Dominant Approaches and Ideas in the Social Sciences

This post provides an introduction to the dominant approaches and ideas in the social sciences. It identifies the key ideas and assumptions as well as the key theoretical and methodological issues associated with each approach. The emphasis on the ideas and assumptions as well as issues enables students to appreciate more the varied ways of thinking and theorizing offered by social scientists by understanding some of the debates and disagreements within the discipline. The pluralism and variety of approaches within the discipline reflect the wide diversity of orientations and ways of how social scientists undertake their work.

It was not an easy task to classify all the nine approaches discussed in the succeeding posts are given the wide diversity among them. Each approach has a different disciplinal orientation characterized by a set of “epistemological ideals and value commitments” (Richardson and Fowers 1998, 1). What makes the task even more difficult is the desire to give each of the approaches an unbiased interpretation of its strengths and limitations as well as its epistemic position within the social sciences while showing the breadth of scope of approaches within the discipline.

With the deliberate intention not to privilege one approach over another, and without delving into the key epistemological and methodological questions and debates in mainstream social sciences, particularly the debate between positivist and humanist understanding and the objectivist-subjectivist dichotomy, the succeeding posts draw its organizing framework for its discussion of the nine approaches from Jurgen Habermas’s typology of cognitive interests. Jurgen Habermas was a German philosopher and sociologist whose work was closely tied to a form of political philosophy and social criticism known as Critical Theory.

Habermas used “cognitive interests” to refer to “the human concerns that underlie a particular intellectual discipline,” arguing that “what humans study and the manner in which we go about studying is determined by the human interests and purposes that a discipline is founded on” (Fusella 2014, 875). Based on his typology, there are three types of cognitive interests, namely, the empirical-analytical, the historical-hermeneutic, and the empirical-critical.

According to Habermas, the empirical-analytical disciplines are associated with the technical interest of understanding nature, forming general laws, and making predictions. The use of empirical procedures dominate this type of cognitive interests. In the historical-hermeneutic disciplines, data are generated by understanding human meanings and not through observation of neutral facts. As its label or name indicates, the empirical-criticalis governed by emancipatory interests. Emancipatory interests are “human interests that involve reflecting on social, cultural, and political injustice and how and why it comes to exist and how it might be remedied” (Fusella 2014, 875-876).

Using this typology as a broad framework to facilitate discussion and appreciation of the different ways and theorizing in the social sciences, the nine approaches were grouped following the three categories of cognitive interests by Habermas. Marxism and feminist theory were quickly classified under empirical-critical approaches; psychoanalysis and hermeneutic-phenomenology under historical-hermeneutic/interpretive approaches; and the human-environment system under empirical-analytical approaches.

Among all of the approaches discussed in the succeeding posts, only the human-environment system approach is clearly designed as interdisciplinary. As an interdisciplinary approach, it integrates knowledge from the social and the natural sciences within one framework to address environmental and social issues.

Symbolic interactionism could have been readily grouped with psychoanalysis and hermeneutic-phenomenology with its emphasis on meanings and interpretations and affinity in method to the interpretive traditions in the social sciences. However, for the purpose of showing the diversity in mainstream approaches in the discipline, symbolic interactionism had to be placed under empirical-analytical approaches to represent, together with rational choice theory, microlevel approaches in the Social Sciences.

Symbolic interactionism can be classified as an empirical-analytical approach for its appreciation of the role of experience and evidence and the value of objective and empirical work. Similarly, structural-functionalism and institutionalism are classified under empirical-analytical approaches but had to be classified further as macrolevel approaches in the social sciences.

Macrolevel approaches use social aggregate as the level of analysis, while microlevel approaches use the individual as the level of analysis. Macrolevel approaches focus on social structure, social institutions, and social, political, and economic change. Microlevel approaches focus on social interactions, why individuals and/or groups interact in the way they do, and how they interpret the meanings of their own interactions.

In recent years, there is a growing trend towards interdisciplinary approaches within the broad discipline of the social sciences. Given the complexity of any social phenomenon, social scientists generally agree that analyzing a behavior, issue, event, outcome, decision, or action, be it political, economic, sociocultural, or environmental, from one approach or perspective only is rather conservative, limited, and myopic, especially if the goal is to produce a cumulative and generalizable knowledge.