GOVT-586 Philosophy of Social Science
Offered academic year 2006-2007
The purpose of this course is to introduce graduate students to important philosophical issues within the contemporary theory and practice of social science. Students will begin by reading representative articulations and defenses of what has come to be called the nomological-deductive model of social science, that approach which attempts to structure the study of social life according to a more or less positivistic (and, thus, a controversial) vision of natural science. In exploring these works, part of our concern will be to assess the degrees to which these theoretical formulations extend or depart from the implicit goals of those who, at least remotely, created this perspective, social science theorists (and social scientists) such as John Stuart Mill, Durkheim and Weber. In order to avoid abstraction, this theoretical discussion will be followed by an examination of some major examples within this general social science framework. The works chosen are methodologically sophisticated and each addresses methodological issues explicitly. These works focus on the broad, common theme of political and cultural change. What will follow is an examination of some of the most significant critiques of and alternatives to the (broadly) positivist model. Critical treatments argue (for example) that many of the positivist' goals are either unattainable (e.g., neutrality) or purchasable only at the cost of vacuity or irrelevance (e.g., the elegance and parsimony of theoretical constructions). These criticisms are often accompanied by an alternative posture which argues that the most effective way to understand social and cultural life is through an exploration of the society's or culture's shared meanings. Broadly speaking, this represents the hermeneutical or interpretive approach to social science, an approach that often suggests that we should try to read societies the way we try to read texts. This approach will be examined in three stages. The first stage will consider the basis and nature of the hermeneutical alternative to positivism. This will include a consideration of potential difficulties within the hermeneutic approach, including problems connected with the possibility of generalization, the need for and the possibility of objectivity and neutrality (can hermeneutics be a kind of science) and the possibilities of presenting one set of shared meanings in a different cultural language. The second stage will focus on examples of hermeneutic social science. The final stage will explore the connections between hermeneutics and the more recent language of deconstruction, poststructuralism and postmodernism. Finally, since modern social science in some ways began with a turn away from Aristotle, this course will conclude by considering, briefly, an Aristotelian critique of the two methods. [Politcal Theory]
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Spring '07: Mara, G (file download)
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