Madness in the Method: A Critique of the Positivist Project

If you type in the phrase “what is science?” into Google, this is the top result:   Add one more word to that query, and […]

If you type in the phrase “what is science?” into Google, this is the top result:


Add one more word to that query, and the result changes, albeit only slightly:

Over the course of the past five months, I, along with some twenty of my fellow Internet researchers at the Oxford Internet Institute, have been grappling with the question of the difference between the two. The notion that we are systematically and structurally studying social relationships intellectually, practically, and—above all—scientifically is a given, not a point of contention. Enrolled in a program with “Social Science” in the title, we are constantly reminded that our academic field is indeed a science. Moreover, we are often confronted with the possibility of reconciling the two disciplines and incorporating more “scientifically rigorous” and “systematic” strategies into our research methodology.

On the surface, this fixation on method rather than content itself seems self-indulgent. Admittedly, the amount of time we spend on shaping our methodology does appear fanciful and could be, for example, better spent procrastinating working on an Internet politics essay by watching reappropriated versions of the Nyan Cat meme on YouTube (although given our departmental focus, one could arguably attribute this to work).

But our necessary and reflexive evaluation of our own discipline highlights another crucial, persisting, and painful aspect of our “science.” In particular, the defensiveness with which we, as social scientists, charge bullishly out into the academic arena seems odd to me. Very rarely are physicists asked whether their field matters to the universe (I assume that the $13 billion spent on finding the Higgs Boson provides enough legitimacy to last a while). Disregarding practical parents concerned about the state of the economy, no one questions philosophers, especially those at an institution like Oxford, on the intellectual value of their discipline. (Famed sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s theories on social capital and habitus, for example, have been linked closely to his desire to move away from the intellectual animosity of philosophy. His biographers suggest that Bourdieu transitioned to sociology due to the rigorous, taxing, and culturally challenging environment he faced while studying philosophy and Sartrian existentialism, the “reigning doctrine,” at École Normale Supérieure).

Pierre Bourdieu. Source: Le Magazine de l’Homme Moderne.

Lest this post itself appear solely a defense mechanism, I want to firmly argue that social “science” isn’t a slave to the scientific method, despite its nomenclature. Rather, the terminology itself is more of a historical relic than anything else. One of the first instances of the term “social science” appeared in William Thompson’s An Inquiry into the Principles of the Distribution of Wealth Most Conducive to Human Happiness; Applied to the Newly Proposed System of Voluntary Equality of Wealth, first published in 1824. Beyond not being a big fan of brevity, Thompson is also credited with coining “social science” and originating the usage of “science” as applied to the examination of social phenomena and relationships  through an analytical, critical lens. He called the field “the science of morals” and stated that social researchers, by definition, “have not confined themselves to their own peculiar province, but have adventured, without appropriate knowledge, on the direct application of their isolated speculations to social science.” Empiricism is neither complimented nor condemned. Rather, according to Thompson’s perspective, the “moral” science in the academic university extended beyond the basic hypothesis-experiment model, and other modes of knowledge production could reasonably prevail despite what “science” prescribed.

You wouldn’t know that from the way social science scholars talk about their own field today. Reading literature on the validity of social research methods, I can almost hear the scoffs escape from the mouths of sociologists, political theorists, and anthropologists themselves. In Danish geographer Bent Flyvbjerg’s work on the most common misunderstandings of the case study as published in Qualitative Inquiry, he compares ignorance about qualitative methods’ utility with Galileo’s game-changing discovery that refuted Aristotle’s law of gravity. In doing so, Flyvbjerg draws a parallel between both cases’ lack of “big data,” gesturing wildly to us, “Look! If Galileo doesn’t need huge Excel files of tabulated evidence—well, we don’t either!” Unsurprisingly, a subsequent article Flyvbjerg published was titled, “Making Social Science Matter.” A clear hierarchy has been established. Qualitative research approaches rescind timidly in quantitative methodology’s domineering shadow. Data over discourse. System over social. Metrics over meaning.

Galileo, circa 1630. Source: The Telegraph UK.

Another example of such self-consciousness lies in Charles Ragin’s Fuzzy-Set Social Science, of which the name speaks for itself. Although Ragin actually argues in favor of qualitative methods in order to buck conventional forms of quantitative investigation, his first few sentences makes it clear that he enters intellectual battle with more armor than the other guy. “Social scientists generally stay away from anything labeled ‘fuzzy’ because their work is so often described this way by others,” Ragin writes. “My initial title for this book, Fuzzy Social Science, made so many of my colleagues cringe that I felt compelled to change it so that the adjective ‘fuzzy’ applied to sets, not to social science.” Here’s what the clamor reduces down to—We’re a SCIENCE, dammit! The foundation of a field cannot be shaken more fundamentally and destructively than by its own erectors. Thompson, according to his claims, seemed to view the social sciences as a wholly interdisciplinary field, not gravitating toward any rigid framework of methodology. Two hundred years later, however, this methodological flexibility has evolved into a desperate, self-pitying cry for help.

The way social scientists doubt the validity of their own work subsequently makes others question the fluidity and the value of multidisciplinary work. That very insistence on empiricism and positivism as the only justifiable paths toward meaning-making lies at the root of the intellectual insecurity of many social scientists.

But this wavering sense of intellectual confidence seems wholly debilitating, unattractive, and, ultimately, futile. I suggested earlier that it was self-indulgent for academics in the social sciences to dwell too much on their own methods. To wallow in disciplinary confusion and intellectual self-loathing is just plain unproductive. Nevertheless, the persistent arrogance that often accompanies assertions of the scientific method, simply due to its reproducible precision and testability, undermines the positivist project. Interpretive and other discursive approaches to research—although less reproducible than, say, an elementarized experiment—produce knowledge that is meaningful, despite its “fuzziness.”

I recognize the absurd irony in this piece. The fact that I have spent 1,000 words or so defending the methodology of my discipline and its value perhaps testifies to my own latent self-consciousness about its relevancy in the Academy. Perhaps, social science isn’t as methodologically rigorous and consistent as other sciences. Maybe it is, ultimately, a mutt in a show full of intellectual purebreds. Though, for a change of pace at this point, I should come clean about something I am confident in—having Bourdieu’s postmortem sympathy.

About Qichen Zhang

Qichen is a master's candidate at the Oxford Internet Institute, a Balliol College member, and the current Online Editor for Bang! Blogs. She thinks "Impact" font and cat memes have singlehandedly changed the historical canon of western culture. Read more at