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Are There Laws in the Social Sciences? February 11, 2009

Posted by Tony Perrone in Metaphysics, Social science.
Tags: , , , , , ,

Forget God, I wanted to play Popper for a bit. That’s right, I wanted to denounce any claim of Marx or Freud being scientists in the name of pure, beautiful physics.

Surely to question the existence of laws in the social sciences is to dredge up the demarcation issue, for is it not the presence of laws that makes physics so elegant and clean? But in my zealous fervor I hit the stopping block that has ever been the bane of philosophers and logicians attempting to find universality: Language.

Just because I was being selfish and closed minded, doesn’t mean I was going to slack in my diligence. I started at the beginning, where any good thought-experiment lab rat should; I asked, “Well, what is a law anyway?” It seems a simple question – we toss the word around daily the way sailors swear – but as is so often the case, a common and well “understood” term seems elusive in a strict definition. Try and consider it in a philosophical sense and, well, I go through a lot of aspirin.

Wiser men than I have approached this subject. I recall quoting Harold Kincaid and John T. Roberts, who made good arguments for and against (respectively) laws in the social sciences. Fantastic as both of their writing was, why not loosen things up a bit here. This is a blog, not a classroom, and I’m certain that if I bore you all to hell you’re just going to give up and surf Facebook anyway (and that is a social law), so let’s shoot from the hip, shall we?

Here’s definition looser than Jared’s old jeans: laws are generalities. Great, but that won’t even get you a sandwich. So, let’s narrow it further, shall we? One might say that laws have explanatory and predictive value. This is fantastic because it gives laws utility, without which many of you won’t give a hoot about the avalanche of words to follow. This tastefully ambiguous definition seems to stand up to most of the available scrutiny out there, and makes for a good basis to continue.

Consider the following: what if laws have to be universal and robust? Crap. This is the mater over which talkative folk start to polarize. We might say that the social sciences fail in these respects, what with their unrelenting string of exceptions and purposefully non-universal explanations. It would seem that the so-called social “scientists” can’t quite get their theories to play nicely together, or even keep them alive for more than a century or so.

Conversely, one might say that our ugly social laws just don’t seem universal or robust because we are having a hard time getting all of the data and accounting for all of the relevant variables. In fact, as long as we’re finger-pointing here, this school of thought could actually drag out a host of examples of “natural” science falling short in robustness and universality. That’s right, stick it to Newton and then go hang out with your global warming buddies; their data sucks, too, they’ll understand your pain.

Adding confusion to the mix, Roberts said that explanatory and predictive value doesn’t stem from universality and robustness. Thus, though social science might not have laws, it doesn’t need laws. Take that, laws! Elitist jerks.

When it comes down to it, though, calling something a law is just a social construction. I don’t particularly believe that theories or ideas can be put into discreet categories, nor should they. I would as readily use Newton’s Rad Idea About Inertia as I would his “Second Law”. The title of law only brings weight when scientists are talking about science, not when they’re doing science. Perhaps it would be more useful, then, to call things more-or-less lawlike than one another, since everything’s being put into relativistic terms anyway.

Getting back to social sciences, though, I pose the question of how well they can predict phenomena. Is society and humanity as predictable as the path of a projectile? (Chaos Theorists: Shut up, I asked if it was as predictable, not perfectly predictable.) If so, does this finally put a stomping end to the determinism question posed by our snooty friends the metaphysicians? Is free will that last, most unpredictable variable in the social scientific model, accountable only in terms of statistical probabilities? Are quantum states a reflection of the free will of sub-atomic particles? Will I ever end this grueling and unnecessarily snarky blog post?






Roberts, John T. “There are no Laws of the Social Sciences” Contemporary debates in philosophy of science. 2004, Blackwell Publishing, pp. 151 – 167

Kincaid, Harold “There are Laws in the Social Sciences” Contemporary debates in philosophy of science. 2004, Blackwell Publishing, pp. 168 – 185 

Special thanks to Wikipedia, the sole source of New Media in this writing.




1. ews8704 - February 15, 2009

Hi, Tony-
I really like your blog post. 🙂
I found this article on Sokal’s hoax that I really like. Okay, so its not about laws, per se, but still:


If the social sciences are indeed sciences, you’d expect that unificationism would apply to them, that social sciences could invoke the most basic of the sciences -physics- to help bolster their claims. And if social sciences are sciences, but also prone to human error, then the same types of human error should be present in physics, too.
Apparently in the mid-1990s, there was a trend among some social scientists to critique physics as sexist and racist (taking a relativist position?), as well as a trend to try to justify the latest social theory with physics. It had disastrous results.

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