The Philosophy of Social Sciences:
 The Methods, Ideals and Politics of Social Inquiry

By Nasrin Pourhamrang



Michael Root is an assistant professor of philosophy in the University of Minnesota. In his 1993 book titled "The Philosophy of Social Sciences," he critically investigated the principles of research in social sciences. His main criticism concerns the liberal values ruling the different disciplines of social sciences and, attacks the value of "neutrality" prevalent in the liberalism philosophy, because according to him, the values existing in the liberalism philosophy which were initially included to state and government have infiltrated into the social researches, forcing different disciplines of social sciences to follow these values. While providing evidence in rebutting this neutrality in the researches which boast of adhering to the principles of neutrality, he questions the very principle of neutrality and suggests a substitutive philosophy for social sciences on the basis of which, one interpretation of goodness can be superior to other interpretations and it's better for the researcher to promote this interpretation. The substitution suggested by the social science author is "perfectionist."

In what follows, we will be reviewing the content of the chapters of this book.

 Liberal ideal:

In the first chapter, the author points to the background of the usage of the world "liberal" in the Middle Ages and its being assigned as an adjective to the arts and sciences which deserve the freemen and noble people; moreover, he explains the breakage of its link from the sciences in the following periods and the continuation of its connection to art and suggests that the social sciences had better be called liberal sciences.

The word liberal in political science means giving priority to the freedom of individual in order to guide his life based on his own criteria. The formation of such a philosophy in the history of Western thought dates back to the 17th and 18th centuries, which was a reaction to some hundred years of the rule of church's worldview over the social and individual lives of the European people.

The liberal principles are planned based on neutrality and dissuade the government from assisting or even encouraging the citizens to some kind of religious belief or, say, a certain style of family life.

In other words, the liberal principles are designed to guarantee the "value-neutrality" among different interpretations of goodness. In the 17th and 18th centuries, the philosophers, particularly those who were interested in solving the social problems, considered neutrality toward moral values a fundamental solution not only for the government but for the social sciences and tried to use the methods of experimental reasoning in studying the human being and society.

However, while accepting liberalism as a political philosophy for the government, the author explicitly announces that "my goal is to question liberalism as a philosophy for social sciences and show that how the function of social sciences supports some of the objective policies and goals vis-à-vis other policies and goals."

According to him, the individuals can adhere to neutrality in their decision-makings; however, the norms ruling the legal structures are not neutral and the scholars of social sciences should be allowed to establish relationships with the families, church, civil communities and political parties in order to promote and enhance the criteria of "goodness."


Max Weber and the methodology of social sciences

In the second chapter of the book, the author proposes some important points, quoting works based on the methodology of "Max Weber" in terms of economy and sociology.

The most important issue raised is that Weber encouraged an explicit differentiation between social sciences and politics and today, the majority of social science scholars have accepted his view that social sciences should be neutral in terms of value and, follow this viewpoint. However, before Weber, scholars such as Stewart Mill, Sidgwick, Neville Keynes had alluded to this issue. Afterwards, concepts such as "value freedom," "value relevance," "value-neutrality" and "ideal types" are quoted and explained as said by Weber.

In the view of Weber, Value relevance is referred to the selections which a scholar makes in order to uphold a question or a research vis-à-vis other questions or researches. When a researcher selects a small portion from among an unlimited amount of research topics, he actually selects the small portion in which he is interested and returns to motives and values which are formed and shaped in the mind of the researcher in a certain way.

Weber does not deny the existence of such a motive and as said by the author, without personal, cultural, moral and political belongings as opposed to other belongings, the scholars of social sciences will not have any motive to do research or teaching.

But Weber's interpretation of value freedom returns to the application of "language" in the social sciences. He demands the social science scholars to empty their writings and teachings from value judgments. In other words, the social scientists should not let personal, cultural, moral or political values interfere with their curriculum. Weber asks the researchers and professors to unconditionally separate the demonstration of experimental realities and their political evaluations.

Weber believed that if the writings of the university professors are devoid of political judgments, political executives of the government will see no reason in monitoring the faculties of social sciences, because at the time of Weber, political executives oversaw those who taught at the university and the faculty members would be selected based on their political commitment rather than scientific dexterity.

Another point which Weber mentions is that value judgments cannot be extracted from science or rationalized using science. It's impossible to assess the validity of a practical imperative as a norm and the veracity of an experimental proposition in comparison with each other, because these two are incongruous in terms of nature and character.

The selection of similar theories is also based on theoretical virtues, meaning that which one is more profitable, more explanatory, more predictive, simpler or more conservative. These features are scientific values, not moral or political values.

"Ideal types" is another discussable concept which is attributed to Weber. According to him, some judgments should be based on ideal types. The ideal type puts forward a criterion or norm based on which data can be evaluated; however, the data cannot be representations of ideal types themselves. The objective of using ideal types is the empowerment of social scientists to present a scientific description of the social realities.


Theories of growth in the psychology of the political science

In this chapter, the author alludes to the existence of two different viewpoints on the side of the social science scholars regarding the objective and surface of reasoning in this science and its similarities or differences with the natural sciences and at the same time, points out the moderate stance of Weber; a stance in which Weber follows the method of natural sciences in search of reasons, but takes up an interpretive method in discovering the meaning of the events.

Along with pointing to the difference of his viewpoint from that of Weber, the author considers this German scholar to have a general and holistic viewpoint, while believing that he investigates the issue from a closer and subtler perspective. For the sake of reasoning, he resorts to the disciplines of the psychology of growth and the theories of political development and attempts to show that in both fields, the judgments are value-based.

Beside referring to the popularity of the Chomsky's theory who believes that the responsibility of linguist is to discover the rules of language and the responsibility of psychologist is to discover how these rules are learnt by the people, he stresses that the agent of the linguist theory is as much an ideal type that the agent of the theories of sociologist or economist is. Therefore, selecting a definition from among the other definitions will be only made rational by resorting to practical reasons. Because there's no possibility of integrating the knowledge of an ideal speaker with an actual speaker, selecting a theory will realize the belongings of the linguist more than anything else, and to the same extent, the theory of the linguist about growth will be influenced by these belongings. The author will conclude that since the definition of ability takes its rationality from some practical reasons, the rationality of the selection of some theories will also be taken from some of the practical reasons, and since practical reasons are based on value judgments, the theory of growth will not be neutral, but rather biased.

What Root claims is that descriptive and prescriptive theorization are intermingled with each other.


Functional theories in sociology and biology

In this chapter, Root tries to show that sociologists and biologists capitalize, in some ways, on values in their theorizing about the adaptability of a feature and providing a descriptive interpretation of the existence of a certain feature in some people or groups.

They use the concept of adaptation frequently, take into consideration a collection of individual or group features and theorize that attaining this feature has positive function or consequences. He believes that the main deficiency of such an interpretation is its being imaginative which does not allow for the intentional and purposeful carrying out of actions by individuals and groups.

According to Root, providing functional interpretations of beliefs brings about considerable moral results. Such interpretations provide us with a view on the agent that is not so much different from the viewpoint that constitutes the majority of our moral thoughts, because in their interpretations of the beliefs of the agent, social interpreters consider their own accounts as wrong and don't consider agent as a moral agent or someone who is obliged to moral responsibilities.

The second point which he makes in this regard is that in offering functional interpretations of the beliefs of an agent, the scholars of social sciences replace the agent's belongings with those of theirs. In substituting the agent's belonging to a moral belief with their own belonging to function, they give value judgment and with the conviction that there there's no rational foundation to the agent's beliefs and he merely has a functional foundation, they deny the value of the belonging of the agent to the veracity of his beliefs.

The third assertion of Root is that when faced with the moral content of the beliefs of the agent while offering functional interpretations, the social science scholars replace the agent's moral convictions with that of theirs.

By presenting what has been said, the author tries to show that functional theories have some instances of bias which were albeit ignored by Weber. In his view, these theories influence on or get affected by moral and political judgments in a less explicit way than the traditional discussions regarding the value freedom. He is neither opposed to the functional interpretations nor agrees with them; rather he tries to show the ways how they are against the ideals of neutrality.


The theories of rational selection in demonstrative and normative economy

Here, the author theorizes on the neo-classic economy and explains the modality of the application of values in the course of theorization, prediction and evaluation of economic choices. First, he explains the objectives and methods of demonstrative and normative economy and then reviews the role of idealization in economy and the quality of its bias.

Many economists accept Weber's viewpoint that economy is the study of means, not ends; so, they admit the methods of demonstrative economy as a predictive science whose objective is not to assess the results of economic policy but to predict it. However, some economists believe that the science of economy should also include normative economy, that is, an economy whose objective is to develop the scales which help the policy-makers to determine the favorability of a consequence or objective.  Normative economy is based on some kind of idealization which doesn't have the power of prediction, but it can limit the space of political decisions and thus can be prejudiced, but the ideal of neutrality in plays no role in the demonstrative economy.

According to Root, in order to just call "reason" some conditions which have an influence on an economic event and limit the social areas of making economic decisions, the economists capitalize on their own political or personal values. According to the author, although no theory in social sciences is neutral from a value-oriented viewpoint as the majority of scholars of social sciences think of, theorization in economy is in some way based on the values of the economists so that it may separate economy from other social sciences.


Data collection in social sciences

While alluding to the methods and solutions used in the methodology of social sciences, Root says that taking into consideration the concept of validity in these sciences, the data are only valid when the methods are not only "neutral" but "biased." Albeit this bias exists within social sciences not in an explicit and purposeful manner but in an institutional way. In other words, data collection in social sciences eliminates the explicit and purposeful forms of bias, but institutional bias i.e. those perfectionist ideals which have linkages to the surrounding community, will remain in place.

In the author's viewpoint, since science cannot be absolutely value-free in contrary to the liberal ideals, it would be better that the explicit forms of bias be recognized. The first advantage of this explicit bias is that the possibility of discussion and debate will be provided.

As said by Root, the methodology of collecting "proper data" for reaching the goals which are called "perfectionist approaches" by him is that the issues be tackled from a biased and prejudiced attitude. It means that the data which are collected for furthering an interpretation of goodness or fostering an ideal related to human perfection. In this approach, he considers the realization of goodness as an ideal for science.


Categorizing data into types

In line with previous chapters, the author similarly argues that the methodology of categorization in social sciences is not value-neutral. Weber's differentiation of value relevance and value freedom cannot help with clarifying or showing value bias or the role the values play in the categorization of data and adjustment of the reality, because selecting the types is not related to selecting a question regarding studying and keeping silent about the moral issues; rather, it's related to decision-making regarding the nature of the studied agents and how they are introduced.

As said by the author, social scientists sometimes invent the matters on their own and categorize their intended agents in a different way than the way they are categorized in the society, which is not unbiased from a value-oriented view. They bring the agents to norms and support those political and social standpoints which are made possible through norms.


Explicating the data

Here Root propounds this issue that the majority of explications put forward by the scholars of social sciences are biased. He doesn't see the reason in selecting a certain interpretation of goodness among other interpretations, but explains that the explications of many social science scholars about the behavior of studied agents demands that moral concepts familiar and well-known for us regarding responsibility, admiration, chastisement, obligation, commitment, respect and offense may not be referenced to those explications at all.

According to the author, if the explications of social sciences of the behavior of an agent are right, then many of our moral judgments about the agent or his behavior cannot be right, because these explications demand that the agent lack that kind of agent's feature which take fore granted many of our familiar moral concepts.


The differentiation between reality and value

Root wants to show us that value freedom is impossible in social sciences. He challenges the thoughts of John Stewart Mill on which Weber had contemplated.

Mill's conviction on neutrality in social science is founded on this belief that the languages of art and science are different from each other. Science has piled up a collection of facts, while art is a collection of rules and guidelines for behavior. The goal of science is getting familiar with a phenomenon so that this familiarity may lead to the discovery of the rule of that phenomenon, but art sketches an objective and then tries to realize that objective with the means at its disposal. According to Mill, the rules of art are neither derived from science nor will lead to science. Accordingly, Weber takes for granted the possibility of existence of a scientific language which is devoid of value judgments and practical guidelines.

Root tries to show that using language in social sciences is not something related to the words so that one may extract reality, value, veracity or rules from them; rather, it's related to the fact that how, where and by whom it has been used. A verbal interaction on the language of any science which is practiced can have a leading power for action.

In order to have his explication progressed, he brings up two arguments: first, he says that it's impossible to find any scientific language where the concepts used are free of any value-oriented implication. His second argument is that value freedom is not the feature of the language used, but it's the feature of using the language. That's why many of applications of language in social sciences have a leading power for the action.


Social sciences and perfectionism

Titled "Social Sciences and Perfectionism", the tenth and last chapter of the book is a chapter in which Michael Root presents the final conclusion of his arguments and also offers his favorable and intended methods. Over the past 9 chapters, the author tried to pioneer new methods by challenging the acclaimed foundations in the theorizations and the solutions used in the social sciences. In the last chapter of the book, he presents his suggestions in this regard and refers to the same philosophy which he has been repeatedly mentioning since the beginning of the book: "perfectionism."

In the viewpoint which he presents, he not only avoids neutrality and tries to separate value from reality, but seeks for realities which can enhance a set of contextual values or prefer an interpretation of human perfection to another.

In the substitutive perfectionist view, the social scientists are explicitly biased and freely choose their method based on a number of political or moral commitments and validate their findings. In other words, research is designed and progressed with the aim of enhancing the political commitments of the researcher. In citing examples of perfectionist social sciences, he names the research of Marx and Engels, the critical efforts of the associates of the Frankfurt school and feminist studies which he refers to as "communalist" approaches to social sciences.

The author explicitly announces his objective like this: "my objective is to show that how a social research which is clearly linked with the prescriptions and policies of a certain society is plausible and how it can be favorable."


An overview of the structure of the book

Along with presenting a preface and introduction, the author has compiled his arguments in 10 chapters. In a preface which he has inserted before the introduction, he gives a general overview of the chapters of the book which can lead to the readers' awareness of the synopsis of the book's chapters.

With the explanations which he gives, the author makes the reader aware that if they do not have the opportunity or intention of studying the whole book, they can refer to the chapters the main points of which are made available.

In the preface, a clearer allusion is made to the core and tone of the contents and an image is portrayed of how the different arguments in the book are linked together.

The notes at the end of each chapter are references for further reading or explanations of the issues raised in the text. The final bibliography includes some of the important works written in the field of social sciences and familiarity with their name and title can be useful for the students of social sciences.

In each chapter, Michael Root quotes the views of Marx Weber and some other scholars and proposes the argument and foundations accepted in social sciences; then, he presents some of the viewpoints of Max Weber and finally gives his own independent views.


An overview of the content of the book

It seems that the most important criticism which can be leveled on Michael Root in this book is that he has considered "value-neutrality" oriented on "goodness" which doesn't have "veracity" according to the liberals to be equivalent to the "neutrality" emphasized in the field of social sciences which is oriented on the collection of "data" which has "precision and veracity" according to the scholars of these fields. Neutrality in the collection of data, especially in sociology when dealing with "methodology" issues is done by the virtue of logic and rationality, and reducing this neutrality to the neutrality which is prevalent in the liberal political philosophy and adding the suffix "value" to it seem to be not a good idea.

Neutrality in data collection is something which logic and reason demand and it should not be exclusively limited to the political philosophy of liberalism and then consider the principle of neutrality in data collection a liberal value which should be discarded by enumerating the weak points of this philosophy.

The logic of the principle of neutrality in data collection has caused that all the legal courts in the world, regardless of the political system ruling them, feel obliged to observe the principle of neutrality with regards to the defendant and plaintiff. Achieving reality is based upon adhering to neutrality. Conflating the value-neutrality in politics or morality with the neutrality emphasized in the methods of collecting precise and accurate data is wrong. These two types of neutrality are completely different from each other, but with a different appearance and attributing both types of neutrality to the liberal philosophy means reducing them to the other and such a reduction is not expected of a researcher with philosophical mindset.

The other point which can be raised here is that as Weber stresses and Root mentions in his book, the maximum role and capability which can be associated with social sciences is interpretation, discovering the meaning of events and explication. For the same reasons that Root reasons about the impossibility of value-neutrality in social sciences (selecting some of the theories based on the practical reasons which are inevitably based on value judgments), perfectionism is outside the social sciences' capacity, because based on the argument of Michael Root, selecting every theory from among the numerous theories of perfection will be hinged on practical reasons and finally will preclude the possibility of social sciences being used as a foundation or assuming a new role.

Michael Root does not respond to the necessity of combining the responsibility of ethics scholars and clerics, intellectuals and philosophers, authors, media and social observers as the portrayers of moral bests and seekers of "truth" with those of social sciences scholars as the explicators of social "realities" and that what the logical compulsoriness of putting a burden on the shoulder of social sciences beyond the capacity of this sciences is.

The other problem of the Root's arguments is that even though he frequently talks of "value-neutrality" and "value bias" and predicates his criticisms and explications on these concepts, he does not give a clear definition of "value." Seemingly for Root, the borders of these two concepts are so broad that in each utterance made by any scholar, visible or invisible roots and traces of value bias can be seen. If he fails to observe any trace of bias in the utterance of a scholar, he refers to what is in his intuition and uses his perception to reach a favorable conclusion. For example, he says: "in giving functional explications of the beliefs of an agent, the social sciences scholars replace their belongings with that of him." He does not explain that how he will figure out the personal belongings of the researcher.

According to him, the main problem with the functional explications is their being imaginative which does not take into consideration the intentional and purposeful doing of actions by the individuals and groups; however, he doesn't explain that what essentially the contradiction between functional explications and intentional and purposeful doing of actions is. Why if the function of an action or ritual is paid attention, its being intentional will be questioned? Is it bringing into question the rationality and consciousness of that people if sociology really paid attention to the social functions of the group festivals and rituals of a certain people?

In the chapter "Data Collection in Social Sciences," Root tries to cynically review the research methods in social sciences including sociology and introduce them as biased: "my general view is that data collection methods in social sciences eliminate the explicit and purposeful types of bias, but institutional bias – i.e. perfectionist ideals which we have in common with the surrounding community." On the other hand, he tries to accuse the sociologists of hypocrisy and establishing unequal relations with the interviewees so that they can preserve their neutrality: "one frequent solution among the sociologists is creating or coming up with certain moral rules which legitimize hypocrisy and furtiveness, or in other words, mixing morality, with the purpose of making it suitable for science."

In critiquing the methods which the researchers use in investigative interviews, he presents a bizarre analysis and criticizes the interviewer for trying to refrain from making personal statements to keep the pace of interview and eliciting precise data: "in a relationship in which the power is the common thing shared by the two parties, it's expected of each party to answer the other party's questions instead of evading to answer. The interviewer may only make sure that he hasn't taken sides regarding the answers of the parties he studied only if he evades answering…"

In the final chapter of the book, he presents his suggestions regarding escaping value-neutrality in social sciences. Albeit he expresses at the very beginning that such a science that is a perfectionist science may be more dangerous and more prone to criticism than a liberal science. The example which he puts forward is the perfectionism as designed by the Nazis. He explicitly states that it's impossible to present perfectionism as a general approach to social sciences; however, he is after to promote his own interpretation of goodness to the level of science. He reviews and analyzes feministic and homosexual approaches as interpretations of goodness in different parts of his book.

He doesn't suggest any way on how to prevent the emergence of perfectionist approaches such as that of Nazis toward human perfection and how to avoid the terrible consequences of such theorizations for the human society.

Since Root, in his perfectionist substitution, sets the social scientists free to act based on their political or moral commitments, it wouldn't be hard to imagine chaos and hullabaloo of selling perfectionism with political purposes.

And the final point is that since Root considers social sciences to be serving political ends in his own mindset and believes that the plan of research should be designed in line with furthering the political objectives, can't it be expected that another researcher with may extract totally different results from the evidence Root has presented in the chapter 9 of this book with different reasoning?