That is, it tends to foster the illusion that malleable or socially constructed aspects of society are natural, permanent or otherwise incapable of being altered. Social scientists tend to take the institutions and social structure of society as well as its values, beliefs, customs and habits are taken as a given. In doing so they establish the parameters within which public policy must operate. According to critical theorists, this produces a bias towards the status quo, and also tends to reinforce the power of dominant groups or forces in society.
For example, orthodox economists tend to depict certain features of capitalist economies, such as inequality and unemployment, as the enduring and inevitable if unwelcome results of the laws of market system. Attempts to eliminate these features will be ultimately ineffective or produce unacceptably high tradeoffs, in the form of, for example, high inflation and sluggish growth.
Nothing can be done about this unhappy situation, economists may say; it results from the fundamental and inalterable dynamics of economic systems.
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But critical theorists charge that the purported laws of economics are in fact the product of certain institutional arrangements, beliefs and values that can be altered. Other kinds of economic systems are in fact possible. Relying on the often questionable expertise of the economist turns public policy into merely a technical matter.
The reality is that economic policy is also political policy. The institutions and values that underpin an economy reflect political choices. However, social science modeled on the natural sciences tends to blind the public — as well as social scientists themselves — to this reality. In addition to helping reify social structures, critical theorists argue that the knowledge produced by social science too easily becomes a tool with which to manipulate people rather than to enlighten or emancipate them.
Consider, for instance, some of the ways that governments and private industry use findings from psychology and sociology. Politicians and interest groups hire psychologists to find the best way to sell their policy initiatives to the public, rather than attempting to enhance public understanding of complex policy issues.
Political parties and private corporations use focus groups to discover which words or images have the biggest impact on the public and adjust their rhetoric and advertising accordingly. Political consultants in the United States, for example, in recent years have advised opponents of the estate tax to dub it a death tax, which focus group research shows reduces support for it.
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Critical theorists claim that in this way social science fosters a society governed by technocratic control and is thus ultimately corrosive to genuine democracy. Plainly critical theory has much in common with the hermeneutical approach described above. Critical theorists and proponents of a hermeneutical social inquiry both agree that social science is an inherently evaluative enterprise.
Also, critical theorists agree that social inquiry must be, at least in part, an interpretive activity. Social inquiry, they agree, must aim at enhancing understanding of our world rather than merely enhancing our powers of prediction and technical control. But the two approaches differ fundamentally in their ontological assumptions about the social world and the relationship between the social scientist and the objects of his or her study.
As noted above, the hermeneutical school holds that understanding is a dialogical and transformative process. Through what Hans-Georg Gadamer called a fusion of horizons, both the social inquirer and the target of inquiry create a kind of higher understanding that transcends the viewpoints of both parties. From this standpoint, objective knowledge is produced when the social scientist produces an accurate representation of the social world. This understanding of the relationship between the social investigator and the subjects of his study privileges the social scientist as the knowing expert.
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The truth — provided by the expert — enlightens the subjects of inquiry and, it is hoped, thereby sets them free. They trade in their distorted ideological understanding for the clear-eyed perspective provided by critical theory. But advocates of hermeneutical inquiry, as well as other critics of naturalism, may object that this approach may undermine the liberationist goals of critical theory.
Social inquiry should enlighten its subjects, but this is best attained through dialogue rather than a top-down imposition of expert analysis. Indeed, people may be inclined to reject the verdict of the critical theorists, opposing such knowledge as not reflective of their own self-understanding or experience. For this reason some proponents of hermeneutical inquiry support a participatory form of social science, in which social scientists and non-expert citizens work together in conducting research aimed at enlightening subjects and solving social problems. It is important to note, however, that critical theorists often insist that the ultimate test of a theory is whether its intended audience accepts it as valid.
Nonetheless, the privileged position of the critical theorist is perhaps still retained. For in practice he or she decides when the subjects of his inquiry are still in the grip of false consciousness and when they see their situation as it truly is — that is, when they see the world as critical theory depicts it.
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Rather, she would conclude that the distorting powers of patriarchal ideology are more pervasive and entrenched than she had thought. While postmodern is a rather loosely defined category, with the views of thinkers associated with it varying widely, some key tenets of the approach can be identified. Central among them is cultural and historical relativism. According to postmodernists, what counts as knowledge and truth is always relative to a particular culture or historical period. This holds not only for moral and aesthetic judgments, but also for the claims to truth made by natural and social science.
Thus science does not offer a method for arriving at universal, objective truths that transcend time and place. Rather, it represents one way of knowing that reflects certain values, beliefs and interests of modern, Western society. Moreover, for postmodernists there is no fixed, universal human nature. Instead, human nature our beliefs, values, desires, interests, and even our emotions is itself a product of a particular history or social configuration — or, as postmodernists sometimes say, human nature is socially constructed.
Hence a variant of postmodernism is known as social constructionism. They reject as deeply misguided attempts by social scientists to uncover patterns, structures or laws that purportedly transcend history and culture. For postmodernists, understanding of particular societies must be local and contextual. In this respect, postmodernists partly share the concern of critical theorists that social science tends to reify social patterns and structure.
Though distorting ideologies and power structures may obscure the truth, critical theorists maintain that ultimately an objective picture of society can be rendered. But, given their relativism, postmodernists tend to see these views as supporting subtle forms of Western imperialism.
In seeking to emancipate people, critical theorists risk imposing their own ethnocentric views of rationality, autonomy and justice onto non-Western societies or reinforcing them in Western ones.
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Thus for postmodernists, critical theory is grounded in many of the same faulty assumptions about objectivity, rationality and knowledge as mainstream social science. Perhaps the most influential postmodern critic of social science was the French social theorist Michel Foucault. Foucault not only challenged the value neutrality of social science, he also disputed the broader enlightenment view shared by most critical theorists as well as social science modeled on naturalism that modern reason and science provide the route to moral and epistemological progress.
Foucault contended that most if not all of the social kinds identified and used by social scientists are inventions.
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That is, they are the creations of social science as opposed to discoveries of natural kinds that reflect the real underlying, objective structure of social reality. Foucault trained much of his criticism on the fields of clinical psychology, criminology, and sociology, which in the nineteenth century began creating elaborate taxonomies of abnormal types of persons, for example, psychopaths, neurotics, kleptomaniacs, delinquents, and the like.
Many of these new kinds of persons were identified by reference to their sexual proclivities. For instance, before the emergence of clinical psychology as a discipline, the today commonplace view that homosexuals are a kind of person did not exist. Of course, people prior to the emergence of psychology recognized that some individuals are sexually attracted to people of the same sex. Foucault argued that in the process of creating such categories, social science at the same time created and disseminated a particular view of normality. In this way social science became a new and important kind of potentially oppressive power in the modern world.
According to Foucault, the state works hand in hand with other institutions of the modern world — prisons, schools, medical clinics, the military — to monitor and control people.
It accomplishes this, however, neither principally through brute force nor via a regiment of rewards and punishments. Rather, the state works in concert with social science to construct the very categories through which individuals understand themselves. In doing so it establishes the criteria by which normal and abnormal behavior is understood, and thereby regulates behavior — most importantly by getting people to regulate themselves.
In this way social science has in effect become a handmaiden to the forces of domination rather than a potential source of emancipation. Significantly, Foucault never claimed that this new type of control is intentional. It is merely an unwelcome artifact of social science. For Foucault what counts as truth or knowledge in a particular society is merely the product of a certain configuration of power relations. There is no truth or knowledge outside of such power regimes, he argued.
But, for Foucault, the alliance of the state and social science is merely the latest power regime in human history. It appears that for Foucault human beings, collectively or individually, cannot liberate themselves from the grip of such power regimes. They may trade one regime for another, but no genuine emancipation is possible.
The ideas of other influential postmodern and social constructionist critics of social inquiry such as Richard Rorty and Kenneth Gergen that entail relativism and deny the existence of a fixed human nature would seem to be vulnerable to such criticism, too. Postmodernists may charge that mainstream social science modeled on naturalism and critical theory alike both have the effect of imposing certain modernist notions of normality, rationality, and autonomy. But critics of postmodernism can retort that by undermining the very possibility of genuine emancipation postmodernism invites nihilism, quietism or apathy.
Another long-standing controversy in the philosophy of social science is the debate between methodological individualists and methodological holists. The former hold that social facts and phenomena are reducible without remainder to facts about individuals.
Nonetheless there is a tendency for advocates of naturalism to embrace methodological individualism. Still, holists are found in the naturalist camp, too, including Emile Durkheim and Auguste Comte, both of whom were key figures in founding the field of sociology. The individualism-holism debate can be somewhat confusing because the terms of debate often refer to different claims.