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The Interpretive Aspect of all Social Science Methods (John Dryzek)
Philosopher of science Karl Popper (who believed in objective causal explanation) argued in The Logic of Scientific Discovery that observations in science are “interpretations of the facts observed: they are interpretations in the light of theories.” When it comes to social science, not just theories but unexamined assumptions and cultural capacities can find their ways into the instruments used to investigate causal explanations. Social scientists should be more aware of these possibilities, and scrutinize instruments in this light. Social scientific results rarely speak for themselves; they need to be interpreted in light of other findings, theories, frameworks, and (contestable) common sense. I will illustrate these points through reference to some high-profile pieces of opinion survey research (Hibbing and Theiss-Morse, Stealth Democracy; Achen and Bartels, Democracy for Realists) showing how and why their core arguments fail to hold up when scrutinized in this light. My conclusion is not that social science should be abandoned, but that its practice should be more critically reflexive.
John Dryzek is Australian Research Council Laureate Fellow and Centenary Professor in the Centre for Deliberative Democracy and Global Governance at the Institute for Governance and Policy Analysis. Before moving to the University of Canberra he was Distinguished Professor of Political Science and Australian Research Council Federation Fellow at the Australian National University. He is a Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences in Australia, former Head of the Departments of Political Science at the Universities of Oregon and Melbourne and of the Social and Political Theory program at ANU, and former editor of the Australian Journal of Political Science.