Review of M.J. Smith, Social Science in Question, 1998.  London, Thousand Oaks and New Delhi;  Sage Publications in association with the Open University.

Originality or Collective Progress in the Social Sciences?

Social Science in Question is a masterful textbook which covers the main elements of a course in the Philosophy of Social Science.  The book was produced for the Open University course D820, The Challenge of the Social Sciences.  By using clever graphic images and lots of photographs and historical artefacts, the authors have made this post-graduate material suitable for a wide-ranging audience.  I hope the book's readers will include lots of practical social researchers.  The book is certainly not boring.  On the other hand, a philosopher friend of mine reacted to the book by saying it lacked depth in treating philosophical questions.  By avoiding the use of some terms (notably ontology) the authors have tried to avoid putting off beginners. Inevitably, such an approach will not satisfy the appetites of experienced methodological debaters.

I said it was masterful.  Ironically, the book will teach readers how to analyse the connotations of words like ‘masterful’, a masculinised phrase in modern societies.  The British Sociological Association would recommend me to replace this word with a less gender-stereotyped and politically charged phrase.  But the use of politically-correct language avoids raising directly the issues surrounding stereotyped language.  This book explains that kind of problem in detail.  It doesn’t deal directly with the political correctness debate, yet more than half of the book is spent on analysing discourse and illustrating how a given discourse can be both constraining (limiting our ability to see truths that lie outside it) and normative.  The normative aspect in ‘masterful’, for example, lies partly in the association of the word with masculine, domineering masters.  This association is socio-historically based and not universal, but can be seen as linked with the goodness of a complete, accurate, thorough, well-written account.  I can imagine a female being masterful . . . but the usual assumption would perhaps be that ‘master’ hints at male masters in master-slave relationships.  For researchers struggling with inter-disciplinarity, discourse analysis of this kind is a crucial stage in escaping the epistemological boundaries of a single discipline or narrow sub-discipline.

Smith suggests that the epistemological issues surrounding constructivism have not been resolved.  He does not adhere to a phenomenological ontology.  It is nice to see a writer so sympathetic to social construction and deconstruction not indulge in anti-realism.  Indeed, some of the central ideas of realism are presented in Chapter 7 of the book.  To me -- perhaps a biased reader -- it seems obvious that realism in its scientific (!), critical form resolves some of the problems of epistemology that form the meat of chapters 1 to 6.  As a critical realist, I am willing to engage in socially situated knowledge production.  That translates as political debate, in my view.  Smith, too, seems to argue that all knowledge is politically and socially embedded.  For more traditional readers from empiricist and positivist traditions, Chapters 4 to 7 may therefore be perceived as threatening rather than as liberating.  Smith’s narrative position is rather open, giving constructive criticism to different schools of thought without committing himself to a particular ontological position.  Therefore the book seems perfectly pitched to move the global debates between positivists and post-positivists forward, rather than merely entrenching an anti-empiricist position among a few isolated researchers.

Let me summarise the seven Chapters of the book and then make a few comments on the originality and difficulties of the book.

First Smith reviews ‘Social Science as a Situated Practice’ (Chapter 1).  This is a pathbreaking introduction to social research, placing the observer’s frame of reference at the centre of methodological concern.  Most sociologists will feel this is inadequate because it is obvious, yet for people in many other disciplines, including the social researchers of more supposedly ‘hard’ sciences such as medicine, health studies, geography, accounting, economics, and so on it will be an eye-opener.  From this point onward the personal is political.  The meanings of home and homelessness are raised in Chapter 1, while the meaning and import of the concept of ‘race’ is used as an exemplar in Chapters 2 to 4 in a convincing way.

Chapter 2 compares the ‘theological circuit of knowledge’ with the ‘scientific circuit of knowledge’, setting out the roots of the current usage of the term ‘scientific’ in the works of Bacon, DesCartes, Locke and Hume. Chapter 3 gives a potted history of positivism.  Here, empiricism is carefully distinguished from the three main sub-schools of positivism.  The division into schools forces readers to use subtlety in branding research as positivist, or in criticising the different components of the schools.  Chapter 4 presents opposing forms of thought in social science under the broad heading of idealism.  The title of the chapter, ‘Imagination and Complexity in the Social Sciences’, is a catch-all phrase whereas Table 4.1 (page 131) summarises the gist of this chapter.  Titled ‘Idealist Approaches to Knowledge Construction’, the table makes comparisons between Weberian ideal types (here called neo-Kantian Idealism), rational choice theory, and phenomenology itself.  The chapter that fleshes out these schools is a fascinating and illuminating critical review.  An excellent contrast of Weber and Durkheim plays a role in this chapter.

Smith embarks on the debate about paradigms, starting with naturalism and then working through Kuhn’n notion of scientific revolutions in the middle, in Chapter 5.  One sub-heading, ‘Question Everything!’ (section 3.3 of Chapter 5) illustrates the openness advocated by Smith and contrasts greatly with the simplistic positivism and flat ontology of other disciplinary texts.  Notable among the latter are orthodox economics textbooks, one of which Smith cites at length to illustrate their simplistic claims about how one ‘tests theory’.

In Chapter 6 on ‘Language, Discourse and Culture’ Smith sets out a number of post-modernist methodological findings without branding them as a coherent school of thought.  His survey of different forms of discourse analysis, and the list of components of a discourse (repeated in the Glossary), will be helpful to beginners in this area.  Interestingly, psychology is seen as central by the author whereas anthropology gets short shrift.  The book is manifestly not a reivew of different disciplines, but a topic-based review of positions in social science methodology.  As such, however, the debate over discourses is seen as so important that it also plays a central role in Chapter 7, where it is placed alongside scientific realism and feminism as the main source of coherent innovative research findings in the future.

Crucial points from realism that are woven into the text include open systems versus closed systems (Chapter 2), atomism versus ontological holism (Chapter 3), doubts about constant conjunctions or empirical regularities (Chapter 4), the hermeneutic basis of normative judgements within disciplines (Chapter 5), language as a social structure (Chapter 6), and the real/actual/empirical distinctions (Chapter 7).  In addition crucial extracts from Sayer and Bhaskar include a copyright-cleared section from Sayer (1992) on abstractions, structures and mechanisms (pp. 326-328) and an adapted vrsion of Bhaskar’s (1979/1989) structure-agency dialectic diagram (p. 306) with a feminist example illustrated on page 315.

The subject-object problem and the double hermeneutic (Sayer, 1992; Outhwaite, 1987) are central to the entire book, but especially in Chapter 7.  Thus Smith implicitly offers realism as a solution to some major problems of traditional epistemologies.  It might seem odd that Sayer is hardly cited in pages 301-303 where his diagrams on the subject-object problem are re-presented.  However Sayer was the external assessor for the book and has presumably approved the incorporation of such material in Smith’s text.

This point raises a more general issue about whether this book is the work of one author or many.  The course team of 31 people was led by Mark Smith, and clearly this wide base has helped encourage Smith to include many fascinating examples from diverse sources in the text.  As usual in science, what appears as extremely original is the upshot of serious work by a whole group of people (Walby would say a network) over an extended period of time.  One original aspect of the book is its use of ‘organizing icons’ for chapters, schools of thought, and circuits of logic.  These were perhaps suggested by the designers or editors on the Course Team, but now appear copyrighted under Smith’s name.  This is the paradox of copyrighted, individuated authorship.

So, in summary, the book is a wide-ranging survey of methodologies of Western science and social science.  Variants of positivism, variants of idealism, and variants on constructivism play a core role in the book. The conclusion that realism perhaps fills the gaps seems inescapable -- yet even more important is the point, which is implicit in Smith’s text, that certainty and absolute truth are unlikely outcomes of science.  The neatest part of the book, for someone like me that struggles ‘being an economist’, is the review of how difficult it is to question bedrock assumptions within a falsificationist approach.  I have never been very impressed with falsificationism, but here it is portrayed with all its glaring weaknesses.  Therefore the need for fallibility in drawing conclusions from social research is made obvious.  To me, this is progress, whereas for many scientists writing in earlier period such an approach would have seemed like a step backward from the ‘facts’ ‘discovered’ through ‘good theorising’.

There are a few minor difficulties in the book.  For instance, the text is perhaps less than clear in its treatment of nominalism.  This term is seen as crucially separating different sub-schools of positivist thought, but the possibility of confusing nominalism with the casual usage of the word 'nominal' has not been clearly handled.  I suspect there is a huge issue here, because a nominal term reifies something and can then have real effects -- even if the thing referred to (e.g. utility) did not exist when the term was created.  Perhaps my own lack of philosophical training shows up when comparing nominalism with phenomenalism in Smith's chapters 2 and 3.  If Smith had used the term ontology explicitly, and defined nominalism with respect to its implicit ontological claims, the  contrast with phenomenalism would perhaps be more clear to the reader.  Instead, phenomenalism is treated separately.  Another point some readers will take issue with is Smith's interpretation of Milton Friedman's instrumental approach to economic modelling.  I leave this for economists to read and mull over . . . and I encourage all readers to buy Smith's gorgeous book.

References: