivism

Auguste Comte (1798–1857) first described the epistemological perspective of positivism in The Course in Positive Philosophy, a series of texts published between 1830 and 1842. These texts were followed by the 1844 work, A General View of Positivism (published in French 1848, English in 1865). The first three volumes of the Course dealt chiefly with the physical sciences already in existence (mathematics, astronomy, physics, chemistry, biology), whereas the latter two emphasised the inevitable coming of social science. Observing the circular dependence of theory and observation in science, and classifying the sciences in this way, Comte may be regarded as the first philosopher of science in the modern sense of the term. For him, the physical sciences had necessarily to arrive first, before humanity could adequately channel its efforts into the most challenging and complex “Queen science” of human society itself. His View of Positivism therefore set-out to define the empirical goals of sociological method.

Comte’s stages were (1) the theological, (2) the metaphysical, and (3) the positive. The theological phase of man was based on whole-hearted belief in all things with reference to God. God, Comte says, had reigned supreme over human existence pre-Enlightenment. Humanity’s place in society was governed by its association with the divine presences and with the church. The theological phase deals with humankind’s accepting the doctrines of the church (or place of worship) rather than relying on its rational powers to explore basic questions about existence. It dealt with the restrictions put in place by the religious organization at the time and the total acceptance of any “fact” adduced for society to believe. Comte describes the metaphysical phase of humanity as the time since the Enlightenment, a time steeped in logical rationalism, to the time right after the French Revolution. This second phase states that the universal rights of humanity are most important. The central idea is that humanity is invested with certain rights that must be respected. In this phase, democracies and dictators rose and fell in attempts to maintain the innate rights of humanity.

The final stage of the trilogy of Comte’s universal law is the scientific, or positive, stage. The central idea of this phase is that individual rights are more important than the rule of any one person. Comte stated that the idea of humanity’s ability to govern itself makes this stage innately different from the rest. There is no higher power governing the masses and the intrigue of any one person can achieve anything based on that individual’s free will and authority. The third principle is most important in the positive stage. Comte calls these three phases the universal rule in relation to society and its development. Neither the second nor the third phase can be reached without the completion and understanding of the preceding stage. All stages must be completed in progress.

Durkheim’s positivism

The modern academic discipline of sociology began with the work of Émile Durkheim (1858–1917). While Durkheim rejected much of the details of Comte’s philosophy, he retained and refined its method, maintaining that the social sciences are a logical continuation of the natural ones into the realm of human activity, and insisting that they may retain the same objectivity, rationalism, and approach to causality. Durkheim set up the first European department of sociology at the University of Bordeaux in 1895, publishing his Rules of the Sociological Method (1895). In this text he argued: “our main goal is to extend scientific rationalism to human conduct… What has been called our positivism is but a consequence of this rationalism.” 

Durkheim’s seminal monograph, Suicide (1897), a case study of suicide rates amongst Catholic and Protestant populations, distinguished sociological analysis from psychology or philosophy. By carefully examining suicide statistics in different police districts, he attempted to demonstrate that Catholic communities have a lower suicide rate than Protestants, something he attributed to social (as opposed to individual or psychological) causes. He developed the notion of objective sui generis “social facts” to delineate a unique empirical object for the science of sociology to study. Through such studies, he posited, sociology would be able to determine whether a given society is ‘healthy’ or ‘pathological’, and seek social reform to negate organic breakdown or “socialanomie”. Durkheim described sociology as the “science of institutions, their genesis and their functioning”.

Accounts of Durkheim’s positivism are vulnerable to exaggeration and oversimplification: Comte was the only major sociological thinker to postulate that the social realm may be subject to scientific analysis in exactly the same way as natural science, whereas Durkheim saw a far greater need for a distinctly sociological scientific methodology. His lifework was fundamental in the establishment of practical social research as we know it today – techniques which continue beyond sociology and form the methodological basis of other social sciences, such as political science, as well of market research and other fields.

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