The role of concepts in social science

  • Posted on: 31 August 2017
  • By: Govert

What is a concept, and what do social scientists do with it? If you are taking your first steps into social science, this question is perhaps the most important one to provide you with a clue of how to go about literature, and in second instance to do something interesting with it.

A concept is an idea, often a single word, that captures a broader idea. Justice, human dignity, kinship, the nation state: these are all examples of concepts. On the one hand, these are just words, and if you think about what they mean, you will probably be just right. On the other hand, they are things by which social scientists (and humanities scholars and many other people as well) refer to very specific things.

It is important to realise that the crux of understanding what an author wants to tell, is at understanding in which exact ways and meaning he or she uses specific concepts. The second-most important point is that literature in social science is to be understood as a debate, and the debate can largely be summarized as how different authors use concepts differently. That is, they use different conceptions of the concepts. Thus, you should not see social-scientific literature as something containing an ultimate truth. Instead, you should wonder: what kind of story does the author want to relay, and what are the specific conceptions that the author uses to tell that story?

As an example, we look at the concept of objective knowledge. Like many concepts, this will immediately ring a bell. When asked what it is, you will answer something like: objective knowledge is knowledge that reflects a real state of affairs, undisturbed by personal preference or opinion. Period. True enough, your answer makes perfect sense. It is in the literal meaning of the world: the ‘object’ is the world out there, as opposed to the ‘subject’, which is you, or any other person engaging with that world. Object knowledge is the knowledge that derives from the world (facts, states of affairs), and subjective knowledge is the knowledge that originates in the subject (opinions, values, preferences).

However, if life where that easy, we would not need social scientists. (You could argue the other way round: if we didn’t have social scientists, life would be easier. That might be true, but it happens that we have social scientists, and we are here to stay and grade your paper…) The point is, this is only the concept of objective knowledge – its rough contours, so to say – but we have not said anything yet about its specific conceptions. Why would we need different conceptions? Well, because at closer look, our notion of objective knowledge is not quite unproblematic.

For instance, the concept as described above presumes that we have some sort of access to the world out there. We, knowing subjects, are able to establish factual claims about the objective world, without our identity as a subject interfering in the objective affairs. And that is quite a claim! Its problematic nature is easily observed. Take a good look at your immediate surroundings: your study, the class room, whatever. Now, take a photo and walk to a different place. Think carefully about your previous location. Then look at the photo. I bet you see a different reality than you remembered! You will spot a detail in the photo that you missed earlier, or see a connection or relation between things that you saw differently in your memory. Neither your memory nor the photo (!) are particularly right or wrong, but they cannot both be true, can they? Or maybe they can.

There are a lot of reasons why observation is not an unproblematic things, and the acquisition of knowledge is among the oldest philosophical problems of the world. We are not going to repeat that whole history here. But there are two conceptions of objective knowledge that might help you further understand what concepts and conceptions do, and how they circulate in social science.

On the one hand, there are conceptions of objective knowledge that hold that it is possible to drive out all the perturbations to objective knowledge that are the consequence of our imperfect, subjective observation. All the methods that natural scientists use to make their work reproducible and transparent, are in fact meant to eliminate our human deficiencies: our poor observing capacity, but also for example any inclination to let our own preferences influence the observation. And in daily life, we constantly test our knowledge by discussing it with others, ‘to make sure we see things correctly’. If we are sufficiently convinced we have facts at hand and not mere opinions, we call them ‘objective’. (This is only to say we do it, not to say it is a failsafe method. Only think of the phenomenon of ‘groupthink’!) We could call such conceptions of objective knowledge positivist. This has nothing to do with positive thinking or optimism, but with the verb ‘to posit’, to claim or to specify. This conception of objective knowledge thus holds that this knowledge is able to claim things about the world.

On the other hand, there are conceptions of objective knowledge that hold that it is ultimately impossible to eliminate all the influences. Sure, scientific methods go a long way, they even brought us to the moon. And there is no point in saying that gravity is ‘just an opinion’. But all that we know about the world, and the specific ways in which we know it, are at the end of the day human work. In other words, our knowledge is constructed, and that is why we call this a constructivist conception of objective knowledge. A constructivist perspective helps us see that there are different ways of knowing the world which may have an equal right to existence. For example, indigenous tribes may have very sophisticated knowledge about the land they live on, or the animals they hunt. Even if this knowledge poorly fits our Western point of view, it might be very truthful, legitimate, and useful. And in its own right very objective! Constructivist perspectives are able to bring this out, whereas positivist perspectives might be tempted to insist that the world out there tells us only one story, and ultimately the tribespeople and the Westerners should be able to agree on what that story is. (Preferably to be arrived at by sending the tribespeople to proper, Western education systems. But then, they may also occasionally run into a social scientist…)

The value in having various conceptions, in this case positivist and constructivist, is in that they enable us to tell different stories. Each conception highlights specific elements of reality, and conceals others. Conceptions usually are not right or wrong; they are more or less apt to make a specific argument. Part of the craft of social science is to find the right concepts and conceptions to make an analysis and convey its content to others. Part of the game of social science is that for each conception, there exists at least one social scientist who will make any effort to show that the conception is mistaken. Indeed, life would be easier without social scientists, but also a lot more boring.