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Scholar on probability of social scientific explanation

Author  :  WU NAN     Source  :    Chinese Social Sciences Today     2021-03-30

 

Yin Jie, a professor from the Research Center for Philosophy of Science and Technology at Shanxi University. Photo:SHANXI UNIVERSITY

What is a scientific explanation? Once philosophers of science swapped ideas about the significance of this question, the field of philosophy began to scrutinize explanations within the social sciences. The ideas and approaches which evolved in the natural sciences have been applied to many social science areas, nurturing relevant research. Through the prism of epistemology, however, natural science undeniably compresses the space of social science. Regarding social scientific explanation, CSST interviewed Yin Jie, a professor from the Research Center for Philosophy of Science and Technology at Shanxi University, to talk about its features, probability, and research developments.

CSST: How should we understand social scientific explanation? 

Yin Jie: A social science explanation is a philosophical issue in social science, displaying both historical and cutting-edge features. Its historicity is mainly manifested in the fact that many disciplines in the social sciences have a long sweep of history. These disciplines produced social scientific explanation when they were born, and social scientific explanation thereby appeared earlier than scientific explanation in the natural sciences. However, scientific explanation took shape before social scientific explanation became a philosophical issue.

When we say that social scientific explanations are a frontier issue, we mean that the scientific explanation has remained at the core of the philosophy of science, and most of this discussion regards natural science. As social science proceeds, especially due to social science’s gradual formation of a relatively unified scope, social scientific explanations are no longer a philosophical issue of individual disciplines in the field. Instead, they touch upon the entire scope of social science. In my opinion, social scientific explanations are one of the important research directions in the social sciences. They can cast a remarkable influence on the philosophy of science as well as social science research. 

CSST: Compared with a scientific explanation, what’s your take on the particularity of social scientific explanation?

Yin Jie: The particularity of social scientific explanation mainly comes from legitimacy, in other words, the source of their explanatory power. This is presented in several aspects. 

First, most cases of social scientific explanation cannot make precise predictions like in natural sciences. Second, social scientific explanations fall into a wide range of categories and become difficult to integrate. Third, social scientific explanation will inevitably encounter the problem of reflexivity. Social science explains phenomena that involve humans, and the social scientists, who explain phenomena, are also social members. In this way, people will doubt whether social scientists can provide objective explanations beyond their social context. The fourth aspect points to the research complexity of social scientific explanation. Natural scientists work on the natural world, while social scientists deal with a social world filled with people. Humans face complex factors such as emotions, consciousness, purpose, motivation, and values. Social scientific explanation concerns people’s relationships with the world, other people, and society, while scientific explanation only involves relationships between man and nature. Therefore, social scientific explanations outperform natural scientific explanations in terms of complexity and difficulty.

CSST: You have introduced the dimension of “discourse context” to research methods of social scientific explanation. You no longer take the subject as the core clue, but instead turn to contextualism, specifically discourse context, which is separate from subjectivity, as the foundation, yielding a new theoretical framework for studying social scientific explanation. What inspired this? 

Yin Jie: We have built this model for two reasons. First, we expect to shake off reliance on scientific explanations and construct legitimacy that allows us to present social scientific explanation under a framework which has no links to scientific explanations. Second, the social science explanation model under this framework should complement scientific explanations, rather than oppose or even deny them.

We found that a majority of existing social scientific explanation models stemmed from natural sciences. They, to some extent, promise the so-called homeostasis of the world, or, the constancy of the natural world. These models cannot be directly applied to analyze the changing social world. Therefore, we hold that these explanatory models fail to display social scientific explanation’s distinct nature as well as source of explanatory power in a philosophical sense. Therefore, we switched attention to epistemology and have begun investigating social scientific explanation by going back to the relationship between man and the world. 

CSST: What conclusions have you gained from studying the discourse context model of social scientific explanation?

Yin Jie: In this study, discourse context remedies flaws in the language dimension of social scientific explanation. Meanwhile, we advance the traditional contextual relationship between words and sentences to the level of relationships between discourse and discourse context. 

Under this model, experience is transformed into concepts and obtains normativity with practical significance. This is the nature of normativity. Discourse context is more than a field where knowledge is generated, but also a major form for displaying knowledge. Methodologically, the discourse context model does not lead to methodological individualism. Instead, it manifests the methodological fusion of individualism and holism, presenting the tension of human actions which move between freedom and determinism.

Most importantly, the model makes clear the fundamental relationship between social scientific explanations and scientific explanations. In the past, we always approached social scientific explanation from the perspective of scientific explanations. The consequence of doing so, is that people can only preserve social sciences’ uniqueness and legitimacy through interpretation and understanding. The discourse context model demonstrates that both social scientific explanations and scientific explanations are the processes of using theoretical models to explain phenomena, and both represent interactions with the external world. They don’t have a fundamental disparity, in terms of the nature of explanation. 

As an explanation model compatible with scientific explanation, the discourse context model sufficiently demonstrates that social scientific explanation is also a true form of scientific explanation. Both of them serve as scientific ways to understand the world. Social scientific explanations integrate scientific norms with social norms, which not only explains social phenomena, but also shows social science’s explanatory power as it bestows reasonable action norms to the social world, or people in the social world. In this way, we provide an epistemological solution to the core problem, what makes social scientific explanation possible? This is accomplished while pointing at an approach to inter-subjective epistemology featuring discourse context.

CSST: Based on this conclusion, what can we understand regarding methodologies in humanities and the social sciences? 

Yin Jie: Research on humanities and social sciences should serve to solve scientific problems. It should make good use of emerging technologies, and adopt diverse and interdisciplinary research methods to further enhance professionalism.

First, the primary goal of humanities and social science research is to raise and address scientific problems. This principle also applies to natural sciences. Humanities and social sciences must encapsulate humanistic care, which will become real only when humanities and social sciences can truly find cures for problems. 

Second, research in the humanities and social sciences should advocate for diverse and interdisciplinary research methods while observing scientific issues from a more philosophical dimension. In recent years, natural science methodology’s intervention in social science research has achieved many results and certainly impacted social science research. From a philosophical perspective, these new conflicts precisely reflect our new understanding of the world, rather than deny the existing understanding. Humanities and social science research need to actively adapt to new changes before making more progress. Meanwhile, the development course of social sciences teaches us that good and original humanities and social science research must contain philosophical views brimming with significant value. We must look at specific scientific matters from philosophical perspectives, allowing philosophy to promote social science research, especially interdisciplinary research.

Third, we must recognize the humanities and social sciences’ opportunities and challenges brought by innovations in science and technology. In terms of opportunities, these new technologies have supplied humanities and social sciences with new and powerful research tools, enabling them to obtain information that was out of reach in the past. Challenges are represented by the new technologies’ impacts on the original social science theories and methods, as well as new problems which concern social theory and practice. 

Facing these opportunities and challenges, I advocate for two-fold efforts. First, the proactive and proper use of new technologies can improve the accuracy of research in the humanities and social sciences. Being proactive requires us to adopt new technologies in research—and correctly understand the new technologies—in case technology should replace the research itself. Second, some disciplines should focus on formalization and modeling. As far as I am concerned, formalization and modeling are important manifestations of scientization of disciplines. We are not saying that all humanities and social sciences should be formalized and modeled. We mean that they shouldn’t exclude moving in this direction.

The fourth aspect concerns the dissemination of social sciences. Few people understand these difficult theories, but natural scientists have been working on popularizing natural sciences, and these efforts have won wide public recognition. On the contrary, many people have prejudices and even misunderstandings about social science research. A major reason for this is that people’s understanding of social science is inadequate, which largely relates to social science dissemination itself. 

Targeting social sciences, we can fully demonstrate its rigor and professionalism while helping people realize that it is rigorous scientific research just like the natural sciences. Such effort will be of great benefit to people’s understanding and support of the humanities and social sciences.

 

 

 

 

Editor: Yu Hui

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