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IB Social Science - Can social scientists 'see' like natural scientists?



The Basic Scientific Method begins with observation. Using either their own senses or instruments which measure beyond their sensory range, natural scientists ‘see’ the natural world from which they create knowledge. Can social scientists observe in the same way?

Seeing what can’t be seen

Much of what social scientists concern themselves cannot be ‘seen’, in the sense of being observable through the senses, with or without instruments to aid the seeing You cannot ‘see’ ‘motivation’ or ‘leadership’ or ‘concentration’. To understand these, and the many similar characteristics of human behaviour, social scientists have to rely on their own ‘empathy and introspection’, rather like the proverbial ‘sixth sense’. Why didn’t you attend class yesterday’! Were you lazy? ill? Bored? Otherwise engaged? Rebellious? Doing your own thing? Social scientists cannot be sure of your reason for being absent (they can ask you of course, but what would the answer be worth?) so they must consult their own repertoire of motives to understand your behaviour. But their ‘repertoire of motives’ may be misleading They may pick the wrong one or not even have the correct one in their repertoire. Or the behaviour may be a blend of motives which are impossible to separate from each other. Social scientists can make some well informed attempts to define the reason you were not in class yesterday and their empathetic analysis will probably give them some accurate insights into your behaviour. But probably is not definitely. You can’t see what can’t be seen.

Being seen by the seen

If you knew your behaviour was being watched by social scientists researching into the effectiveness of homework, would you act entirely normally? You might sense what it is they hoped to know (even if you were wrong) and give them that information. Or, depending on a variety of factors, including possibly your character or mood, or how sympathetic you find the researchers, you might deliberately ensure they don’t get the information you sense they are looking for. You might also deliberately deceive the researchers to protect a secret or two you have. Or you might distort information to present yourself in a more flattering way. Or again, you may believe, rightly or wrongly. the researchers are going to provide the school administration with information which will lead to your homework load being increased, so you make sure your behaviour indicates that you already work six hours every evening and couldn’t possible manage any more.

The Cassandra Paradox

Social scientists are all familiar with the The Cassandra Paradox. Cassandra was a Trojan princess. The god Apollo fell in love with her and was so pleased she returned his love that he gave her the gift of accurately predicting the future. However, she cheated on him so he turned his gift into a curse. She could still accurately predict the future but no one would believe her. (There’s an interesting knowledge problem there: if she knew what was going to happen in the future did she know, when she cheated on Apollo, that the gift would become a curse? And if she did...?). The Cassandra Paradox works like this: social scientists predict, based on the knowledge of your behaviour, that you will be absent from school next week. You hear of this prediction and it so annoys you that you make sure it doesn’t come true. An astronomer’s prediction of the appearance of Hailey’s Cornet doesn’t influence the Comet. A social scientist’s prediction of human behaviour might influence human behaviour. Being seen by the seen distorts what is seen.

Seeing what you want to see

Both the natural sciences and the social sciences are human constructs: methods of creating knowledge and the knowledge itself created by humans. These humans have values, values which classify actions and achievements, goals and aspirations, as good or bad, just or unjust, worthy or worthless. Any personal values or biases based on these values that scientists, natural or social, bring to their research should be made explicit and compensated for. Physicists looking for an all-embracing Theory of Everything must be extremely careful that their desire to find such a theory doesn’t interfere with their observations and deductions. Social scientists face the same kind of problems as physicists. But their researches are even more vulnerable to personal values because they, the social scientists are themselves human and part of their own subject matter. Social scientists researching the effectiveness of homework have themselves experienced homework. Their own experience may lead them to believe that homework is fundamental to success later in life or that it is simply a device used to keep young people busy and to control them or train them to work hard or one of a thousand other things. They may make their values explicit and compensate for them, may overcompensate perhaps, but it is impossible for them to ignore them completely. Total, value-free objectivity is not possible in either natural or social science. But in social science it is more difficult to achieve than in natural science. Seeing what you want to see distorts.

Conclusion - Observing in the social sciences is not the same as observing in the natural sciences.

1.      Social science is concerned with concepts that may not be observed through the physical senses.

2.      What is observed can be distorted, either deliberately or otherwise, by the what or who is being observed.

3.      Objective value free observation is even more difficult than it is in the natural sciences.

(Taken from the book Ways of knowing: an introduction to Theory of Knowledge - Michael Woolman)


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