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SOCL922: Philosophy of the Social Sciences

Module convenor: Bronislaw Szerszynski

Module Aims

Provide an introduction to the philosophy of the social sciences by exploring the following questions:

  • What claims to knowledge are made by science?
  • Can social science make similar claims to natural science to be a science?
  • What other philosophical foundations might social science use to establish its claims to systematic knowledge?

At the end of the course, students should:

  • understand the difference between the natural and social sciences
  • be able to discuss the philosophical basis of their own research
  • have an understanding of the main issues about ‘empiricism’, ‘positivism’, ‘explanation’ and ‘interpretivism’ in the social sciences, and how they relate to their own research practice

Course Approach

All social science, whether empirical or theoretical, qualitative or quantitative, proceeds on the basis of explicit or implicit philosophical presuppositions about the nature of the social.  This course is designed to make students more aware of the implications of this for research design and issues of validity, and to help them be more reflexive about the role of the social scientist in society.

The module consists of five 2½-hour sessions, each of which will include a lecture, seminar discussion and group activities, and in which students will explore the relevance of the approaches discussed to their own research project or interests.

Students will be taught alongside students on FASS507, the ten-week version of the course; after SOCL922 has finished, students are welcome to attend any or all of the last five sessions, in which guest lecturers explore specific approaches in more detail. There is also an online version of FASS507 with material which can supplement the proximal sessions. 

Students are expected to write their own essay title, with the course convenor’s approval. The essay should address topics covered in the unit, but students are encouraged to make them relevant to their own research practice and social scientific interests.

Topics Covered

  • Introduction to the philosophy of social science
  • Empiricism, Positivism and Falsificationism
  • Paradigms and incommensurability
  • Explanation in the Social Sciences
  • Understanding and interpretation

Assessment

One 2,500 word essay.

Indicative Readings

  • Michael Bell (1998) An Invitation to Environmental Sociology, Thousand Oaks: Pine Forge Press. (DUHN)
  • Ted Benton and Ian Craib (2001) Philosophy of Social Science: The Philosophical Foundations of Social Thought, Houndmills: Palgrave.
  • Chalmers, A (1999) What is This Thing Called Science, (3rd edition) Buckingham: Open University Press
  • Delanty, G and Strydom, P (eds) (2003) Philosophies of Social Science: The Classic and Contemporary Readings, Maidenhead: Open University Press.
  • Fay, B Contemporary Philosophy of Social Science
  • Potter, Garry (2000) The Philosophy of Social Science: New Perspectives, Harlow: Prentice Hall

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