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The Dichotomy of Social and Natural Science

Posted by Centre for Poverty Analysis (CEPA)

24 Feb 2016

Some of CEPA’s researchers, Aftab Lall, Nadhiya Najab, and Prashanthi Jayasekera, followed a short course on social science research at the Social Scientists’ Association in Colombo. The class covers the evolution of social science research, and the philosophies that have shaped modern understandings of truth and reality. The course has helped them reflect on what they do as researchers, and why they do so. This short blog series put together with the assistance of Anna Basset -Boynton will follow their experiences in class, and share the knowledge they gain.

This blog explores the dualities and polarities between the social and the natural sciences. However, it is important to keep in mind that the natural and social world cannot and should not always be viewed in isolation from one another. The two worlds shape each other; so sometimes we must explore the links between the two.

Some of the differences between natural and social sciences can be understood in terms of their objectives and methods. Natural science believes that there is one truth ‘out there’, and that by objective use of the scientific method, one can arrive at that truth. Social sciences use a different set of scientific methods than natural science to understand why society is the way it is. It seeks to understand why people do what they do. Methodology between social and natural science must differ, due to the differing nature of their subjects. While in the natural sciences researchers can control variables, in the social sciences variables are constantly shifting. In social research the researcher has to adapt to changes in data. This is what a phenomenological or hermeneutic approach makes room for. Another challenge for social science research is that different people attach different meanings to things. This plurality of interpretation makes the search for Truth difficult.

A similar dichotomy was posited between the world of ‘man’ and ‘god’. The post renaissance paradigm shift saw ‘rational man’ claim centre stage while God and religion moved out to the periphery. At present, De Silva argues that modernity (and scientific knowledge) has failed to address war and poverty, and so god and religion have moved into the centre again.

As social science researchers, we must be wary of arguments that attempt to remove the distinction between the social and natural world. An example of the collapse of the social and natural world is the 'culture of poverty' argument, and eugenics movements where poverty is considered a fault of one's own. Social constraints on advancement are blamed on something natural and internal to the poor. Poor people are called lazy and unintelligent, possessing no agency. This kind of thinking was demonstrated in previous development plans for Colombo, which included mass involuntary relocation of poor families. Development planners and policy makers denied the agency of people living in undeserved settlements, and viewed them as having no imagination to decide where and how they want to live. Therefore, people's participation in the resettlement process was denied. They were not consulted or offered options, simply expected to blindly follow the wishes of bureaucratic planners.

As researchers and thinkers, therefore, we must be careful not to conflate the natural and social worlds. When we are presented with arguments that impute a social situation to internal or natural characteristics, we must question whom this argument serves. It is far easier to place the blame for social problems on nature than the society that creates them. The truth, as always, is far more complex. As researchers, our duty is to honour, not reduce, that complexity.

Lecture Conducted by Professor Premakumar de Silva


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