Appraisal of Research in the Social Sciences

Read Bain
Miami University, Oxford, Ohio

Research in the social sciences has been considered by our colleagues in the physical and biological sciences as a kind of academic busywork. Their general attitude is that whatever "social science" may be, it is not science, or at least it is not "natural" science. It is preachment, opinion, or normative exhortation and its devotees are not quite respectable members of the great fraternity of scientific scholars.

Social scientists have continued to work at their task, generally with an inferiority feeling which sometimes expresses itself in defensive-and offensive-protestations of the "scientific" nature of their work. Many social scientists, particularly the younger ones, have a more accurate and extensive knowledge of the philosophy, logic, and methodology of science than many first-rate researchers in the physical and biological sciences. Many of the latter are masters of routine and technique but are woefully inarticulate regarding the theoretical and philosophical implications of their work. It should be pointed out that leading physical and biological scientists are frequently generous in their appreciation of the work social scientists are doing and have made many fruitful suggestions by which social scientists have profited. One could mention biologists like T. H. Morgan, H. S. Jennings, W. M. Wheeler, and R. W. Gerard, physicists like P. W. Bridgman, and chemists like L. J. Henderson. It should also be pointed out that many sociologists still support the position that sociology is essentially a normative discipline that never can be "like the natural sciences" in its general methodology, nor in the accuracy and predictive power of its generalizations; that it must proceed from and by a different theoretical point of view.

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Increasingly, however, social scientists in general and economists and sociologists in particular are taking the position, and developing research techniques to validate it, that the social sciences are natural sciences and must use the same general theoretical and methodological procedures that have proved so successful in physics and biology.[1] Social scientists in all fields have been very critical, on the whole, both of their procedures and of their results. Min in other fields also have not spared forthright criticism of research in the social sciences.

The Social Science Research Council is sponsoring a program of evaluation of research in the seven disciplines represented within the Council: anthropology, economics, history, political science, social psychology, sociology, and statistics. The remainder of this report will present a summary of that attempt at appraisal.

Some twenty specialists in each of the seven fields were asked to name the three or four research works produced in America since the World War which had made the most significant contributions to their respective fields. The committee was very careful not to state any criteria of significance. It simply wanted to get a list of works which qualified experts in the several fields thought to have high

( 4) value. From this list, still without any stated criteria of significance, a panel of specialists in each field was asked to name the three outstanding works. The committee then studied the results of these polls and finally selected one monograph from each of five fields for more intensive analysis. The works chosen were: W. I. Thomas and F. Znaniecki, The Polish Peasant in Europe and America, for sociology; F. C. Mills, The Behavior of Prices, for economics (the work by A. A. Berle and Gardiner Means, The Modern Corporation and Private Property, was seriously considered but Mills's work was finally chosen for the reason stated below) ; W. P. Webb, The Great Plains: A Study in Institutions and Environment, for history; John Dickinson, Administrative Justice, etc., for political science; and Franz Boas, Primitive Art, for cultural anthropology. The social psychologists have not yet reached any consensus upon a book to be appraised. No book was chosen specifically for statistics, since it was regarded primarily as a method, but The Behavior of Prices was thought to be sufficiently statistical so that the role of statistics in social research would be appraised in the critique of Mills's work. The committee has not decided whether it will attempt a separate appraisal of statistics in relation to social research.

Reports have been issued on three of the works named above.[2] Some work has been done on the other two, but it is not known at present whether the same procedure as in the first three reports will be followed. The committee is feeling its way, and if the reports already issued are found to be of little value, the whole project may be abandoned or a new method of appraisal undertaken. Before it proceeds further, at least on its present task, the committee probably

( 5) would like to see whether the specialists in the three fields covered think the reports thus far issued warrant a similar job being done for the other disciplines. Doubtless some report on the appraisal of research in the other three fields will be issued, but some approach other than the one used in the first three reports may be utilized.

Briefly, this is the procedure followed in the preparation of the first three reports. After the book was chosen, a competent man in the field was employed to make a critical appraisal of the work. He was guided by such general considerations as: What was the purpose of the author? How successful has he been in achieving it? Were the data and methods adequate and properly used? To what extent can they be used in other similar studies? Has the work stimulated further research in its own or in allied fields ? What generalizations were reached ? Do they appear to issue soundly from the data and methods? If there are recommendations for social action, do they appear to be based soundly on the data? What are the distinctive contributions of the work?

The appraisal was then submitted to the author, who was invited to make any statement he desired. These two documents, together with two or three of the leading reviews, were then submitted to ten or twelve scholars for critical reading. These men were chosen both from the field represented by the book and from allied fields so that cross-fertilization of ideas and interdisciplinary criticism would be stimulated. They understood that they would come together later for a conference on the general questions raised by the documents.

When the conference met, everything said was taken down by an expert stenotypist and a transcript was prepared for editorial revision. The three reports were edited by Read Bain who condensed the transcript to about half its original size-preserving the continuity of the discussion and the accuracy of the ideas presented---wrote a commentary, prepared an index, and saw the report through the press. The entire reports are well worth reading, and the members of the committee, or Robert Redfield, its present chairman,

( 6) would be glad to receive criticisms of the project as thus far carried out, and also suggestions for better methods of continuing the investigation.

The conferences were all interdisciplinary in personnel. This is one of the major values of the reports, all of which reflect the common interests and problems of all the social sciences. Therefore, in teaching, in research, and in graduate training, the interdisciplinary unity and solidarity of all the social sciences will be heightened-a goal much to be desired and of great scientific value to all the social sciences. It is probable that the entire work of the committee would be rounded out and made most useful, if, after its specific reports are completed, some competent scholar with a flair for comprehensive analysis were to summarize, contrast, compare, analyze, synthesize, and criticize the six reports in a final volume of the series. Such a report might become a valuable introduction to research in the social sciences and might also have value as an interpretation of the methods and objectives of the social sciences which could be read by physical and biological scientists and intelligent laymen. If the findings of social science are ever to receive the consideration now accorded to the results obtained by the physical and biological sciences, two things are necessary: (i) they must be valid scientific conclusions; (2) the public must be convinced that this is the case and demand that business men, social workers, teachers, publicists, legislators, administrators, and judges take account of them in the performance of their duties. Such a final volume, properly done, might contribute to this objective.

At least one common element is found in all three reports. This is the apparent conflict between insight and proof or deductive-a priori versus inductive-empirical methodology. This perhaps is a logical counterpart of the conflict between the quantitative and non-quantitative sociologists which has been going on in varied forms during recent years : case study, Gestalt, interpretative insight, typology, Wissenssociologie, historical studies, descriptive natural histo-

( 7) -ries, etc., on the one hand, and scale-making, ecological analysis, population studies, detailed surveys, and intensive quantitative studies on the other-all of the latter using statistical methods of arranging data in time series so as to show predictive uniformity in the data. One school is concerned with large constellations of data meaningfully apprehended and comprehended, the other with carefully delimited theorems that can be established or refuted by empirical methods. Both groups regard sociology as a natural science, nonnormative and nonutilitarian.

Besides these two schools, there are still some of the "old school" sociologists who regard sociology as a "social" not a "natural" science, and emphasize its normative, "practical," teleological-meliorative aspects. For them, its primary reason for existence is to "do good in general." These three general attitudes are more or less clearly distinguishable in all of the social sciences.

Needless to say, it is the latter, the doctrinaire type of social science, that makes social scientists especially suspect by all who have a vested interest in the status quo but lack the scientific habit of mind. It is only when the social scientist begins to advocate changes that run counter to the vested interests that he gets into trouble. Scientists become martyrs only when they become confused about their citizen-scientist functions or when they attempt to fuse them. If they would escape "trouble," they must be content to see their findings neglected, misinterpreted, and misused by charlatans and propagandists as the history of science amply proves. However, in the long perspective of history, at least some of the findings of science finally come to be used so as to promote human welfare. The fundamental function of science has always been and still is to find knowledge in the faith that at long last mankind will use it to make life more secure and fruitful for all the inhabitants of the earth. In the absence of such a faith, science is futile.

Another general conclusion to be drawn from these critiques of research is that while opinions differ on specific matters of method-

( 8) -ology and interpretations, there is considerable consensus on general points of view, research objectives, and methodological procedures. Many apparent differences are terminological quibbles. The social sciences are beginning to come of age, to present a united front, and to constitute a specialized field of scientific knowledge which is about ready for the kind of systematic and theoretical organization which characterizes the physical and biological sciences-a central core of verified knowledge upon which the various specialists can agree in a general way and in accordance with which they can pursue specific researches that extend the boundaries of knowledge. They all speak each other's language and recognize their theoretical and empirical similarity. The Social Science Research Council as a coördinating body has doubtless played an important part in this growing consensus during the last seventeen years, but the inevitable cross-fertilization of techniques, findings, and interpretations has gone on in the social sciences as in the physical and biological. The Council has been an expression rather than a sole cause of this trend.

All natural sciences are one and this is especially true of the third member of the three great general divisions of natural sciences: viz., the social or cultural sciences. Doubtless in the relatively near future the social sciences will become as respectably "scientific" as are the other two great classes of natural science. This will come about by the continued development of empirical research and its theoretical interpretation and systematization by men who do not question the basic assumption that social phenomena are natural phenomena. Valid generalization of such data constitutes a natural science. This is a simple statement, but its implications are profound and far-reaching. It is a revolutionary way of looking at human behavior.


  1. Sociologists, perhaps because they are the "youngest" social scientists, have been particularly interested in the logic of science. They are perhaps the most insistent of all social scientists that their discipline is a "natural" science. They have been severe critics of the research methods in their own and allied fields and have produced a considerable literature dealing with this subject. I cite only a few titles here, but they contain many further pertinent references. George A. Lundberg, Social Research (New York: Longmans, Green and Company, 1929); Stuart A. Rice, editor, Methods in Social Science: A Case Book (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1931); George A. Lundberg, Foundations of Sociology (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1939); Stuart C. Dodd, Dimensions of Society (forthcoming); L. L. Bernard, editor, Fields and Methods of Sociology (New York: Farrar and Rinehart, 1934). One should also mention the articles by L. L. Bernard, "Scientific Method and Social Progress," American Journal of Sociology, XXXI: 1 (July 1925), 1-18; F. Stuart Chapin, "Design for Social Experiments," American Sociological Review, III: 6 (December 1938), 786-800; Clark L. Hull, "Conflicting Psychologies of Learning-A Way Out," Psychological Review, XLII: 6 (November 1935), 491-516; George A. Lundberg, "Thoughtways of Contemporary Sociology," American Sociological Review, I: 5 (October 1936), 703-723; Raymond V. Bowers, "Conceptual Integration and Social Research," American Sociological Review, III: 3 (June 1938), 307-319; Stuart C. Dodd, "A Tension Theory of Societal Action." American Sociological Review, IV: 1 (February 1939), 56-77.
  2. These are Social Science Research Council Bulletins 44, 45, and 46, under the general title Critiques of Research in the Social Sciences: 1, II, III. I, issued in September 1939, 210 pages, bears the subtitle "An Appraisal of Thomas and Znaniecki's The Polish Peasant in Europe and America, by Herbert Blumer"; II, issued in March 1940, 335 pages, "An Appraisal of Frederick C. Mills' The Behavior of Prices by Raymond T. Bye"; III, May 1940, 254 pages, "An Appraisal of Walter Prescott Webb's The Great Plains: A Study in Institutions and Environment by Fred A. Shannon." These bulletins may be obtained from the Social Science Research Council, 230 Park Avenue, New York.

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