The Problem With the Social Sciences


The scientific method is one of the, if not the most significant innovations in human history. While this methodology has become increasingly popular since its introduction in the 17th century, many people still do not fully understand its significance. Many people make the mistake of comparing science to systems of belief such as religion. This could not be further from the truth. For starters, the scientific method is not a system of belief, but a systematic way of observing, documenting and testing observable phenomena. How well individuals apply this methodology varies, but what makes science so valuable is that it not only enables, but actually encourages continually questioning existing theories. This fact makes it even more ironic when people try bashing science by pointing out how it continuously changes. The reason popularly accepted scientific theories change so frequently is because further studies revealed flaws in previous experiments or something new was learnt that led to an even better understanding. This is not a weakness of the scientific method, but in fact one of its biggest strengths.

The application of the scientific method has led to the monumental leaps in technology, medicine and universal understanding that we have experienced over the last century. Although this methodology has established a new way to examine the natural world, its application does vary between different fields of study. One area where there is still much work to be done is the social sciences. Unlike the science done in the fields of medicine, chemistry, biology and other hard sciences, the social sciences do not tend to produce concrete results. For instance, to determine what is causing a disease doctors can conduct various tests to figure out not only the specific cause of the issue, but also the best course of treatment most of the time. The social sciences do not produce anything nearly as concrete. To paint a clear example of this point, the following will examine two of the most well studied, and accepted theories in the field of criminology .

The age crime curve and the gender gap are two well-established phenomena in the field of criminology. The gender gap refers to males being far more likely than females to commit a crime, and the age gap refers to the ages between 14 and 24 being extremely volatile in terms of likelihood that someone commits a crime or deviant act. While there are many different theories as to why these trends are so, their existence is agreed upon by criminologists from all schools of thought. While many theories attempt to explain the causes of these trends, they are at best partial explanations.  Many prominent criminologists have attempted to neatly fit these and other well-documented trends of crime into their theoretical paradigms. In their attempts to verify their theories, criminologists inevitably make the mistakes of not only ignoring variables that are inconvenient to their theories, they also of cherry-picking variables providing the strongest support to place an overemphasis on. Everything from the more general classical and positivist schools of thought, to the more recent, specific theories such as Marxist criminology and labeling theory, and even the Biosocial and Learning theories are guilty of these errors to some extent. For example, Marxist criminology places its’ entire emphasis on facts supporting the notion that all crime is the result of the strain associated with the socio-economic system, while ignoring nearly all else. Even labeling theory, which seems to make an attempt to account for what it fails to explain (primary deviance) still makes no attempt to explain the reasons for which some people are not impacted in the same way by labels. This is not to say that these theories are without value. Each provides a unique, insightful perspective that can be very useful in studying and understanding crime as long as one does not subscribe to a particular theory, and makes sure to keep an open mind; not only to other established theories, but also to new data, studies and ideas as they emerge. That said, I believe that the best way to understand the age crime curve and the gender gap is by examining them through a variety of theories while also keeping other relevant knowledge in mind.

The underlying cause of the gender gap may be so hard to explain because many overcomplicate it. At least in modern times, if someone were to ask nearly anyone whether a male or female was more likely to commit a crime they would answer correctly. Even without any prior knowledge of the studies or data into this topic, it is intuitively obvious to anyone with life-experience that males are more prone to violence and impulsivity than females. There are of course exceptions, but this is generally the case. Now, if you were to ask people why this were the case you would get responses ranging from cultural conditioning and socialization, to hormones and genetics. Most don’t realize that they were not actually answering the question they were originally asked, but instead answering the question as to why their implied answer were so. Any answer to the question of “why are males more prone impulsivity, violence and crime than females?” that cites sociology or genetics is actually explaining their implied answer of “because males and females react and behave differently.”  I believe that this implied answer is in fact the real phenomenon that needs to be explained in order understand the gender gap. I also believe that anyone citing genetics and hormones or/and socio-cultural factors is partially correct. I believe that the whole answer involves not only a combination of biological and sociological variables, but also individual level factors that are seldom accounted for.

The explanation to the age crime curve is similar in the sense of being explained by a combination of factors. However, I believe that the causes behind this issue are less intuitively understood than those behind the gender gap.  This is due to the fact that not only does this phenomenon encompass biological, sociological, and individual level factors, but also the transitions that take place over time amongst all involved variables.  Between the ages of 14 and 24, most people not only go through puberty; one of life’s most significant hormonal and biological transactional periods, but this is also the time in which children make the transition to adults culturally in most of the world. This sets up the perfect storm of quickly changing, unbalanced hormones and moods, with radical changes in life experience. For example, people in this age range tend to experience rapid changes in regards to how other people react to them, what society expects of them, and also changes in amount of responsibility they are expected to handle. To make the situation even worse is that stresses and negative aspects of these transitional periods exacerbate each other.  It is no coincidence that the age crime curve starts trending downwards during the time period in which these transitional periods subside. It makes sense that someone who has successfully transitioned into adult life would be less likely to commit crimes as they would not only be free from the turmoil associated with the transition they had just experienced, but also due to the fact that they are likely to have more than enough responsibilities associated with their own job and families to occupy their time.

In short, I am not trying to argue that social science is not valuable, just that these findings and theories need to be taken with a grain of salt. Even social phenomena that we generally consider to be well understood are often much more complex than any single theory thought to explain them.

By, Frank Bursese



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