Review: Social Science in Question, Mark J. Smith, 1998 *
Well-written in a didactic style, added by a mini-compact glossary of key words and equipped with guidance diagrams, Social Science in Question presents the history of social (and natural) science and debates that have been occurring since the Enlightenment era in the Western society.
Smith, the author, begins by outlining the challenges posed to those who want to study social science. Studying social science means that we study the world, the social processes and the interactions in which we are part of them. Therefore, we have to face the challenges of terminology, method and change (Chapter 1). He then continues by stressing that knowledge is situated both socially, through the culture and institution of a given community, and historically, through the shared traditions of knowledge production. After establishing these basic arguments, Smith narrates the story and history of both natural and social science (Chapter 2 and 3).
The main theme of the next three chapters (Chapter 4-6) is the dialogue, or some would say the debate, between certainty and uncertainty in social science. Smith explains how approaches in social science has been “swinging” from just simply duplicating approaches of natural science (here to achieve the “certainty”) to doubting and questioning the existence of grand design theories that serve as universal explanations of reality (here to realize the “uncertainty”). At the end of the book (Chapter 7), while emphasizing that we should believe in the idea of “contributing to the progress of human life”, Smith also ends his story by suggesting that those who want to study social science should also realize the different kinds of complexity, which unfortunately have never been solved or perfectly answered.
At the heart of this complexity is laid the perennial dialogue between “the certainty” and “the uncertainty”, and on this matter we shall continue to the next section. Following after that are the relevance of the book to the students in social science, particularly in human geography and planning, and the issues that are left undiscussed by the book.
From Certainty to Uncertainty
I would argue that the main idea that links the different approaches in social science presented by Smith in his book is about how to achieve “certainty” by accepting and realizing the “uncertainty”. At first, the idea of certainty is posed vis-à-vis with uncertainty where both ideas criticized each other over the time. First example can be seen from the opposite ideas of how experiments/studies can be done: “closed system” or “open system” (Chapter 2). In terms of simplicity and complexity, the closed system, which represents the certainty, limits the number of measurable variables in order to predict clear relationship while the open system, which represents the uncertainty, acknowledges the state of complexity by not limiting the measurable variables. In terms of external boundary, the closed system strictly implements exclusion of unrelated variables, while the open system assumes the absence of external boundary. In terms of intrinsic properties of the object of analysis, the closed system does not account such idea, while the open system recognizes that all objects have intrinsic properties that affect their performance in different conditions (p. 45).
In order to achieve certainty, many scientists, as described by Smith, try to strictly divide facts and values. It is started from Francis Bacon, who argues that to construct knowledge ones should only accept what can be sensed through experiment (Chapter 2). This is considered as “fact” and thus accepted as the “authoritative knowledge”. The effort to exclude anything that cannot be sensed (e.g. ratio, guess) reflects the unwillingness to deal with something that is abstract and uncertain. The extremely opposite idea is the conventionalism (Chapter 5), which is immersed in the condition of uncertainty. This approach not only intermingle fact and value, but also suggests that all knowledge is a social product, that it is the outcome of social relations and should never be perceived as universally applicable. Thus, according to this approach, the idea of achieving progress in human live is questionable. In the middle of these two opposite ideas, there are rationalism, proposed by Rene Descartes (Chapter 2), falsificasionism, proposed by Karl Popper (Chapter 3) and idealism (Chapter 4).
Another example comes from the purpose of the study of social science. By using closed system and limiting the object of analysis to those that can be sensed, earlier scientists wanted to establish general laws to explain, and even to predict, reality. Later scientists, however, realized the drawbacks of such idea and tried to limit their purpose to the revelation of predictable pattern. This can be seen from idealism (Chapter 4) that simplifies the reality through the use of extreme conditions and put their observation of the objects of analysis somewhere between the extreme conditions. We can see that later scientist were more open to the idea of uncertainty.
The shifting towards uncertainty can also be seen from the use of language to describe reality. The proponents of positivism perceive description of the object of analysis merely as a mirror of the reality. They indeed distinguish between analytic statement, which is self defining, tautologically true and cannot be refuted, and synthetic statement, which can be empirically tested, thus, can be empirically refuted. However, the idea of “description as mirror” reflects the wish to stay in the condition of certainty. This is not the case for the proponents of idealism that recognize the role of each individual’s mental framework in constructing the description of reality. As summarized by Smith: “There are different ways of “seeing” and this accounts for the ways in which human beings can interpret the same evidence in very different – and sometimes opposed – ways when they attempt to imagine social life” (Chapter 4, p.140).
The tension between the idea of certainty and uncertainty reaches its climax at two points. The first one is when conventionalism questioned the principle of universality in the natural science. According to the conventionalism, even natural science should also be perceived as a product of social and cultural relations in a specific time and place. Given the pervasive idea of natural science to the social science, conventionalism not only shooks the scientists but also makes the idea of certainty in social science more obscure. The second point is the “cultural turn” as explained in chapter 6. After recognizing that culture deserves much more serious attention in studying social science, social scientists also step further by reassessing the language system that is being used both to describe their studies and to construct reality. This eventually led them to question whether anything, even reality, exists beyond discourse. This is a condition of completely “chaotic”, where certainty is clearly absence.
After a series of dialogue, finally the idea of certainty and uncertainty in the social science are reconciled by Imre Lakatos (Chapter 5). He establishes a compromise between (1) the need to be certain in order to achieve progress in human life and (2) the reality that there is always uncertainty in the practices of social science that manifests in the idea of complexity, as quoted at the beginning of this article. Hence we arrive to the conclusion that, in social science, we should try to achieve certainty by accepting and realizing the uncertainty. By keeping this in mind, I, as a student in social science, may cultivate many positive results in the process of studying.
Guidance for Social Science Students
Social Science in Question, through the presentation of an intense dialogue between certainty and uncertainty, provides the students of social science with the basic guidance in at least three aspects.
First, given social science deals studies the social process in which we are part of them, the level of complexity is higher than natural science, which studies objects that apart from ourselves. This will lead the students of social science to frequently deal with uncertainty. In this sense, the students of social science should be humble in presenting their findings by being open to different interpretations, acknowledging the limitation of their studies, and, in following Karl Popper’s falsificasionism, generating more questions as suggestions for further researches.
Second, by acknowledging the limitation of their studies does not mean that students of social science should give up the efforts to contribute to the progress in human life. Even though the results of their studies only reveal “how to understand and to explain” a particular social process, they should believe that through the process of understanding, human being also able to improve their condition. This means that studies that produce “predicting” results are not always better than studies that produce “only” accounts of explanation and understanding.
Third, students of social science should cautiously explain in their studies what parts of their studies are considered to be “subjective” and “objective”. Here subjectivity is defined as describing the reality by means of opinions, hunches, guess, etc, while objectivity is defined as describing the reality by means of combination between facts and opinions, hunches, guess. Thus, the students of social science should eager to publish their sources of data as if someone will do the exactly same researches/studies like they did.
In reflecting this guidance to my own research in the field of human geography and planning, I should say that most of the times I tend to impose my own perception on the object of analysis in my research and at the same time tend to avoid uncertainty. I am currently researching the interaction between two metropolitan centers that leads to the emergence of a new mega-urban region in the northern part of Java Island, Indonesia. In describing the relation between the two metropolitan centers, I use many assumptions to justify the data I have on the flow of people, investment and commodity. In relating the interaction between both centers to the recent developments in the corridor area between them, aside providing macro-statistic data, I also use my own experience of travelling (frequently) between the two centers. Moreover at the end of my presentation I am quite often narrowing the results to the possibilities that I am familiar with. This is, for sure, an example of avoiding uncertainty. Nevertheless, I also cultivate local residents’ and officials’ opinions to strengthen my findings. By doing this, I try to create a balance condition between my accounts of interpretation and the accounts of the object study in my research.
Issues Left Undiscussed: “The Geography of Thought” and The Religion
Borrowing the idea of Richard E. Naisbett (2003), I argue that the content of Social Science in Question is mostly derived from the Western society’s experience in constructing knowledge. Even though there are several (small) parts in the book where area beyond Western is discussed, I perceive they are not more than just supplements. The main idea in the book is still about “how Western think” and this could be misleading for us, the students of social science, since there is no part of the book that clearly acknowledge and explain this. The point of departure of the book is the conflict between religion and science, which not happened in the Eastern (or Southern) society. The way Eastern (and Southern) society construct knowledge can be explained partly from the idea of importing Western approaches through colonialism. This part perhaps is considered by Smith to be automatically explained in his book. However, years before colonialism, Eastern (and Southern) societies may have already developed knowledge systems that different from what has been explained by the book.
The second issue is the religion. As I mentioned before, the departure point of the book is the Enlightenment Era, which broke the relationship with the religion. This is because of the religion imposed its perception of how knowledge should be constructed and for many cases have been proved wrong by the scientists (e.g. Copernicus, Galileo). However, this is not the case in every society. Let us consider the country where I am originally from, Indonesia. In Indonesia, the influence of religion is pervasive and constructing knowledge has never been separated from the religion. Dogmatic values of religion are taught since people are young, and thus are embedded in their ways of seeing life and reality. Thus, in my opinion, It is not appropriate to take into account the role of culture, language and even hunch but to neglect the role of religion in the knowledge construction.
Even in the Western society, I would like to argue that the role of religion is still present. One clear example is the debate, in natural science, on the issue of “How did life begin?” In this matter, there are two theories, the first one is the Evolution/Darwinism, which explains that life began from scratch and continuously evolves by chance. The second theory is the Creationism. It believes that life was created in its original form by something beyond the knowledge of human, which refers to a deity. The later theory was established on the basis of religion’s values and up till now, both of theories still have their proponents and organizing their own campaigns.
As explained in Social Science in Question that the social science has a higher level of complexity than the natural science, then in my opinion, the possibility of it is being influenced by the religion would be bigger. I will take an example from the study of the human geography and planning. There are (at least) two different perceptions about how to treat “regional disparities”. One side argues that it is inevitable and instead of putting too much concern on that matter, it is better to concentrate on the regions that are competitive so that the nation-state can compete in the global network. The poor regions should be left behind because they are the losers in “the competition”. Another side argues that for the nation-states to achieve prosperity it is important to maintain the equity between regions in their boundaries. Instead of supporting the “zero game sum” between regions, nation state should equally support all of the regions. The later one, I argue, is a perfect example of the influence of religion’s values in the social science.
Nevertheless, despite these drawbacks, I would say that Social Science in Question is a perfect initial guidance for the students of social science who concern not only to the question of “how to understand something?”, but also to the question of “what is knowledge?” [AM]
 Nevertheless, students of social science should accept the impossibility to strictly separate facts and values.
 Nisbett, R.E. (2003)The Geography of Thought: How Asian and Westerns Think Diffferently…and Why. New York (etc.): Free Press
 One important remark is the changing of the “circuit of knowledge” (Chapter 2 and 7).
 Another influence may come from the cultural values.
The picture of the book's cover is taken from: http://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/images/0761960414/ref=dp_otherviews_0?ie=UTF8&s=books&img=0