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Social Sciences and ‘Sciences’

Once upon a time, there was no such a term called “science”. There was merely philosophy. All sciences emerged from it. It can be said that philosophy is the mother of all sciences. However, is it true?

If an “apple” didn’t drop to Isaac Newton’s head, could the term science exist? However, is it true, too?

As a matter of fact, the thing that we called “science” (and philosophy) was inside theology until the seventeenth century and the Enlightenment era in the eighteenth century. Furthermore, prominent scientists and philosophers who adopted modern scientific views at that time were generally theologians or catechumens. For example, Nicolaus Copernicus was a priest and bishop advisor, Baruch Spinoza, Thomas More, René Descartes and Immanuel Kant were strict catechumens in their youth. More surprisingly, Isaac Newton was also a theologian at the same time.

Despite the fact that these prominent scientists had their religious past, they successfully separated religious and “scientific” thoughts in their works. Therefore, progression of scientific thought paved the way for new inventions, and also the Industrial Revolution.

After this stage, the term “science” was understood as “natural sciences” which contained chemistry, biology, physics etc. Philosophy and history was outside of this “new” classification, but there was a need to define the new social classes, which emerged during the Industrial Revolution. Neither philosophy nor classical history could define the working-class masses and capitalist relations.

“Social sciences” was born in these conditions imitating “sciences” in fact, “natural sciences”. Also, prominent figures of “social sciences” such as Claude Henri Saint-Simon, Alexis de Tocqueville and Auguste Comte defined it close to “natural sciences”.

According to George Ritzer who is the author of “Sociological Theory”, the French Revolution in 1789 and following a long range of political revolutions that proceeded along the nineteenth century was the most important factor in the rise of social theories. When considered from the point of view of the Industrial Revolution, inventions, and innovations, it can be said that these political revolutions made a positive impact on the societies and many positive changes occurred. But many early social theorists especially the fathers of “social sciences” were against these consequences of revolutions, and they insistently pointed out its negative effects.

It can be said that their religious past and viewpoints were affected by remarking this negative side of social changes. Thus, for example, Comte transformed early social theory into a “religion”. Afterwards, this viewpoint emerged in Durkheimian sociology as “morality” which played a key role.

Indeed, fathers of social theory, especially Comte, had winced from the social revolution series in France and also Europe. By the Industrial Revolution, the industrial system and capitalism had emerged, and the French Revolution accelerated it. Naturally, the working class was born in industrial areas and started to oppose capitalism and its wild industrial system. Terrible system of exploitation in the beginning of capitalism and upheaval against it mostly affected and alarmed early social theorists.

At the same time, socialist thought developed, and their theory and practice of class struggle was spreading. Karl Marx was the most prominent socialist figure and supported the extinguishing of the capitalist system replacing it with a socialist system.

On the contrary, Comte and his followers such as Max Weber and Emile Durkheim were opposed to socialism. These social theorists tried to solve social problems within capitalist theory and practice. In this respect, it can be said that social or sociological theory developed as a reaction against Marxist thought and generally socialist theory.

Nevertheless, Karl Marx is assumed among four major figures in the early history of sociological theory with Max Weber, Emile Durkheim, and Georg Simmel.

While technological innovations and new products by helping scientific developments spread to every area of life, science had won great prestige, those under favor of the most successful sciences such as physics, biology, and chemistry, and reclaimed in society.

Also, according to Ritzer, Auguste Comte and following prominent sociologists such as Emile Durkheim, Herbert Spencer, Alfred Schutz, Georg Herbert Mead, wanted to model sociology like “the successful physical and biological sciences” despite Max Weber opposed them.

But George Ritzer adds this: “The issue of the relationship between sociology and science is debated to this day but indicates the predominance of those who favor sociology as a science.”

In this context, we should determine what is social sciences and sociology. In a broad sense, social sciences contain sociology, economics, psychology, political science and cultural (or social) anthropology. But sociology has taken on such a meaning that it has been used almost as a substitute for social sciences, today.

The issue whether social sciences and also sociology is a “science” or like a science is controversial as Ritzer emphasizes. According to Martin Hollis who is the author of “The Philosophy of Social Science”, “the social rules can not be explained in a mechanical way”. Hollis tries to find the origin of this debate by comparing the works of Karl Marx and John Stuart Mill and states that the fact of the matter is that “determinism”, which is the essence of natural sciences, is forced to be adapted to social sciences.

I will try to deal with this issue in more detail in another article in the future.

Article and cartoon illustration by Levent Elpen


1- Hollis, Martin. (2011). The Philosophy of Social Science. Cambridge University Press.

2- Ritzer, George. (2008). Sociological Theory. McGraw Hill.


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