Technique as Approach to Science—A Methodological Note

Albion Small
University of Chicago


Irresponsible uses of the term "science." Requirements of precision in use of the term. The so-called social "sciences" fall far short of these requirements. Most of pretended social "science" is "rationalization." Treatment of our various programs of social research as techniques only would be a step toward responsible science. What they are more than techniques, and the accumulations from use of techniques, is padding.

We do not have "science" by virtue of having a wish for "science," still less by virtue of having a wish to be known as having "science."

We do not have "science" by virtue of having honest curiosity about something, nor even by virtue of persistent effort to find out how that curiosity may be satisfied.

"Science" is a relative term. If we should define it in the nearest conceivable approach to an absolute sense, the formula would have to be after this fashion: Science is a completely objective representation of the totality of phenomena, in all their relations.

Thus science in its utmost perfection would be all reality as it is reflected in omniscient mind. If we are right in believing that the cosmos is essentially unitary, then science in the absolute sense would be one. It would be a composite view of all the different phases of relationships which are embraced in the cosmos. Science would be what philosophy has always tried to be.

Science as we know it, science as we actually apply the term, is imperfect, approximate, fragmentary, provisional, and tentative, in the degree in which its content falls short of the comprehensiveness demanded by the formula.

Accordingly, in ordinary usage we have a scale of meanings for the term "science" descending through innumerable gradations

( 647) from the most unlimited interpretation to the sense of a minutely restricted art, or technique, or even knack. We not only speak of the "science" of mathematics, or of physics, but we speak of the "science" of medicine, the "science" of agriculture, the "science" of history, the "science" of statistics, the "science" of penology, the "science" of education, the "science" of hog-raising, the "science" of football, and the "science" of bridge.

No one is entitled to believe that he thinks validly about any subject--or as we say, thinks scientifically--unless he is able to use words with consistent precision. Precise language and precise thought go together. So do slipshod language and slipshod thought. To understand the restricted sense in which the term "science" is applicable to one's occupation, is to understand in something like the same measure the gradations of relationships with all reality in which one's occupation is involved. In so far as we are aware that the relationships which are most obvious in our field of activity run into unexplained connections with any phase of reality which is beyond, we are facing the fact that our activities cannot be fully expressed in terms of what we know about them; they cannot be the subject-matter of "science" in an absolute sense; because the marginal relationships of our activities or of our interests which we have not fully explored are demonstration of the partialness of what we have explored.

For convenience we always divide reality into two phases. We call these by some variation of the terms, the physical and mental spheres of reality. By this most general division of knowledge we at once advertise the partialness of any alleged "science" of either of the two aspects of reality. Suppose some of us had learned all there is to know about those relationships into which, so far as we have ascertained, mind does not enter, and on the other hand, suppose others of us had learned all there is to know about those relationships in which, so far as we have ascertained, physical cause and effect are conditional but not decisive. Suppose no one had meanwhile learned more than we now know about the precise relations between these two types of phenomena in the real world. Obviously our physical science" on the one hand, and our human or psychical "science" on the other, would be to that extent

( 648) incomplete. Some people would have made out one range of relationships, other people would have made out another range of relationships, but neither would be able to account for the relation-ships which they would be obliged to think of as existing between the two aspects of reality.

But our limitations are much closer than this. Not to speak further of relations presumed to be purely physical, nor of relations which we treat as blendings of the physical and the mental—such as all that now eludes our search in the zone of relationships between heredity and personality, or everything like the connection between climate or digestion, for instance, and mental states—there remain in the realm of relationships between historical tradition and con-temporary interests, between culture and economics and politics, between social strata, between races and nations and civilizations, immeasurable masses and intricacies of facts and interrelations which it is desirable to bring under the aspect of "science." The first step toward that achievement should be recognition and admission that only the most distant approaches have thus far been made to that consummation. All that we call "social science" in any of its divisions—anthropology, history, psychology, politics, economics, sociology, etc., etc.—is relatively inchoate, relatively fragmentary, relatively insulated. Reasons for this are not far to seek. The range of human phenomena is so wide, the interweavings of human relations are so complicated, that we may easily lose ourselves in contemplation of aspects of them, and become unable to entertain the idea that the aspects in which we are chiefly interested are not sufficient unto themselves. We elaborate programs of investigating these detached aspects of human experience, and we presently become convinced that our procedure with this excerpt from reality is "science." Our procedure may be orderly and valid as far as it goes. In that degree and in that sense it is "science"; but it is nevertheless fractional and impotent. It ends merely in vivisection of reality, not in revivifying reality.

Characteristic of the pseudo-scientific state of mind in which this partialism leaves us, is failure to apprehend even the most general relations between cardinal divisions of our rudimentary

( 649) social science. In a recent official publication one of our leading universities perpetrates the collocation—"history and social science." If the science of people had cut its wisdom teeth, that monstrosity would be as impossible as "algebra and mathematics." The naïveté which permitted it reminds us of the catalogue of a certain southern college which thirty years ago carried in its faculty list the item: “ —— Professor of History, Ancient and Natural."

In his book, The Mind in the Making, the historian James Harvey Robinson has this definition of a term: "Rationalizing is the self-exculpation which occurs when we feel ourselves, or our group, accused of misapprehension or error" (p. 44). He continues (p. 47): "And now the astonishing and perturbing suspicion emerges that perhaps almost all that has passed for social science—political economy, politics, and ethics—in the past, may be brushed aside by future generations as mainly rationalizing. John Dewey has already reached this conclusion in regard to philosophy. [2] Veblen[3] and other writers have revealed the various unperceived presuppositions of the traditional political economy, and now comes an Italian sociologist, Vilfredo Pareto, who, in his huge treatise on general sociology, devotes hundreds of pages to substantiating a similar thesis affecting all the social sciences.[4] This conclusion may be ranked by students of a hundred years hence as one of the several great discoveries of our age. It is by no means fully worked out, and it is so opposed to nature that it will be very slowly accepted by the great mass of those who consider themselves thoughtful. I am personally fully reconciled to this newer view. Indeed, it seems to me inevitable that just as the various sciences of nature were, before the opening of the seventeenth century, largely masses of rationalizations to suit the religious sentiments of the period, so the social sciences have continued even to our own day to be rationalizations of uncritically accepted beliefs and customs.

"It will become apparent as we proceed that the fact that an idea is ancient and that it has been widely received is no argument in its

( 650) favor, but should immediately suggest the necessity of carefully testing it as a probable instance of rationalization.[5]

It would be a long step toward objectivity or positivity or "science" in the ultimate sense, if all who now call themselves social scientists of any sort would agree not to speak of their pursuits as "sciences" but would refer to them less pretentiously as techniques. To begin with, it would force us into self-criticism of our various techniques. If we should tell ourselves the full truth about the condition of our working plants, there would be a flood of voluntary scientific bankruptcies.

It would be a further step if we should agree to use the term "social science" consistently as that beginning of federated search after knowledge in which all the techniques that penetrate into phases of the human reality are learning to co-operate. In so far as they are valid and responsible procedures in the pursuit of knowledge, these disciplines are first and foremost techniques only. What they are more, is a question of fact to be determined by inspection in each particular case. What they are more is either the appropriate consequent of the responsible use of a technique, or it is a meretricious amplification of technical results by assembling around them accumulations from sources which may or may not be of the same rank. For example, a given historian may have employed an appropriate technique upon the sources of evidence pertinent to certain occurrences in the decade 1830-40. He may have relied upon hearsay evidence with reference to certain occurrences in the decades 1770-90. He may have organized his credulity about the earlier period into his technically authenticated findings about the later, and made the combination the nucleus of what he calls the "history" of the period 1770-1870. As we express this fictitious instance for illustration, the illusion is so apparent that it could deceive no one, yet the equivalent of this hypothetical case is one of the most frequent weaknesses in all sorts of writing about human life. In actual practice the fallacy is not so wide open to inspection. It consequently deceives not only the public but the deceivers. In further consequence it has come about

( 651) that what has passed as authorative in any one of the divisions of social science, has often been at best a nondescript compound of x parts scientific findings and y parts amateurish padding. More-over, y may not only be many times in excess of x as to bulk, but it may be made up of variously impertinent elements, from the inertly encumbering to the malignantly corrupting.

This course will treat sociology under the aspect of a technique, not as a science. The assertion must be understood throughout that this mode of treatment applies to sociology precisely as it fits each of the other so-called social sciences, no more, no less. No one of these disciplines begins to earn scientific rank until it applies a distinctive method to some aspect of the human reality. That rank is not confirmed until the findings from operation of the method command recognition as necessary to the completion of social science in general. Our business in this course is to explain the essential character of the sociological technique—its apparatus and processes cannot be described in detail in the time at our disposal—and to indicate in a general way how understanding of human life may be enlarged by use of this technique in co-operation with the techniques adapted to investigation of phases of the human reality which are aside from the sociological center of attention.


  1. This is a passage from an introductory lecture on "General Sociology."
  2. Reconstruction in Philosophy.
  3. The Place of Science in Modern Civilization.
  4. Traité de Sociologie Générale, passim.
  5. Robinson here calls attention to a real tendency, but he draws from it an extreme conclusion. I shall state my own modification later.

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