Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1997

Introduction to the Philosophy of Social Research

Malcolm Williams and Tim May
London: UCL Press
ISBN 1 85728 312 0
£12.95 (pb)
xvi + 224 pp.

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Sociology has always been multi-perspectival, with alternative approaches making competing claims about how best to understand the social world. As in many disciplines, high status is accorded to the theoretical elaboration of these approaches and many of us have plundered philosophy for tools to refine our accounts of our favoured perspectives. Accordingly, we sociologists are no strangers to `epistemological assumptions' and similar abstruse notions. Nevertheless, at the craft end of the discipline, many empirical researchers continue to produce interesting and illuminating studies untouched by their colleagues' recondite philosophical deliberations over the very nature of the sociological enterprise. This troubles many, including the ESRC whose postgraduate training guidelines require noviciates to be exposed to teaching in the philosophy of social science. A niche is thereby created for books like this one, relating various philosophical ideas not to social science in general but to social research in particular. It is partly by this switch of focus that Williams and May seek to gain over the steady stream of other texts on the philosophy of social science that have appeared over the past 30 years. It is also partly by addressing recent developments like post-modernism head-on that gives them a lead over their older companions.

They whip through their agenda. Chapter 1 tackles the questions `what is philosophy?', `what is social research?' and `what is the relation between them?' in eight pages. Chapter 2 considers `what is [natural] science?', from Bacon, via Hume, the logical positivists, Popper and Kuhn, to the sociologists of scientific knowledge. Chapter 3 compares behaviourism with interpretivism and examines the weaknesses of both. The first half of Chapter 4 turns to ontology and looks at materialism, idealism, and realism, with quick forays into phenomenology and ethnomethodology along the way. The second half covers critical rationalism, operationalism, probability, network theory and pragmatism as strategies for coming to know social reality. Chapter 5 discusses objectivity and values, including critical theory and feminist standpoint epistemologies. Chapter 6 explicitly examines how philosophy informs research through the presentation of two case studies. Chapter 7 ranges over aspects of post-modernism and post-structuralism, ending with some tips about how to cope with their apparent nihilism. Chapter 8 concludes with some ruminations on the relation between philosophy and social research. Each of the main chapters ends with a short summary, four questions for discussion, and a handful of suggestions for further reading. Scattered unevenly through the text are boxes containing brief descriptions of empirical work which illustrates issues under discussion. At the end, there are nine pages of definitions of key terms, a 13-page bibliography and a five-page index.

Of course, to cram all this in, the pace is hectic and I repeatedly found myself wincing at the consequent simplifications, which are of at least two sorts. First are the one- sentence summaries of complex ideas. For example, near the beginning of Chapter 2 it is stated that `there was growing realisation, particularly after Newton, that the "language" of science was essentially mathematical' (p. 13). To the newcomer, this is likely to be baffling, especially as there is no further comment on what this claim means. To the reader more familiar with debates comparing the certainties of mathematics with the contingencies of reality, the statement is too quick to be illuminating. The second sort of simplification occurs where great sweeps of philosophical debate are condensed into short sections of the text. For example, just four pages that take us from Hume's empiricism to Kant's transcendental idealism (pp. 15 - 19).

I am not convinced that this strategy of galloping across a wide field, pointing out a bewildering tumble of the territory's features, makes the best introduction. I prefer a more sedate approach, luxuriating in the detail of a handful of key issues, as in Martin Hollis's Models of Man, published by Cambridge University Press in 1977, in which the rival models of autonomous man and plastic man are presented and assessed. After all, the aim of exposing students to philosophical ideas is to assist them in articulating their arguments with precision and clarity, not to encourage gabble. The authors themselves warn that `this book is not intended as a definitive statement' (p. 13) and indeed it could not be in such a short compass. Nor, owing to the degree of simplification, is it always reliable, particularly on classical philosophy but also on several more recent debates. To give a quick glimpse of the variety of topics in the field, it might serve as an adequate introduction, but it will need to be followed up by some more solid reading.

Peter Halfpenny
Centre for Applied Social Research,
University of Manchester

Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1997