Book reviews

The Limits of Social Science by Martin Hammersley

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    Clive Sims

    The Limits of Social Science


    Martin Hammersley


    Hammersley, Martin. The Limits of Social Science. (2014) London. Sage. Pp 178. Reviewer: Clive Sims.


           As always with the work of Professor Hammersley this is an important book which goes to the heart of current thought and controversy in the social sciences and social science research. I previously reviewed ‘The Myth of Research-Based Policy & Practice.’ (2013). London. Sage for Methodspace and this book is a worthy successor. Here he continues with the theme of whether research in the social sciences can provide causal explanations for social events and thus inform and guide policy decisions and in so doing he examines the assumptions behind much of current social science research. Of particular interest to the reviewer was the incorporation of the philosophical stance of Max Weber who can be regarded as one of the founding fathers of social research but whose work is largely overlooked today.

         Professor Hammersley’s book consists of an essential introduction followed by six chapters, an epilogue, comprehensive references, a name index and a subject index.  The reader will find the latter vital in cross-referencing the themes that are the subject matter of this work. The six chapters mark the logical progression of the author’s argument. The first main chapter is entitled ‘Causation and Qualitative Inquiry’ and provides an introduction to the problem of causal processes in the social world as compared with causal processes in the natural sciences and particularly the virtual impossibility of designing & carrying out replicatable experiments in the social world. This calls into question social science’s status as a science. He notes that there has been an overt rejection of causal analysis by qualitative researchers in the latter half of the twentieth century although most such researchers continue to make causative claims. This leads Hammersley on to discuss the two main resources in causal investigation and the two empirical strategies that can be used to discover causal processes.

            In the following chapter, ‘The Problem of Explanation in Social Science: A Weberian Solution’, Professor Hammersley draws an important distinction between theorizing and explaining, focusing on the latter as a reasonable goal for the social sciences. It is at this point that the author brings in Max Weber’s methodological work. For Weber the adoption of a value-referenced framework is crucial for determining which research questions should be addressed and which causal factors require attention. Hammersley duly notes that if Weber is correct then much of what currently passes as social science is futile, both in searching for theories and in its failure to employ explicit value-driven frameworks and systematically elaborated ideal types in attempts to produce explanations.

         In the next chapter, ‘On the Role of Values in Social Research’ Professor Hammersley argues that whilst the idea that social science should be normative has become highly influential the underpinning rationale is weak. Value neutrality is something to be aspired to but is not possible in all situations e.g. where there is a conflicting value perspective or where, as in western society an instrumentalist attitude towards inquiry and knowledge prevails. Nonetheless Hammersley considers that the principle of value neutrality is something to be strived for, not least because social scientists may be able to provide factual evidence to inform deliberations on future actions and clarify the implications that could follow from a particular set of values. But to go beyond this is to claim an authority which is not justified and which should be resisted.

         In the fourth chapter, entitled, ‘From Facts to Value Judgments: A Critique of Critical Realism’, Professor Hammersley examines in detail the growing influence of critical realism in the social sciences, focussing particularly on the ‘critical’ aspect. After an in-depth analysis he reaches the conclusion that whilst critical realism puts forward a clear rationale for how evaluative conclusions may be derived it should be rejected as the attempt to produce knowledge and, at the same time, bring about social change is liable to increase the chances of error in the conclusions that are reached. Hammersley is not denying the importance of academic social research in establishing facts, what he is saying is that both researchers and their audience need to be aware of the limitations of what can be reliably offered.

         In chapters five and six Professor Hammersley takes two topical areas of social research and examines what we can learn from them. In chapter five, ‘Can Social Science tell us whether a Society is Meritocratic? A Weberian Critique’ he looks at social mobility and in chapter six, ‘We Didn’t Predict a Riot! On the Public Contribution of Social Science’, he examines, among other things, what social science can legitimately offer in the public sphere. These two chapters are important as they firmly anchor the philosophical and theoretical discussions of the previous chapters into the ‘real world’ of current social science research and what is expected of it. I am not going to summarize these chapters or the conclusions that Professor Hammersley draws as I think that it is important that the reader should read them for his or herself. They present, in a very practical way, his arguments and provide a model for the reader to critically appraise social science research and the uses to which it is put.

         This is not an easy book to read but it is well worth the effort. Professor Hammersley’s criticisms of modern social science research and the possible solutions that he provides are going to be, I suspect, highly influential in the future, not least because they demonstrate to funders and sponsors the limits of that research and what can legitimately be expected of it.


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