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The Ideal of Social Science: History, Sociology, Anthropology, Economics, and Psychology

In light of the success of the physical and natural sciences, it was predictable that those interested in the study of human life and behavior would look to the paradigm of scientific methodology as a means by which questions about the nature of human behavior could be as definitively settled as those about gravity, chemical reactions, plants, and animal life. Many scholars in the professions focused on humans expected a revolution within their professions as a result of a commitment to the application of controlled experiment. By this rigorous process, it was thought, hypotheses about human life could be confirmed or falsified. Foundational truths about human life and behavior could be discovered and built upon.

There is one major problem with this conception of the study of human behavior. Briefly, it might be expressed as follows: Human behavior is the result of the meaning–creating capacity of the human mind and is much more a product of human thinking than human instinct. Furthermore, a variety of influences have an impact on how humans think (and therefore on how they feel and what they want). Humans are highly complex, multidimensional creatures, which makes the study of human behavior through the scientific method subject to many limiting qualifications at best.

For example, as humans we are born into a culture at some point in time in some place, and reared by parents with particular beliefs. We form a variety of associations with other humans who are equally variously influenced. Our minds are influenced in all of the following dimensions, but not to the same extent or in the same way:

  • sociologically: our mind is influenced by the social groups to which we belong;

  • philosophically: our mind is influenced by our personal philosophy;

  • ethically: our mind is influenced by our character;

  • intellectually: our mind is influenced by the ideas we hold, by the manner in which we reason and deal with abstractions and abstract systems;

  • anthropologically: our mind is influenced by cultural practices, mores, and taboos;

  • ideologically and politically: our mind is influenced by the structure of power and its use by interest groups around us;

  • economically: our mind is influenced by the economic conditions under which we live;

  • historically: our mind is influenced by our history and by the way we tell our history;

  • biologically: our mind is influenced by our biology and neurology;

  • theologically: our mind is influenced by our religious beliefs and attitudes;

  • psychologically: our mind is influenced by our personality and personal psychology.

What is more, these influences are not only subject to almost unlimited variation among themselves, but humans are capable of discovering each of these influences, reflecting on them, and then acting to change them in an almost unlimited number of ways. Consider how much more difficult it would be to study the behavior of mice if each mouse were to vary its behavior from every other mouse depending on a unique combination of prior influences within each of the above categories. Moreover, consider what the study of behavior of mice would be like if they could discover that we were studying them and began to react to our study in the light of that professional knowledge. And how could we even proceed to study them if they were to decide at the same time to study us studying them?

The very idea of studying human behavior scientifically faces enormous difficulties by virtue of the diverse nature of human behavior. It faces enormous difficulties by virtue of the diverse simultaneous influences upon humans as we think, feel, and act in the world, and the capacity of humans to notice and modify virtually any aspect of the thoughts, feelings, and desires that drive our behavior. In light of these considerations, let us examine the sort of promissory claims made on behalf of the social sciences.

The ideal of science is based on the fact that it is possible in principle to ask questions about any aspect of the world. Such questions can be asked in a way that enables us to pursue answers by means of carefully controlled empirical study rather than on the basis of abstract reasoning following from human preconception. There is no reason why, in principle, humans should not be studied empirically. In studying humans as well as in studying other animal species in the world, it is essential that carefully controlled experimentation correlated with falsifiable hypotheses are used as the guiding keys to gaining dependable professional knowledge of the human world. What is more, it is essential that humans be taught professional knowledge of themselves so we can make intelligent decisions about our own conditions of life.

Each profession will make specific claims emerging from its potential (viewed ideally) history, sociology, anthropology, economics, and psychology, approximately as follows.

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