Social Science and Scientific Revolutions

Thomas Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions, arguably the most influential work in the philosophy of science of the twentieth century, turned fifty this year. The anniversary is commemorated over at The New Atlantis with a good essay about the continuing importance of Kuhn for how we’ve come to think about science as an essentially social and disjointed process of discovery.

I won’t waste time here recapping Kuhn’s argument. Instead, as a social scientist in training, I want to briefly ruminate on whether his notion of science as an enterprise that proceeds in terms of paradigms and paradigm shifts can be applicable to our own field. In Structures Kuhn limited his historical examples to paradigm shifts in physics and chemistry, and did not provide much evidence for us to think that the search for paradigms in the social sciences (namely political science, economics, and sociology) was a worthwhile endeavor.

To quote the article:

What Kuhn noticed was that competing paradigms in physics never coexist for very long, and that progress in normal science occurs precisely when scientists work within only one paradigm. But the social sciences are a special kind of science, because they cannot set aside fundamental philosophical concerns as easily as the physical sciences. Moreover, the social sciences are defined by multiple paradigms that are sometimes mutually contradictory. Kuhn pointed out that some social sciences may never be able to enter the paradigmatic stage of normal science for that reason. Unlike physical scientists, social scientists generally cannot in the face of a disagreement revert to an agreed-upon exemplary solution to a problem; their controversies are precisely about what the exemplar ought to be.

And furthermore:

The social sciences could never hope to meet the high standards of empirical experimentation and verifiability that the influential school of thought called positivism demanded of the sciences. But Kuhn proposed a different standard, by which science is actually defined by a shared commitment among scientists to a paradigm wherein they refine and apply their theories. Although Kuhn himself denied the social sciences the status of paradigmatic science because of their lack of consensus on a dominant paradigm, social scientists argued that his thesis could still apply to each of those competing paradigms individually.

In my own field – political science – the question of the search for a paradigm has been one of the most important meta-theoretical issues looming in the background. Whether a paradigm had already been settled upon, was in the process of being discovered, or was impossible to find depended on who you asked, of course. Nevertheless, Kuhn’s idea in many ways became foundational for the self-image and self-representation of the social sciences.

But how can we speak of paradigms if the history of the social sciences tells us that competing and incompatible paradigms can coexist? Recall that the very idea of a paradigm shift in Kuhn’s sense of the term involved the replacement of one old paradigm by another when it could no longer answer the questions brought before it through the research process. Over the years a number of social science theories aspiring to the comprehensiveness of paradigms have come and gone (Marxism, systems theory/functionalism, neo-institutionalism, historical institutionalism, etc). Some have increased in popularity while others have fallen out of favor. Yet instead of discrediting each other outright, as Newtonian physics did to Aristotelian physics, or Darwin’s theory of natural selection to Lamarck’s theory of the inheritance of acquired characteristics, they continue to coexist in a sort of pragmatic truce, each looking at the same social phenomena through different points of view and thus providing different explanations.

Part of the reason for this willingness to put the ontological debate aside is that the theoretical controversies about differing approaches and assumptions regarding the causes of social change are not resolvable in and of themselves. Each taken alone can provide an internally consistent explanation of a particular phenomenon. Today, rather than debate the viability of one paradigm over another, the discipline of political science has settled for an eclectic, “mixed bag” approach, without truly resolving the ontological conflict that, in the modern social sciences, is based on the clash between neo-positivist and hermeneutic accounts of social reality. In other words, the suspension of the debate about paradigms has been one of practical necessity, in order to allow for research and the accumulation of knowledge to advance, rather than of philosophical certainty.

If this is the case, though, why use Kuhn’s language altogether? According to him, the accumulation of knowledge characteristic of “normal science” occurs after the shift in paradigmatic thinking. Yet if political scientists today have not settled on a paradigm, and look increasingly incapable of doing so, then to what extent can we say that knowledge accumulation is truly occurring? On one hand, we are certainly generating more and more scholarship explaining political and social phenomena. At the same time, we lack natural scientists’ abilities to test our findings through applied practice, since the social world is fundamentally mediated by language, making it responsive to any effort on science’s part to hermetically isolate particular phenomena for the purpose of developing parsimonious, “clean” theories. While aerodynamic engineers can easily gain concrete evidence that their theories are incorrect when the plane they design does not stay in the air, social scientists and policy-oriented researchers can never approach that degree of clarity about “what works” and what doesn’t.

Therefore, it seems that the appropriation of Kuhn’s theory into the social sciences resulted more from the latter’s desire to imitate the natural sciences and ground its own disciplinary status more firmly, rather than a careful understanding of Kuhn’s (admittedly evasive) argument. The fact that competing paradigms can exist and thrive alongside each other should be reason enough for us to be cautious about seeking to grasp the social world with the same ontological assumptions held by natural scientists. While the replacement of one paradigm with another in the natural sciences can indicate a progression of knowledge – at the very least in the sense that we can more effectively control the world around us through technology – the fact that we in the social sciences have not even reached consensus on a paradigm, and indeed have to bracket away this question in order to develop our research agendas, raises serious doubts about whether the social sciences can ever be thought of as paradigm-friendly fields of study.


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