Creating a Dialectical Social Science: Concepts, Methods, and Models

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  1. Table of contents
  2. Content Metrics
  3. Quantum physics, dialectics and society: from Marx and Engels to Khrennikov and Haven
  4. The Scientific Method and the Dialectical Method

This is the result of a formally logical position that will do anything to avoid contradiction in nature — the rejection of the results of real experiments in favour of a theoretical hypothesis that, despite numerous attempts, does not seem to be backed up by hard evidence. In opposition to these formally logical theorists a number of other quantum physicists have been busy proving that it is only through contradiction that the discoveries of quantum physics can be explained.

An experiment carried out by physicist Shahriar Afshar suggests that we are able to measure light as a wave and a particle at the same time. Furthermore, the development of quantum computers is based upon matter being held in more than one state at the same time. The nature of and explanation for this effect are still not fully known. Without accepting that constant change, movement and contradiction is at the heart of all things, and that these things are interconnected, we cannot explain the workings of quantum computers or the phenomenon of entanglement.

The discoveries of quantum physics can only be explained using the logic of dialectics. Quantum theory is normally used to explain the movement of particles at the sub-atomic level and the authors do not seek to map these theories onto complex social systems in a mechanical way. Instead they take the logic underpinning quantum physics and apply it to society.

One area they particularly highlight is decision-making, a field particularly relevant to modern economics. Many economic theories rely on the assumption that humans are rational and will make rational, self-interested decisions. This is known as the basic law of total probability — a model to calculate the probability of a particular outcome.

Yet this basic law is regularly violated by real life experiences.

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Modern economics too frequently ignores the interconnectedness of factors such as superstition, tradition, sentiment and other things that, in addition to rational thinking, make up decision-making processes. Khrennikov and Haven point out that the wave-particle duality of matter also violates the basic law of total probability. The contradictory nature of matter in motion means that it is impossible for quantum scientists to pin down the exact location of a particle at any one moment in time.

Applying the law of total probability does not accurately describe the location of particles. All that physicists can do is give an estimate of the probability that a particle will be in any one place at a given time. What Khrennikov and Haven show is that this interference term, when applied to economics, also explains the seemingly illogical probability values for economic decision-making. What they show is that the same mathematical tools that are required to explain the contradictory processes taking place at a sub-atomic level are also required to explain the contradictory processes in society.

In other words, the dialectical understanding of quantum particles also applies to economics. They also explain how quantum thinking can give us a deeper understanding of a plethora of scientific and social institutions, from neuroscience to voting patterns. They argue that the strength of a quantum-like approach to social science is that it can take into account the complex blend of physical, social, environmental, financial and other factors that influence society to a much greater extent than classical models have been able to do.

For they are nothing but the most general laws of these two aspects of historical development, as well as of thought itself. In other words Engels is saying that dialectical logic can be used to explain both nature and human society — exactly the same claim as is being made by Khrennikov and Haven.

On this basis he is able to make a number of suggestions for future avenues of scientific study and even attempts some predictions of what scientists will find. This view of the development of humans is a dialectical one that views evolution and change as the product of a complex interaction between different parts of the body, and of the interaction between humans and the environment. This was not a mainstream idea at the time it was put forward by Engels because it did not conform to a clear mechanical formula for evolution.

However, as modern anthropologists gather more and more evidence of pre-historic humans, they are finding that their discoveries cannot be explained by a basic model that sees the brain develop first and as a result of that humans produced tools and developed society. In fact the process of development seems to have been much more complex than that and requires an explanation based on change, contradiction and interconnectedness, just as Engels predicted.

He says:. The abstract requirements of a mathematician are, however, very far from being a compulsory law for the world of reality. The numbers themselves are not the concrete reality; it is the real processes that they represent which concern us. In short, to take our understanding of science and our capacity for technological development further, we must apply the logic of dialectics. Whether there are genuine law-like causal regularities that govern social phenomena is not at all clear.

In any event, no laws governing the social world have been discovered that meet the demanding criteria of natural science. To be sure, social scientists have identified many social regularities, some of which they have even dubbed social laws.

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Examples from the discipline of economics would include the laws of supply and demand. But upon closer inspection, these laws fail to meet the criteria for genuine law-like regularities. Sometimes, particularly in economics which boasts more purported laws than the other social sciences , the laws merely describe logical relationships between concepts. These laws may be true by definition, but because they do not describe the empirical world, they are not scientific laws. On the other hand, social laws that claim to describe empirical regularities invariably turn out to be imprecise, exception ridden and time-bound or place-bound rather than precise and universal.

Consider the law of demand from economics, which holds that consumer demand for a good will decrease if prices go up and increase if prices go down.

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Though this pattern typically occurs, it is not without exception. Sometimes increasing the price of a good also increases demand for it. This may happen when consumers interpret a higher price as signaling higher quality or because purchasing an expensive good provides an opportunity for conspicuous consumption — wasteful expenditure as a display of status.

Moreover, the law of demand is a weak law; it merely specifies an inverse relationship between price and demand. Unlike the more precise laws of natural science, it does not specify the magnitude of the expected change. In many cases proposed social laws are grounded in simplified and therefore false assumptions about human nature. For instance, the laws of economics are typically grounded in the assumptions of rational choice theory. This theory posits that individuals always act rationally and instrumentally, weighing potential costs and benefits as they aim to maximize their own utility.

But though individuals may typically act rational in this sense, especially in the economic sphere, it is nonetheless the case that they do not always do so. Psychologists, for instance, have documented numerous ways in which individuals frequently fail to act rationally, owing to predictable kinds of flawed reasoning or perceptual errors.

Moreover, it is evident that much behavior, even within the sphere of economics, is not instrumental but rather is guided by social norms, habit or tradition. Thus the laws of economics grounded in the assumption of instrumental rationality are in fact false. Outside of economics, the laws of social science are fewer and generally even more dubious.

Many simple-majority, single-ballot systems do in fact exhibit more than two political parties.

Quantum physics, dialectics and society: from Marx and Engels to Khrennikov and Haven

At best, such purported laws could be described as tendencies or typical patterns rather than genuine law-like regularities. The reason for the absence of genuine laws in the social sciences is a source of debate. Some argue that the failure to uncover social laws stems from the complexity of human behavior and the social world. Human behavior is the product of manifold factors, including biological, psychological and perhaps sociological forces, each of which are themselves quite complex.

Moreover, the social systems in which human behavior are embedded are themselves highly intricate. Untangling the myriad interactions between multiple individuals in, for example, an economic system is a daunting task. Perhaps it simply lies beyond human cognitive powers to detect law-like patterns in such a milieu.

Or perhaps no law-like regularities even obtain at the social level, even if laws obtain at the level of individuals. Natural scientists often enjoy the ability to manipulate variables in a controlled laboratory setting. This helps them identify causal factors with respect to phenomena that they are trying to explain.

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For practical or ethical reasons, this is often not possible in the social sciences. In many cases the best a social scientist can hope for is to uncover so-called natural experiments, in which a suspected causal factor is present in one naturally occurring setting but absent in another. For instance, suppose social scientists wish to test the hypothesis that television viewing causes violence.

Sociology Research Methods: Crash Course Sociology #4

They would benefit from a natural experiment if they could find two demographically similar communities, one of which has just recently received access to television and another that remains without it. They could then track violence rates over time in the two communities to determine if exposure to television does in fact lead to more violence. The difficulty is that social scientists must wait for natural experiments to come to them and, in any event, such experiments seldom offer the opportunity to control for all the potentially relevant variables. Some observers have pointed to the relative youth of social science to explain the failure to uncover law-like regularities of the social world.

According to this view, the social sciences are still awaiting their Galileo or Newton to provide an explanatory framework that will allow them to begin uncovering such laws.

The Scientific Method and the Dialectical Method

However, critics of this view may note that rigorous, systematic attempts to explain social behavior arguably date back all the way to the ancient Greeks. And attempts to produce empirically grounded social inquiry intentionally modeled on natural science are almost as old as the scientific revolution itself. At many points in the history of social science, eminent figures have emerged who seemed to offer the promise of putting social investigation on a proper scientific footing.

But, in the end, a consensus on method and the hoped-for scientific progress have failed to materialize. The explanations discussed above for why social scientists have yet to identify genuine law-like regularities cite the practical difficulties of uncovering such laws in the social realm.