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In fact, both the explanandum that is, the phenomena to be explained and the explanans the explanation itself may sometimes be couched in a neutral, transcultural scientific language. Such explanations typically attempt to make sense of phenomena that are either universal or common at least to most human societies for example, birth, death, violence, order, domination, hierarchy. They would also be grounded in assumptions about human goals for example, nutrition, safety, material well-being, status and human rationality typically means-end rationality posited to be species specific rather than culture specific.


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These explanations require merely a thin , rather than a thick , description of the social practice or phenomena to be explained. In this way, naturalists believe that science can offer explanations of social phenomena that transcend — and are in fact superior to — the self-understanding of the society being explained. A related critique of interpretive social inquiry leveled by naturalists is the charge of particularism.

This criticism says that interpretive social inquiry would appear to produce merely a collection of particularistic interpretive accounts of different cultures.

The concept of power

Political scientists, for example, do not want merely to explain the Iranian Revolution or the Russian Revolution. They also want to explain revolutions in general. This requires uncovering the typical conditions, mechanisms or laws that produce revolutions. That is, it requires creating a model of a typical revolution.

This in turn entails abandoning the thick descriptions of human beliefs and goals favored by interpretivists and replacing it with a thinner, more abstract account of human action — the sort used by rational choice theorists, for example. If interpretivists object to using this level of abstraction, naturalists argue, it appears they must relinquish the goal of producing explanations of social phenomena that transcend particular cultures. This would necessitate abandoning many important questions that social sciences have traditionally sought to answer.

Two other schools of thought that reject naturalism are critical theory and postmodernism. Both of these approaches agree that social inquiry must be in part interpretive. They also agree with advocates of hermeneutics that interpretation is an inherently evaluative activity. Their most important contribution to the critique of value neutrality lies in their exploration of the various ways that social science can serve to legitimate and reinforce oppressive values, beliefs and practices and thereby mask domination.

Far from being unbiased, value neutrality represents a hidden ideology. But he also saw social inquiry as necessarily intertwined with critiquing society and ultimately liberating mankind from oppression. Following in this vein, the original critical theorists argued that a social scientist should not — and cannot — be a neutral observer of the social world. Thus the Frankfurt School sought to retain the social criticism intrinsic to Marxism while distancing their approach from the rigidified orthodox version of the doctrine that propped up the totalitarian system in the Soviet Union and its satellites.

In place of orthodox Marxism they aimed to produce a new theory that could at once explain the failure of socialism in the Western liberal democracies and also provide a critique of what they saw as oppressive features of developed capitalist societies. Today critical theory encompasses a broader group of social theorists than solely the contemporary descendents of the Frankfurt School.

Use of the term has expanded to include many other approaches, such as feminism and other liberation ideologies that claim to offer both a systematic explanation and critique of economic, social and political structures, institutions or ideologies that are held to oppress people. Liberation thus comes through enlightenment.

When people are made aware of the true nature of their situation, they will cast off the shackles of oppression. In this sense, critical theory remains continuous with the broader Enlightenment project of the West that began in the seventeenth century: reason would triumph over irrationality, superstition and prejudice to usher in a new era of freedom and justice. For critical theorists the sources of domination and false consciousness are wide-ranging. Those in the Marxist tradition, for instance, explore how the values, beliefs and hierarchies generated by capitalism serve to keep the working class deluded and exploited.

Feminist critical theorists examine how patriarchal values, which they find are deeply imbedded in contemporary institutions, legal systems, and social values, serve to keep women subordinate. But critical theorists also train much of their criticism on mainstream social science, particularly its claim to value neutrality. Like the advocates of hermeneutical social inquiry described above, critical theorists contend that social inquiry is an inherently evaluative enterprise. In fact, critical theorists hold that that social science is a necessarily political enterprise. Mainstream social science modeled on naturalism, they charge, reinforces the status quo and serves the interests of the powerful, though usually unwittingly.


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  • In contrast, critical theory wears its values on it sleeve as an intentionally partisan endeavor on the side of liberation. How, according to critical theorists, does naturalistic social science serve the status quo and mask domination? They argue that many of the supposedly neutral, objective concepts and categories of social science actually subtly but powerfully support particular political interests and worldviews. Consider the understanding of rationality that is central to standard economic theory. Economists conceptualize rational action in a particular way, namely as maximizing utility — choosing the most efficient means to achieve some end.

    Therefore designating actions as rational or irrational has the effect not only of evaluating certain kinds of behavior as superior to others, it also tends to justify public policy grounded in assumptions about what constitutes rational individual or government behavior. As such, it will be biased against other values or motivations for action that may interfere with efficiency, such a social justice, tradition, or preserving community.

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    Other concepts used by social scientists are similarly value laden, critical theorists charge. When political scientists, for instance, describe societies as developed, developing or undeveloped, such classification necessarily implies a moral and political hierarchy among nations, with the wealthy, capitalist societies invariably winding up on top. Critical theorists also point to other ways in which social science has helped to justify and reinforce oppressive practices and beliefs. In particular, critical theorists charge that social science often serves to reify social processes.

    That is, it tends to foster the illusion that malleable or socially constructed aspects of society are natural, permanent or otherwise incapable of being altered. Social scientists tend to take the institutions and social structure of society as well as its values, beliefs, customs and habits are taken as a given.

    In doing so they establish the parameters within which public policy must operate. According to critical theorists, this produces a bias towards the status quo, and also tends to reinforce the power of dominant groups or forces in society. For example, orthodox economists tend to depict certain features of capitalist economies, such as inequality and unemployment, as the enduring and inevitable if unwelcome results of the laws of market system. Attempts to eliminate these features will be ultimately ineffective or produce unacceptably high tradeoffs, in the form of, for example, high inflation and sluggish growth.

    Nothing can be done about this unhappy situation, economists may say; it results from the fundamental and inalterable dynamics of economic systems. But critical theorists charge that the purported laws of economics are in fact the product of certain institutional arrangements, beliefs and values that can be altered.

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    Other kinds of economic systems are in fact possible. Relying on the often questionable expertise of the economist turns public policy into merely a technical matter. The reality is that economic policy is also political policy. The institutions and values that underpin an economy reflect political choices.

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    However, social science modeled on the natural sciences tends to blind the public — as well as social scientists themselves — to this reality. In addition to helping reify social structures, critical theorists argue that the knowledge produced by social science too easily becomes a tool with which to manipulate people rather than to enlighten or emancipate them. Consider, for instance, some of the ways that governments and private industry use findings from psychology and sociology.

    Politicians and interest groups hire psychologists to find the best way to sell their policy initiatives to the public, rather than attempting to enhance public understanding of complex policy issues. Political parties and private corporations use focus groups to discover which words or images have the biggest impact on the public and adjust their rhetoric and advertising accordingly.

    Political consultants in the United States, for example, in recent years have advised opponents of the estate tax to dub it a death tax, which focus group research shows reduces support for it. Critical theorists claim that in this way social science fosters a society governed by technocratic control and is thus ultimately corrosive to genuine democracy.

    Plainly critical theory has much in common with the hermeneutical approach described above. Critical theorists and proponents of a hermeneutical social inquiry both agree that social science is an inherently evaluative enterprise. Also, critical theorists agree that social inquiry must be, at least in part, an interpretive activity. Social inquiry, they agree, must aim at enhancing understanding of our world rather than merely enhancing our powers of prediction and technical control.

    But the two approaches differ fundamentally in their ontological assumptions about the social world and the relationship between the social scientist and the objects of his or her study. As noted above, the hermeneutical school holds that understanding is a dialogical and transformative process.

    Through what Hans-Georg Gadamer called a fusion of horizons, both the social inquirer and the target of inquiry create a kind of higher understanding that transcends the viewpoints of both parties. From this standpoint, objective knowledge is produced when the social scientist produces an accurate representation of the social world. This understanding of the relationship between the social investigator and the subjects of his study privileges the social scientist as the knowing expert.

    The Philosophy of Social Science

    The truth — provided by the expert — enlightens the subjects of inquiry and, it is hoped, thereby sets them free. They trade in their distorted ideological understanding for the clear-eyed perspective provided by critical theory. But advocates of hermeneutical inquiry, as well as other critics of naturalism, may object that this approach may undermine the liberationist goals of critical theory.

    Social inquiry should enlighten its subjects, but this is best attained through dialogue rather than a top-down imposition of expert analysis. Indeed, people may be inclined to reject the verdict of the critical theorists, opposing such knowledge as not reflective of their own self-understanding or experience.

    For this reason some proponents of hermeneutical inquiry support a participatory form of social science, in which social scientists and non-expert citizens work together in conducting research aimed at enlightening subjects and solving social problems. It is important to note, however, that critical theorists often insist that the ultimate test of a theory is whether its intended audience accepts it as valid. Nonetheless, the privileged position of the critical theorist is perhaps still retained. For in practice he or she decides when the subjects of his inquiry are still in the grip of false consciousness and when they see their situation as it truly is — that is, when they see the world as critical theory depicts it.

    Rather, she would conclude that the distorting powers of patriarchal ideology are more pervasive and entrenched than she had thought. While postmodern is a rather loosely defined category, with the views of thinkers associated with it varying widely, some key tenets of the approach can be identified. Central among them is cultural and historical relativism.

    According to postmodernists, what counts as knowledge and truth is always relative to a particular culture or historical period. This holds not only for moral and aesthetic judgments, but also for the claims to truth made by natural and social science. Thus science does not offer a method for arriving at universal, objective truths that transcend time and place. Rather, it represents one way of knowing that reflects certain values, beliefs and interests of modern, Western society. Moreover, for postmodernists there is no fixed, universal human nature.

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    Instead, human nature our beliefs, values, desires, interests, and even our emotions is itself a product of a particular history or social configuration — or, as postmodernists sometimes say, human nature is socially constructed. Hence a variant of postmodernism is known as social constructionism.

    They reject as deeply misguided attempts by social scientists to uncover patterns, structures or laws that purportedly transcend history and culture. For postmodernists, understanding of particular societies must be local and contextual.