Is there no such thing as social science?

Hutchinson, Read, and Sharrock write to defend philosopher Perter Winch's views of social science. In defense of Winch, they argue in their introduction (pp. 3,5):

‘There is no such thing as a social science on the model of either methodological or substantive reductionism.’ Why are we so sure there is no such thing? Well this question is what we seek to answer in the chapters that follow; but, in short, there is no such thing as a social science on the model of methodological or substantive reductionism, because to be committed to methodological or substantive reductionism is to be committed to a priorism; it is to be committed to something—a method or the relevant explanatory factors in one’s explanation of social action—prior to one’s investigation...[O]ur case is that reductionism in terms of methodologies or substantive claims is counter to the spirit of scientific inquiry, and it is the spirit of scientific inquiry that is primary. The ‘scientific spirit’—what one wanted out of attaching the qualities of science to one’s endeavour in the first place—militates against both methodological and substantive reductionism in the social studies.

Regarding whether they prefer the concept of understanding versus interpretation, Hutchinson et al explains that

when we say that what we seek is ‘understanding’ we are saying no more than that we seek to understand the action, in a perfectly everyday, sense. We do not seek understanding in some abstract sense, only available through application of one or another ‘methodology’. One seeks understanding in that one seeks to grasp the meaning (in the same way) as ordinary members of the culture do…Participants in a conversation do not need to constantly be interpreting each others’ words. Social actors interacting within society need not constantly be interpreting the meanings of each others’ actions. There is no process of understanding running along which enables them to see the meaning in each other’s actions and words. This is where Winch differs from Verstehen theorists such as Collingwood and Charles Taylor. So; one should not fall into the trap of seeing understanding as some sort of mysterious property, like some non-rational emotive capacity (pp. 13-14).

Much of social science is an exercise in revealing to us how what we do is not of our own making, i.e., our actions are the effects of prior causes, or of structures, or of institutions, or of other's power, or of ideologies, or of constraints, etc. More determinism, less agency. In a sense, people do not consciously know (really) what they are doing. Hutchinson et al says about their response to this,

ours is not an attempt to say that no-one (social actors, members of a society: people) can be mistaken about these things, but that people being mistaken about what they are doing and how social institutions impact upon them does not imply that what is required is a methodology of social science, or a theoretical framework, so that we might apprehend what it is they are really doing or see how a person’s relation to a social institution must be (p. 25).

Why Hutchinson et al agree with Winch that this means there is no need for a social science/methodology:

[U]nderstanding what a person is doing is a perfectly mundane and everyday affair; where it is difficult, as when we—as occasionally happens—come upon a people who seemingly do things in a very different way to us, then we need to make more of an effort, just as we do when we are reading a book we find hard going, not leap to supposing that a pair of spectacles (i.e. a sociological method/ theory) is what would help us. Our difficulties in reading are with what’s in the book, not with the eyes we use to do the reading. What they are doing, the identity of their action, is simply what the action means for the actors in the social setting: that identifying this is sometimes hard, and involves sometimes (e.g.) lateral thinking, does not equate to there being any need whatsoever for a social theory/social science (p. 26).


Hutchinson, P., 2008, There is no such thing as a social science: in defence of Peter Winch, Read, R.J., & Sharrock, W.W. eds. Ashgate, Aldershot, England.


I study philosophy and social theory at the University of South Florida. I am also a photographer, map lover and sometimes poet.