As I wind up my last semester of course work (“Hallelujah!), we are tasked to answer an overarching and fundamental philosophical question: Is there such a thing as a social “science”?
“Social Science”: The Science of Increased Understanding of Others
What is “social science”?
Well. The most commonly cited (1509 citations) source for a definition is Brian Fay’s (1996)’s Contemporary Philosophy of Social Sciences. At its most simplistic essence, Fay explains social science is the philosophy of “sharing a world in which people differ significantly from one another” (p. 1). Fay asks: “Do you have to be one to know one?” (p. 27), then answers we must distinguish “knowing” form “being” to answer the question. Knowing, as Fay saw it, requires the ability to understand a thing. Being, he says, requires a sameness in mind and experiences. Fay wrote we usually do not know and therefore cannot be others, so we should settle for trying to understand our similarities and differences. After outlining prevailing ontological theories that argue humans are social creatures (Hobbs, 1829; Popper, 1948; van Hayek; 1949), Fay breaks it down to this – we “need others to be ourselves.” His core argument is that our decisions, actions, and attitudes form our subjective expectations regarding what others should be doing or how others should be acting. Then, we get confused when people are not doing or are not acting according to our expectations (Deep.)
Back To the Stories We Tell
Fay goes on to opine, if we are to live together peacefully, we must understand how culture and society both “constrain” our understanding of its members and our “thoughts, feelings, and actions” are based on what we think we understand about others (p. 70). In other words, Fay was saying we not only tell ourselves stories about other people (as we see them), but we think and act according to what those mental stories are telling us. (Homo narrans, remember?) Therefore, Fay explains we misjudge others after our internal realities conflict with the external facts primarily because there is no “One True Picture” of universal truths about others like our stories tell us should exist (p. 219). Because of this, Fay argues there is no such thing as an objective “open-minded, responsive to evidence, accountable, criticism-seeking” person because humans are not singular (p. 221). We co-exist in an interconnected, interdependent world with others and that influence how we think and act. Period. (Ouch.)
Fay’s Philosophies for Social Scientists
Fay wrote social science involves understanding the dynamics of this phenomenon then seeking to understand others within the context of “twelve multicultural philosophies of social science.” I attempted to paraphrase Fay’s twelve contextual philosophies below:
- Beware the “self v. others” dichotomies by considering the dualities between yourself and others;
- Consider similarities and differences between yourself and others and accepting that there is no “self-understanding” without “other-understanding”;
- Instead of trying to overcome differences, lean in and interact without others to gain an understanding of why things are not the same between you;
- Instead of using fixed identify nouns (“... the …”, “… this …“) to describe groups of people, use “verbs” that denote continuous processes of interactivities and interactions;
- Avoid assigning “roles” to others you feel they should fulfill as their “social functions” and understand instead that humans apply old rules to new ones to create something different as they “learn, adapt, alter, and create”;
- Accept that culture and society empower and limit its members and usually form the systems in which members think, live, and interact;
- Expect “more light” when seeking to understand others different from yourself;
- Do not attempt to find “clarity, fixity, or order” about others but instead look for ambiguities, ambivalence, and contradictions that may be the source of “stress, resistance, or struggle” between you;
- Acknowledge that “the past” lives in “the present” and that we self-consciously create “anticipated outcomes” from others which may never come to fruition or even be accurate;
- Resist the urge to look for “universal, sameness, and repetition” from others because generalizations are too abstract to create general laws by;
- Understand “neutrality” is outmoded objectivity and social science demands evidence from personal interactions and observations of others that must be interpreted by you, another person; and
- Engagement is required to attain an understanding of the differences between ourselves and others (p. 214 – 245).
In closing, Fay wrote: “Appreciation, agreement, consensus – none of these is a goal. Interactions and growth are the ends of social science understood from a multicultural perspective.” (Fay, 1996).
Now. Some may think Fay’s “twelve multicultural philosophies of social science” sounds like a bunch of mumbo jumbo dreamed up by another one of those “kumbaya” snowflakes trying to save the world by giving everybody a flower. Are such lofty goals attainable? Better yet, are they even desirable?
Who am I to say one way or the other?
But, what I will say is that – we do need to learn how to just all get along with each other. Don’t you disagree?
I’m just sayin’ …
Fay, B. (1996). Contemporary philosophy of social science: A multicultural approach (Vol. 1). Oxford: Blackwell.