Philosophical wagers

When reading through the introduction to these philosophical debates, I fell firmly on what I’ll call the “universal” side of all of them. That is, those sides of each debate which held that generalizeable research could be done and facts could be pulled closer to our grasp, even if we never achieve absolute certainty. (I.e. – realism, transcendentalism, etc.) After looking at some research and participating in our discussions, I am still confident in this position.

Coming from that base, I do think objective social research can be done. It can be noted here that I did not directly answer this question the way it is posed in the assignment — ” do you think you can be an objective observer of the social world?” This question looks in the wrong place. It looks at the researcher instead of the research. Humans definitely have biases and deficiencies. The proper reaction to this when preforming and consuming research is to consider it and adjust your evaluation of the research accordingly, not completely abandon the concept of capital-f Facts altogether. Some things are true, period. Some truths are universal, period. The difficulty of finding those universal truths may be beyond articulation, but that does not mean that good research cannot pull us ever closer.

In my estimation, researchers can make knowledge claims about any factual propositions. Whether these knowledge claims are valid depends on the veracity of their contents, and the reach of valid claims advances with our capabilities as researchers. If we can identify 500 variables that make parliamentary elections in Ghana different than those in Belgium, our research will be more valid, more capable of revealing a better picture of universal truths, than if we can only identify 10.

In making an ultimate evaluation of this philosophical debate, it is important to define the terms. This debate is about fundamental differences, not gradient differences. Possible versus impossible is a fundamental difference. Easier versus harder is a gradient difference.

Non-univseralists (constructionists, etc.) propose that social science is fundamentally difference than natural science — that universal facts can be determined in natural science but not in social science. The justification is that researchers (being human) are a part of society, and thus can’t objectively study it. But this ignores that researchers are also part of nature. No one would say that Einstein’s research on the physics of the solar system was not actually True because Einstein lived in the solar system. No one would say that biologists can’t make universal discoveries about cells just because they are themselves made of cells. There is not a fundamental difference. Humans are a part of society just like they are a part of nature. As a matter of fact, human society itself is a part of nature. The difference we observe is a gradient one. It is harder to find facts in social science because there is more stuff going on, as it were. But at a fundamental level, the possibility is still the same.

One thought to “Philosophical wagers”

  1. Bobby — you’ve done a good job in stating where you fall on Abbott’s basic debates. It is good that you are thinking about these debates and where you fall as you consider the world that you are researching and how you will research it. Be careful, though — in some places in your post you oversimplifying these debates and in other places you mis-characterize the positions that do not align with your own. Knowing your own “philosophical wagers” is good, but it is also important to have a full and correct understanding of the other positions on these debates, not least because a correct understanding is essential to being able to evaluate and understand research that departs from those other positions.

    In questioning the logic of the “do you think you can be an objective observer of the social world?” prompt you might again think about what Abbott is telling us in the basic debates. Research itself is not inherently objective of not. It is, always, a product of the researcher! So, given your response, the question then becomes, *how* can you be sure of the objectivity of your research?

    Be careful, as well, about casual slippage between important terms such as “fact” and “truth” and “universal.” Things being “true” is not the same as things being “universal,” for example. A careful reading of Schwartz-Shea and Yanow shows that interpretivists are very much interested in explaining the truths of the social world (the meanings, ideas, interpretations, symbols, etc. that shape people’s worlds and drive their actions) while at the same time acknowledging that these might be universal in any sense.

    Overall you have some good thoughts here, though I would have appreciated some citations to the course readings and/or other sources to help sustain your claims, though (remember that justifying your choices with reference to literature is an essential part of all research writing!).

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