Rational Choice, Scientific Method and Social Scientism
19 Pages Posted: 15 Sep 2005
The eighteenth-century introduction of the scientific method of the natural sciences to the study of social phenomena draws a line between moral philosophy - that aspect of ancient and medieval philosophy that dealt with social issues - and the social sciences as known today. From the onset, the emerging social science, or rather, its epistemological orientation to 'social scientism,' was vigorously challenged by many critics who see it as a reductionist and mechanistic understanding of human beings and their society. In recent times, this criticism has narrowed down to the critique of the rationalist assumptions or rational choice theory on which much of social scientism is built. Critics of the natural science ideal in the social sciences argue that the subject matter of the social sciences - human beings, their society and interactions - is so complex and different a system that subjecting it to the crucible of the scientific method of the natural, positivist sciences not only limits its understanding but leaves it with an abrasive and distorting impact. In the same manner, critiques of rational choice theory argue that it is a reductionism that does not account for a significant proportion of human actions and motives. What seems to be advocated for is a sort of social science method that addresses the shortcomings of the scientific method applied to social phenomena and employs a more robust model of human action that supersedes the rational choice model. This paper however posits that rationalist assumptions or rational choice theory is not peculiar to social scientism but lies at the foundation of modern and contemporary science and its method. We trace out the centrality of individual rationality assumptions in the general epistemology of the scientific method and social scienticism within the context of the centuries-old debate on the limitations of the scientific method in the social sciences. Our thesis hints at the impossibility of a modern and contemporary scientific model of either nature (physics) or society that does not assume individualist or subjective rationality.
Keywords: scientific method, social scientism, rational choice
JEL Classification: B10, B50, N00
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