How do we acquire knowledge in the human sciences?

How do we acquire knowledge in the human sciences?


Naturalist and Interpretivist approaches

Actually, assuming that we can be objective – ie, make value-free judgements whereby both the subjects of an investigation and the investigators do not bring into the study their own personalities, beliefs and feelings – is something that not everyone agrees with. It is true that many scholars think that you can apply the methods of natural science to the study of social behaviour, and treat human subjects just as you do animals or objects in the natural world. They are known as ‘naturalists’. The other school of thought is made up by those who are known as ‘interpretivists’, and not only do they believe that value-free judgements in the human sciences are impossible to make, they are also undesirable. So not only do we have a difference in method, we have a difference in aim, which makes it very hard to find consensus in the human sciences.

Quantitative and qualitative data

The difference in method and aim is also reflected in the kind of information both these schools of thought focus on when they are researching a particular issue. Those who believe in a naturalist approach to human sciences usually prefer to base their findings on quantitative data, whereas interpretivists pay more attention to qualitative findings.
Quantitative data is gathered by such activities as surveys, questionnaires, study of statistics, and other generally mathematically-measurable values. The strength of this data is that it provides ‘hard’ knowledge about a thing, and cannot easily be refuted. The number of unemployed people in a country, for example, is fact that is difficult to contradict, although the difficulty may arise in language – and what we consider unemployed (is it those out of work, those who claim jobless welfare benefit, those who choose not to work, or one or more of these categories).
Qualitative data seeks to gather more personal information, and provides evidence that is often descriptive rather than numerically-based and instantly measurable. Examples include case studies of people and places, anthropological accounts, and witness testimonies. If the number of unemployed is a quantitative piece of evidence, the opinions of the unemployed would be a qualitative piece of evidence.

Durkheim and Weber

Two famous figures (arguably the most famous figures) in human sciences who personified these different approaches were Emile Durkheim (1858-1917) and Max Weber (1864-1920).
Durkheim typified the naturalist approach to human science, and sought to understand questions using purely objective evidence. There is no doubt that he was at least partly successful in doing this, as his ‘scientific’ approach resulted in sociology gaining a great deal of respectability during his lifetime (he is sometimes referred to as the founding fathers of the subject).
In his book called Rules on the Sociological Method, he outlined the method that sociologists should take. He said that observation should be as impartial and impersonal as possible, and should base social facts (a term he invented) on other proven social facts – so rely on coherence rather than correspondence. These social facts existed, according to Durkheim, independently of the individuals of society – in other words, they weren’t caused by individuals, but by society as a whole.
Social facts are more powerful than individual actions and decisions, and therefore control people living in a society – which is why we can study them objectively (they are not subject to the whims and personalities of individual human beings).
To put this in context, we can look at Durkheim’s study of suicide. We would probably understand suicide on an individual level. A person is desperately unhappy, or not in full conscious control of their mind, and so they kill themselves. But for Durkheim, suicide was a social phenomenon, and existed independently of the lives of individuals. In other words, even after a person has killed themselves, suicide still exists within society. This is an objective social fact. To investigate suicide, Durkheim examined the death certificates of the victims, focusing on:

  1. When the suicide occurred (ie day of the week, month, season, etc.)
  2. The age of the victim
  3. Their gender
  4. Their marital status
  5. The number of children they had
  6. Their religious affiliations
  7. The place where the suicide happened
  8. The type of work done by the victim

He did not interview anyone involved to find out how the suicide victims felt before they took their own lives, and he didn’t enquire into the reason for the suicide. He kept his research purely quantitative and objective. One of his findings – which hadn’t been properly understood before – was that the experience of moving from a rural to an urban environment can have a radical effect on people’s minds. The sense of leaving a tightly integrated community for a more anonymous one leads to a feeling of anomie, which in turn causes confusion and psychological despair. The result is often suicide.
Weber had different ideas. He believed that to understand society, one had to study its individual members. And to do this properly for Weber, one had to relate to those individual members, and judge their actions from their point of view. In other words, far from advocating that you could remain objective and distant, and observe social phenomena from a removed position (as Durkheim believed), Weber said that you had to develop an empathy with the people you were studying, and understand the meaning that they themselves placed on their actions. This concept of subjective study is called Verstehen.
Weber’s most famous study was presented in an essay called The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. In it, he argued that the most successful economies of the world at that time (ie the C19th) were a result of the rise of Protestantism. In particular, he pointed out the way that hard work was encouraged by Protestant sect such as the Calvinists, as well as economic gain and ‘worldly activities’ (in contrast to Catholicism, which had always had a problem reconciling making money with being a true Christian).
Although Weber didn’t say that Protestantism was the cause of Capitalism, he did say that it had providing its breeding ground. You weren’t, in other words, a good Protestant, if you didn’t work hard and earn plenty of money. The two things worked in perfect unity – they had, as Weber put it, an elective affinity.

Inside and Outside methods

So Durkheim and Weber had very different approaches to their study of human activities. Durkheim said that the whole structure determined how individuals behave (a top-down approach – or holism), and Weber said that it was the individuals that dictated the form that the whole structure took (a bottom-up approach – or methodological individualism). Durkheim preferred to analyse overall facts and figures to arrive at his conclusions, whereas Weber felt you missed the point unless you actually looked at the belief system and set of feelings of the people involved.
Another way of putting it is to say that Durkheim advocated an outside method, that is, remaining removed and assessing everything from what he believed was an objective position. Weber thought that you had to get inside – and integrate yourself to some extent with the society that you were investigating.

Cite this page as: Dunn, Michael. How do we acquire knowledge in the human sciences? (10th May 2013). Last accessed: 19th March 2018


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