Monday, January 17, 2011

Social Facts, Social Problems, and Social Science (part 1)

You can say that I've grown bitter, but of this you may be sure:
the rich have got their channels in the bedrooms of the poor.

Leonard Cohen

There's an issue I need to deal with before working through the four aspects of postmodernism I identified in my last post. It's the basic question of what is meant by "social science". The intuitive answer is that it is the methodical pursuit of knowledge about society. On this view, social science is founded on the idea that society consists of discoverable facts. Most social scientists, however, would not be content to discover just any old set of facts about social life. They are not merely "curious" about society; rather, they would like to discover the roots of what are sometimes called "social problems". Here were are thinking of things like crime and poverty, inequality and racism. Social science, then, is normally also taken to be the search for solutions to these social problems.

The underlying idea here, of course, is that we have these social problems because we don't know enough about how society works. But this immediately raises the question of who "we" are. After all, crime and poverty are "problems" for different people in different ways. The rich, obviously, are worried about poverty from a different perspective than the poor. The same goes, almost as obviously, for crime. Much of the debate about "postmodernism" in social theory and the status of sociology as a "science" is really about the construction of the perspective in which "social facts" and "social problems" are brought together. The facts and problems may be as "real" as you like. The question remains. Who are you to take an interest in them?

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