The philosophy of social science can be described broadly as having two aims. First, it seeks to produce a rational reconstruction of social science. This entails describing the philosophical assumptions that underpin the practice of social inquiry, just as the philosophy of natural science seeks to lay bare the methodological and ontological assumptions that guide scientific investigation of natural phenomena. Second, the philosophy of social science seeks to critique the social sciences with the aim of enhancing their ability to explain the social world or otherwise improve our understanding of it. Thus philosophy of social science is both descriptive and prescriptive. As such, it concerns a number of interrelated questions. These include: What is the method (or methods) of social science? Does social science use the same methods as natural science? If not, should it aspire to? Or are the methods appropriate to social inquiry fundamentally different from those of natural science? Is scientific investigation of the social world even possible – or desirable? What type of knowledge does social inquiry produce? Can the social sciences be objective and value neutral? Should they strive to be? Does the social world represent a unique realm of inquiry with its own properties and laws? Or can the regularities and other properties of the social world be reduced to facts about individuals?
The following article will survey how philosophers of social science have addressed and debated these questions. It will begin by examining the question of whether social inquiry can – or should – have the same aims and use the same methods as the natural sciences. This is perhaps the most central and enduring issue in the philosophy of social science. Addressing it inevitably leads to discussion of other key controversies in the field, such as the nature of explanation of social phenomena and the possibility of value-free social science. Following examination of the views of proponents and critics of social inquiry modeled on the natural sciences will be a discussion of the debate between methodological individualists and methodological holists. This issue concerns whether social phenomena can be reduced to facts about individuals. The penultimate section of the article asks the question: How does social science as currently practiced enhance our understanding of the social world? Even if social science falls short of the goals of natural science, such as uncovering lawlike regularities and predicting phenomena, it nonetheless may still produce valuable knowledge. The article closes with a brief discussion of methodological pluralism. No single approach to social inquiry seems capable of capturing all aspects of social reality. But a kind of unification of the social sciences can be posited by envisioning the various methods as participating in an on-going dialogue with each other. . . .
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