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Can the study of social phenomena be scientific in the sense of the (non-social) natural sciences?
Social science involves the methodical and logical study of society and its institutions with the aim of understanding human behaviour and why they engage in such behaviour either as individuals or as a group. The process of study follows a scientific approach to produce evidence-based knowledge. The scientific method applied in natural sciences is logical with controlled experience focusing on creating new knowledge by adopting a cause-effects model to explain a particular phenomenon or even expect various outcomes (Flyvbjerg, 2001). For a very long time, social scientists have applied both scientific and non-scientific methods of studying social phenomenon such as human behaviour. The non-scientific approach to the study of social phenomena involves the use of imaginations and insight autonomously as they observe it using scientific gear (Lawson, 2015) This paper aims to examine whether the study of social phenomena can be scientific in the sense of natural sciences. This study various aspects of both social and natural science what makes the two disciplines similar or different, and distinguishes the elements of the social science which can be studied using scientific methods. The use of scientific method in the study of social science can improve the study of social phenomena by reducing personal bias and developing standardised research tools to improve results and allow prediction of the future occurrences.
The scientific study involves the use of standardised procedure of making observations, collecting data, theory formulation, testing of hypothesis and result interpretation. Research is very crucial because it helps in creating knowledge and understanding of phenomena (Haack, 2009). The scientific process enables researchers to make an observation of particular characteristics in an entity repeatedly and develop a theory which they use to explain the observations. The evidence gathered through scientific process enable researchers to develop evidence and use it to illustrate the theories and allow the reproduction of the results by other observers or researchers (Conte, Hegselmann, & Terna, 2013). In other words, a scientific research method should be replicated by other researchers in studying similar phenomena and achieve a similar outcome.
The scientific study of nature involves elements which can be isolated from the whole and be studied in isolation. The separation of systems into single elements makes the study of nature easy and reliable (Lawson, 2015). The study of scientific elements in isolation enables the researchers to relate the observation of a component with the whole part and establish their relationships or effects of the component of the whole system. This approach differs with the study of social science which involves complex elements that cannot be studied in isolation from the whole system (Flyvbjerg, 2001). Therefore, the study of social science involves the study of the entire system.
The use of the scientific process in the study of natural science uses evidence used in conducting scientific evidence. Besides understanding the physical observations, natural science is also concerned with predicting the future events with higher precision based on evidence through positivism approach (Conte et al., 2013). A positivist uses a quantitative approach to study phenomena using observed data. The scientific approach involves the use of physical instruments such as a thermometer for measuring the accurate body temperature or weighing scale for measuring the body weight (Ingthorsson, 2013). These instruments filter the desired elements of the observed variables and abstract the results to provide a post-analytical datum without examining other characteristics of other elements which are not being studied.
The scientific approach employed in the natural science differs significantly from the approach employed in the social science. The instruments used in the study of natural science focus more on actual results and accuracy of the instruments and not the raw data (Danermark et al., 2005). Furthermore, the scientists’ method focuses on the filtered results, unlike the philosophy study which is concerned with observers’ application of common sense in the observation process. The physical instruments used in the study helps in generating transformed concepts and instrumentally abstract observations whose irrelevances have been filtered (Haack, 2009). The scientific process creates post-analytical data by stripping off the subjective views of the observer from the outcome and focusing the observation on a specific study objective of observable events which have correlations with some of the examined events being measured.
The study of social science is concerned with elements whose existence is dependent on human relations (Benton & Craib, 2010). The study on social phenomena is concerned with the relations between individuals and public institutions and is mainly qualitative (Lawson, 2015). A study on the social issue may focus on human behaviour and why they people behave as they do or how a certain phenomenon will change the behaviour of human beings (Stanley, 2001). The results of the study depend not so much on the instruments used, but the subjective contribution of the observer.
The study of social phenomena has for a long time resembled the everyday observations whereby the observers relied on their cognitive ability and individual intuition to develop the understanding of various events under observation without reliance on scientific instruments (Narayana, 2008). For instance, Keynes observed the investor behaviour and how it influences the investment decisions. He established that variations of stock prices in the market caused fluctuations in the investments hence market conditions affect investor behaviour. The margin error in such observations could usually be too big and cannot lead the observer to achieve the abstract result of the observations similar to the ones which could be achieved through the scientific process (Ingthorsson, 2013). However, use of scientific process can reduce observer subjectivity and improve the results.
The approach of studying events using subjective process or observer’s experience of the phenomena contributes to pre-analytical data with no distinction between the actual contribution from objects and the subjective contribution of the observer (Manicas, 2006). In other words, the traditional approach to the study of social phenomena does not employ physical or standardised tools to narrow the idea to a particular phenomenon. Consequently, the knowledge acquired through such unstable and inconsistency process cannot be associated with any scientific process because the result of such observation is dependent on the subjective views of the observer (Ingthorsson, 2013). The study of social phenomena should provide consistent results which can be depended on for critical decision making such as making investment decision.
There has been a substantial transformation in the social study involving the application of instruments in the philosophy study. The scientific approach has been significantly applied in social phenomena to develop an understanding of particular behaviour or how individuals or groups of people react to a change in a particular element (Ingthorsson, 2013). In particular, economists use a scientific approach to understand consumer behaviour and predict the effect of consumer behaviour when the interest rate is increased or reduced by a certain percentage. For instance, Keynes theory is focused on understanding the specific components of aggregate demand such as the rate of investment and tries to understand why rates of investments vary significantly over time (Duverger, 2012). Furthermore, archaeologists apply standardised methods to such as carbon dating to study remains of past materials and gain knowledge about the culture of the people who existed in a particular region several years ago.
The study of social science employs conceptual instruments to investigate various social phenomena and establish their relationships with the whole part. The conceptual devices aim to reduce the subjective contribution of the observer and provide and abstracted results of the observation which has less of irrelevant data (Manicas, 2006); Stanley, 2001). The application of conceptual devices in social study helps the observers to achieve a process similar to the use of physical instruments used in physical science (Narayana, 2008). The devices create an irrefutable post-analytical datum that has some relationship with the pre-analytical results observed in the whole entity. The relationship between the characteristics of the observed results and target whole entity forms the basis of the scientific research (Conte et al., 2013). A classic example of a conceptual device used in the social study could be the use of intelligence test. This test is used to study the quality of a human being which could not be observed directly using physical science instruments (Duverger, 2012). The intelligent test can be used to observe the relationship between age and performance or student scores in an examination. This conceptual device helps the observer to standardise the observations and establish correlations between the obverted variables and the whole part or human intelligence.
However, even with the application of scientific methods in the study of social science, some studies have claimed that the results obtained from a scientific approach to the study of social phenomena vary significantly with various studies when same phenomena are observed by different researchers (Lawson, 2015). When conceptual devices provide conflicting results from what the observer anticipates there is always a feeling that the instrument is inaccurate and requires some modification. The social scientists influence the design, selection and development of the research procedure which in turn determine instruments and results due to subjective contribution of the researcher (Cecconi, 2016). Such manipulations of the research instruments to achieve a perceived outcome by the observer undermine the efficiency of application of the scientific process in the study of social phenomena.
Evidence has shown that standardised results can be attained similar to the outcome of the scientific study of natural science if social researchers allow for the free application of the instruments (Benton & Craib, 2010). Higher accuracy in the application of the scientific process in the social study could be possible if researchers could develop prescientific problems demanding the creation of standardised research instruments (Bailey, 2008). The social scientists have a pre-set mind of what they want to achieve and how they can achieve the desired outcome (Gonçalves & Perra, 2015). This approach differs from the scientific process because the natural scientists develop a problem and use the appropriate instrument to measure the specific issues that can answer the intended questions.
It is apparent that not every aspect of human science can be studied through the scientific method. The scientific study ignores certain social elements such as rationality, objectivity and meaning because there is no instrument for tracking or analysing such elements, although they are crucial for understanding human interactions (Schram & Caterino, 2006). The philosophy study provides the basis for studying elements which could not be studied through empirical methods. Social scientists take time to understand particular characteristics or behaviour which another person is lacking experience cannot understand. The researchers use conceptual methods to study the elements such as rationality and meaning which could be studied through empirical method (Ingthorsson, 2013). The social scientists employ various methods such as interview, questionnaires, conceptual examination, mathematical modelling, narrative analysis and carbon dating among others to allow for the application of statistical data analysis (Cecconi, 2016). Although the social phenomena vary in nature depending on the entities being studied, the application of scientific method in the study improves the process by designing the process to suit the objectives of the observer.
The social phenomena of human science are best studied through a qualitative approach as opposed to quantitative methods applied in the study of natural science. The study of social phenomena is mainly concerned with behavioural aspects of individuals and groups (Schram & Caterino, 2006). The goal may include trying to implement behavioural change such as the use of outreach programs to minimise anti-social behaviour or improve human interactions. The philosophy study helps in studying what could not be studied through scientific methods (Manicas, 2006). However, natural science concerns itself with observable and quantifiable objects which can be studied using standardised instrument (Gonçalves & Perra, 2015). The social scientists have imitated the scientific methods of study to focus on observable and quantifiable entities which they link using functional laws.
The objects of natural science though not related to emotional status, the approach uses similar approach to the one applied by the social scientist (Benton & Craib, 2010). The natural scientist influences the objects to be studied as well as the instruments used in the study through the questions and observe the characteristics of the element studied which in turn influences the results of the study (Danermark et al., 2005). If researchers frame the research questions different the instruments and observation will also change. The approach relates to the one used by the social scientists.
Furthermore, both social sciences and natural sciences include aspects of experimental observation. The natural scientists are more focused on specific elements and expected results although similar procedure for collecting data and observing characteristics have been applied in the study of social phenomena (Bailey, 2008). The social scientists have refined the research process to reflect the natural science. When studying a large number of objects, the social scientists take a sample of the population using statistic methods to allow for generalisation of the results on the entire population (Lawson, 2015). The procedure for conducting research is scientific. The researcher observes the relevant variables with a significant focus on specific elements to achieve the desired outcome.
In conclusion, the social study applies scientific process to achieve desired results. The social study has been refined by integrating scientific research approach in the formulation of a hypothesis, a collection of data through observation methods, use of statistical methods, results in analysis and interpretation of the results. The study of both social and scientific occurrences involves both experimental and observational aspects which depict similarities between social and scientific studies. The inclusion of statistical and experimental aspects in the study of social phenomena has improved the research by helping the researchers to focus on the specific elements of research. The scientific process has contributed to the improvement of the study of social phenomena by reducing the subjective contribution of the observer and creating standardised research instruments.
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