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Science and Social Science

Malcolm Williams
Routledge: London
1999
0415194857 (pb)
14.99 (pb)
174 pp.

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This is a book which serves more than one purpose. It is firstly an introductory text, aimed at undergraduate students, which seeks to describe the contested terrain of the philosophy of social science. Seen in this way it succeeds rather well, being a refreshingly clear and well-structured exposition. Arguments about the status of science, ranging through those of Popper, Kuhn, Lakatos, Feyerabend, and on to social constructionist and other critiques are described and criticised competently. He is at pains to rebut two arguments; "The first is denouncing science as a project per se and the second is denouncing the idea of scoial science as science" (p69). I particularly liked his characterisation of the 'rejectionist' position as 'naive and incoherent' (p76) and the slightly milder critique of both constructionism and feminist standpoint theory which follows. It is a pity that Williams does not develop this, in that he might have made the point that the social study of science need not necessarily entail any judgements about 'truth' and 'falsehood' at all (as Michael Lynch has pointed out), and that it is arguably a mistake in the 'strong programme' that its proponents seem to think that it does.

Williams is also at pains to take a definite stance on the prospect of a social science, and the second aim of the book is to outline his 'Naturalistic interpretivism' which he distinguishes from the 'Anti-naturalist' variation. In his version, there is no justification for separating the natural and the social world; methods for understanding them will not be radically distinct (and thus a unity of science is at least in principle possible); and some form of interpretation will underpin all enquiry. Some grounds for a modest objectivity are provided in this way, and the siren call of relativism is avoided. His view, as he acknowledges, has much in common with Weber's and can be understood as an attempt to maintain adequacy at the level of meaning and of cause in the social sciences. He suggests that the objectivity of interpretation be justified largely on the grounds of cultural continuity, or shared meaning. It has no subjectivist consequences, though the indeterminacy of meaning sets, "limits to interpretivism, but do not make it impossible" (p148). A moderate or middle-range social science is thus possible and desirable, based on empirically testable knowledge. This argument, I think, is less than convincing and not for the relativist reasons advanced by constructionists and others.

There do seem to be some sins of omission and commision in this' book. Thus and for instance, in any text which seeks to explicate the relationship between science and social science it would seem to me that Dennett's work should at least be mentioned, since Dennett is a strong advocate of the 'mild reductionism' that Williams implicitly defends (and particularly since Williams spends time discussing sociobiological and evolutionary psychological perspectives in his final chapter). Equally, it is odd to see certain critics of the prospect of empirically testable knowledge ignored. Thus, Blumer's critique of variable analysis, which remains unequalled, has important consequences for concept-formation in sociology at large but gets no mention. Further, Williams discusses Winch, all too briefly, as placing limits on the interpetivist paradigm. Winch's critique is altogether more radical than Williams seems to think, in that it rejects the relevance of interpretation entirely. In my (unoriginal) reading, Winch wants, along with Wittgenstein, to dispose of the broadly cognitivist view that the world needs constant interpretation, and shows that it does not. Moreover, he insists that the social scientist can have no privileged position outside the language games of cultural members. In a nutshell, if explanation is possible in the social sciences, its grounds will always be commonsensical. Williams wants to establish that social scientific enquiry stands as superior to that of the lay person and Winch argues that it cannot.

In the end, Williams' case is a familiar one, but none the worse for that. He seeks to defend the possibility that sociological explanation can be, in at least some senses, scientific. Of course, some of us believe that this project fails for exactly the same reasons that we reject sociobiology's pretentions. Not because these disciplines are biologically or socially 'determinist' (a glib characterisation), but because both disciplines regularly invoke the ceteris paribus clause (as sociobiology in fact does with 'culture', consistently). Nevertheless, what it is that makes sociological explanation sociological is an endlessly interesting question, and no less so after the publication of this book.

Dave Randall
Manchester Metropolitan University

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