What is the difference between social and natural sciences?

What is the difference between social and natural sciences? Doctoral Seminar “Forschungsmethodik I” HS11-10,118,1.00, Fall Semester 2011 Prof. Dr. R...
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What is the difference between social and natural sciences?

Doctoral Seminar “Forschungsmethodik I” HS11-10,118,1.00, Fall Semester 2011

Prof. Dr. Roman Boutellier Prof. Dr. Oliver Gassmann Prof. Dr. Sabine Raeder

Denniz Dönmez Yannic Domigall


What is the difference between social and natural sciences?  


1. Distinguishing sciences Science is generally understood as an endeavor to understand, explain and predict the world we live in using distinctive methods of enquiry in an attempt to construct theories. It is, however, not easy to find a set of features that define what separates sciences from other attempts to understand and explain the world, such as religion, astrology and fortune telling, which are generally not regarded as branches of sciences (Okasha, 2002). Citing Wittgenstein, who argued that there is no fixed set of features defining what is a “game” but there is rather a loose cluster of features most of which are possessed by most games, Okasha suggests the same may be true for sciences. Based on some of these features, we will contrast two scientific branches, namely the natural and social sciences, in this essay. According to authors such as Anzenbacher (1981, S. 22) and Chmielewicz (1994), both of them are real sciences, as opposed to formal sciences, the latter of which solve imaginary problems and include, for instance, mathematics or Theoretical Computer Science. Other authors separate real sciences into further categories such as literary studies or applied sciences, the latter including medicine and engineering (Dewey, 2008). While the question of what science is, and the separation of all of its branches is out oft the scope of this essay, we shall now turn to a comparison of the natural and social sciences. There are a number of similarities between the natural and social sciences, which include the use of similar methods and partly overlapping epistemological and ontological stances, i.e. stances regarding the creation of knowledge and the nature of reality. However, there are also a number of elements that distinguish the two, such as their different origins, subjects of study, and limitations. Following definitions of natural and social sciences, these elements will be contrasted in the following.

2. Natural Science 2.1. Definition Ledoux (2002, p. 34) defines natural sciences as „disciplines that deal only with natural events (i.e. independent and dependent variables in nature) using scientific methods“. While the employment of scientific methods is generally regarded as typical but not exclusive of natural sciences, it is the focus on natural events that distinguishes natural from social science.

2.2. Origin According to Büchel (1992), the birth of natural science is marked by changing world views introduced by Renaissance thinkers who questioned earlier explanations about the world and turned to more systematic methods of investigation. Early leaders of this ‘Scientific Revolution’ included Copernicus and Galileo who were concerned with problems from disciplines including astronomy and physics, among others. Natural sciences arose from curiosity about the world, as well as the endeavor to transform nature in favor of human necessities of life, both of which had not been possible to pursue freely in the era of slavery of the ancient society (Büchel, 1992).

2.3. Subject of study The aim of the natural sciences is to discover the laws that rule the world (Büchel, 1992). The focus lies hereby on the natural and not on the social world, although the differentiation is not always simple. There are historically three core areas of the natural sciences: chemistry, biology and physics. Nevertheless this is not a final list of research areas, since many other disciplines were later born out of these. As more knowledge is created, more specific questions arise. This leads to the fact that early natural scientists were generalists from today’s perspective, and later specialized in newly emerging disciplines such as astronomy in the beginning, different engineering disciplines later, and rather recently (i.e. in the last century) created fields such as robotics or bionics.


What is the difference between social and natural sciences?  


2.4. Methods Natural science methods are possibly the most popular methods of scientific investigation. The New American Oxford Dictionary even defines “scientific methods” in general as methods characterizing “natural science since the 17th century, consisting in systematic observation, measurement, and experiment”. While there are other methods used by other sciences, these are without doubt the most important methods used in the natural sciences. Compared to the social sciences, the natural sciences rely more on mathematically based methods. The reason for this is the more uniform nature of natural sciences and the countability that enables the scientists to apply mathematics (Büchel, 1992, p.228). While physics or chemistry rely to a large extend on controlled experimental settings, such settings cannot be created so easily for most investigations in economics or sociology.

2.5. Philosophical stances With thinkers including Karl Popper and Thomas Kuhn, fundamental criticism of natural science approaches has emerged during the 20th century. Before Popper, the way in which knowledge is created was not questioned by most scientists, most of whom adopted an inductive epistemology, in which a finding is regarded as general truth when a sufficient number of experiments have led to the same outcome. Criticizing this, Popper put forward that a theory cannot be confirmed by induction, but only falsified by a simple observation (Büchel, 1992, p. 227). For instance, a scientist observing the color of swans on a lake who has seen a number of only white swans cannot conclude that all swans are white. Rather his theory (‘all swans are white’) must be tried to falsify through the search of a black swan. Later criticism by Kuhn addressed the values or “paradigms” which exist when scientific investigations are carried out, and which are usually accepted without any reflection by scientists. A paradigm consists of a set of fundamental theoretical assumptions and a set of particular scientific problems that have been solved by means of these theoretical assumptions (Okasha, 2002, p. 81). Kuhn stresses that normal scientists are not trying to test the paradigm, but rather question their experimental technique, when a conflicting result appears. The discovery of knowledge is therefore restricted to situations in which enough scientists become convinced that a paradigm may be wrong, which leads to paradigm shift, i.e. the establishment of a new paradigm. While there are also critics of Kuhn, arguing that two paradigms may not necessarily be completely incompatible, the impact of Kuhn's ideas has also been felt by other academic disciplines such as sociology and anthropology, and in the general intellectual culture at large (Okasha, 2002, p.77).

2.6. Limitations Among the most common limitations of natural science research are technical and financial boundaries, both of which have been constantly pushed in history. Technical boundaries are related to the inability to conduct precise measurements. These boundaries have always been research foci themselves, and were pushed through the invention of the telescope, the microscope, the geiger counter and many other measurement instruments. Financial boundaries play a role in most research projects, but can become especially severe when expensive equipment has to be employed. Examples include experiments for which space shuttles have to be launched, or infrastructure such as the CERN laboratory is required.

3. Social Science 3.1. Definition The disciplines of social sciences are viewed as those that deal with “human society, societal groups, individuals in their relationships with others or institutions of societies and material goods as expression of human cohabitation” (Bayer, 1992). This definition shows the difficulty of grasping all aspects of social sciences as opposed to natural sciences, which have a common perspective rather than a common subject of study. The distinction between social and cultural sciences and humanities is controversial.  

What is the difference between social and natural sciences?  


3.2. Origin The social sciences are much younger than the natural sciences. Even though the social interactions in a society have probably been of interest for many centuries, scientific studies of social interactions began as late as during the 19th century with sociological publications including “Suicide” by Émile Durkheim and “Système de politique positive” by Auguste Comte, the latter of which also set stone for a positivist approach to social sciences.

3.3. Subject of study In contrast to the natural sciences, the study objects of social sciences can take notice of the forecast of scientists. Subject of study are the phenomena of social interaction and coexistence. Social Sciences can rather be classified by their common perspective then through a specific subject of study. This perspective consists of the understanding and studying of a social aspect of society, a group of people or a single individual. (Bayer, 1992, p. 302).

3.4. Methods One of the mainly used methods is the observation, as a social science counterpart of the natural sciences experiment. It is much more difficult to carry out an experiment in social, than in natural sciences. The reason therefore lies in the uncontrollability of social environments. Because of that the measurability of the highly complex social processes is often difficult or sometimes not possible at all. (Bayer, 1992, p. 302). Nevertheless experiments are used in for example in the behavioral economics and social psychology, even though not with the overwhelming success of the natural sciences experiments. Other important methods in social sciences are: Interviews, surveys, case studies.

3.5. Philosophical stances In contrast to the natural sciences, there was much more debate about the question of what is acceptable knowledge among social scientists. Therefore, a number epistemological stances exist, which shall only be introduced very briefly here. Among the first popular stances in the social sciences is the positivist position, which had been advocated by early social scientists like Compte who argued that studies of social reality should apply the same methods as the natural sciences. It was criticized by advocates of interpretivism, who argue that the social reality cannot be measured in the same way as natural events. Rather, scientists have to aim at grasping the subjective meaning of social actions. This thought is, e.g., reflected in Max Weber’s notion of Verstehen (Bryman, 2008).

3.6. Limitations Studies in social sciences are often limited by various factors including the need to base findings on interpretations, the complexity of a field in which single variables cannot be controlled for easily, as well as ethical issues and financial problems. Since the subject of study are social actions which are often motivated by a myriad of factors that may be unknown even to the actors, social scientists who want to make a meaning of their observations will have to interpret their data in order to analyze it. Ethical issues arise many times from the fact that some very interesting questions may not be studied without sacrificing the mental or physical safety of people. Examples where such boundaries have been crossed include not only extreme situations in which subjects were left uninformed may still have suffered from its consequences many years later or even have died during the study.

4. Quantitative versus qualitative approaches The social as well as the natural sciences increasingly depend on computer aided methods for data analysis. Yet, in social research, scientific progress is less based on ever more precise measurements, as more on better analyses and interpretations of data (Mayntz, 2005). This is because the natural sciences usually employ quantitative methods for data  

What is the difference between social and natural sciences?  


collection, whereas in the social sciences quantitative measurements are not necessarily the only standard by which data is acquired. A growing debate about how data should be collected emerged among post-positivist social science thinkers during the second half of the last century, leading to a shift to qualitative approached among many researchers. Other than relying on countable facts, these approaches span the whole spectrum from purely descriptive to strictly analytical ones (Mey, 2005), in which the underlying questions are always also about the discovery of a subjective reality rather than only observable facts.

5. Summary Among the many branches of science, the natural and the social sciences stand out as two branches with disciplines that have some similarities, but differ strongly, above all, in what they aim to investigate. Studies of the natural sciences began during the 16th and 17th century, whereas the social sciences emerged some 300 years later. Commonalities include a number of methods such as experiments and observations, where quantitative methods can be applied for analyses. However, being concerned with the underlying meaning of social interactions, the social sciences rely not only on what might be called exact, mathematical methods, but also on a number of qualitative approaches such as interviews and ethnographies. Both branches of science have limitation that can be similar in nature, e.g., financial issues. Most limitations of the two are another point where they differ starkly. While the natural sciences often face technical boundaries, the social sciences experience difficulties as they study situations in which environments cannot be controlled easily, which often renders experimental settings impossible and leaves scientists relying on interpretations. Additionally, ethical issues play a much larger role in the social sciences.

6. Implications The most important implications for a dissertation project are: 1. Awareness of own position: Any scientist should be clear about his own position and consciously subscribe to a philosophical stance. Especially in the social sciences, where epistemological debates abound, the awareness of one’s position can foster effective discussions with other scientists. 2. Choice of methods: Methods are appropriate or inappropriate dependent on the existence of knowledge in a specific area of research in social sciences. If theories already exist in a field of research a quantitative approach is often more preferable. Existing data can be used to validate models, or new data may be collected empirically. If on the other hand the examined field of research has not been part of a serious research project, the best choice of method is often a qualitative approach. Before a quantitative approach may solve any problem, the relationships between cause and effect have to be modeled on a qualitative basis. 3. Object of knowledge: A huge difference between social and natural sciences lies in the object of knowledge. While the laws in natural sciences rule the world independent of the research results of scientists, this is not true for social sciences. The members of society are deeply influenced by theoretical models of the social sciences. 4. Context: The subdivision of sciences allows us to classify the different papers we read into several categories. This enables us to better understand the context of the authors. 5. Cross-disciplinary learning: Through the study of different disciplines and methods that they apply, researchers can learn to view their own work through a different lens, as well as critically reflect it and possibly learn to solve problems using unconventional approaches.


What is the difference between social and natural sciences?  


7. Commented Bibliography Anzenbacher, A. 1981, Einführung in die Philosophie, Herder, Wien This book gives an introduction to all major problems of western philosophy. It combines the history of philosophy with the systematic thinking of the presence. Anzenbacher, who was professor of philosophy, suggests on page 22 a subdivision of science into real-, and formal sciences.

Bayer, O. & F. Stölting 1992, Sozialwissenschaften, in: Seiffert, H. & Radnitzky, G., Handlexikon zur Wissenschaftstheorie, Ehrenwirth, München The article provides a short introduction into the different perceptions of the social sciences. Furthermore the authors open up the field of epistemology by showing what kinds of methods are used in the social science. In the paragraph E. the authors describe the relationship between social sciences and practice.

Büchel, W. 1992, Naturwissenschaften, in: Seiffert, H. & Radnitzky, G., Handlexikon zur Wissenschaftstheorie, Ehrenwirth, München Büchel starts his article with the origin and structure of natural sciences. He describes the rise of the natural sciences from a nature philosophical philosophy to a conception of the world. Furthermore he mentions the importance of self-limitation and probability for the natural sciences. The last chapters are about methodological problems and objectivity in natural sciences.

Bryman, A. 2008, Social Research Methods, Oxford University Press, Oxford This standard textbook for social scientists provides a very good introduction to quantitative and qualitative methods, as well as historical context and background of the social sciences. Equipped with many examples and aimed at students, the book by Professor Alan Bryman draws upon his extensive experience as a social researcher.

Chmielewicz, K. 1994, Forschungskonzeptionen der Wirtschaftswissenschaften, 2nd edition, Poeschel, Stuttgart Besides offering a perspective on philosophical aspects of science written with an economic background, Chmielewicz provides in his book a useful system to classify several branches of sciences, including criteria that distinguish the natural from the social sciences.

Dewey, M. 2008, A Classification and Subject Index for Cataloguing and Arranging the Books and Pamphlets of a Library, The Echo Library, Middlesex, UK This work, originally written by Dewey in 1876, is an early attempt to classify and distinguish different scientific branches. It was later modified into the Universal Decimal Classification (sometimes referred to as the Dewey Decimal Classification), which is the most commonly used classification system to differentiate between the many branches of sciences (among other separations) in libraries today.

Hayek, F. A. 1979, ‘The Individualist and ‘Compositive’ Method of the Social Sciences’, in The-Counter Revolution of Science, Liberty Fund, Indianapolis  

What is the difference between social and natural sciences?  


In this book chapter, the influential economist F. A. Hayek discusses differences between the natural and the social science. Addressing the relationship of a social scientist to an investigated phenomenon, and the relationship of the elements of a phenomenon to the phenomenon, his argument is that social sciences can merely explain the principles of the emergence of a phenomenon, but not forecast its results, as the natural sciences aim to do.

Ledoux, S. F. 2002, Defining Natural Sciences, in: Behaviorology Today, vol. 5, no. 1, pp. 34-36. This short article is an attempt to provide a definition of natural science by a professor who claims to study the natural science discipline of behavior called behaviorology (cf. http://www.canton.edu/employee/ledoux).

Mayntz, R. 2005, Forschungsmethoden und Erkenntnispotential: Natur- und Sozialwissenschaften im Vergleich, MPIfG Discussion Paper 05/7, Max Planck Institute for the Study of Societies, Cologne This white paper contrasts beautifully the natural and social sciences before the background of different methods that both employ. Along with a discussion of quantitative versus qualitative approaches, the fundamentally different stances of the two branches of science are contrasted with regard to implications for scientists and interpretations of their findings.

Mey, G. & Mruck. K. 2005, Qualitative Forschung: Zur Einführung in einen prosperierenden Wissenschaftszweig, Historical Social Research, vol. 30 no. 1, pp. 527 The article offers a brief overview of principal methodological orientations, and shared paradigmatic premises, presented with many references to the work of influential contemporary researchers in a historical context.

Okasha, S. 2002, Philosophy of Science: A very short introduction, Oxford University Press, Oxford This book is a very good introduction into the origins, past and present problems of science from a philosophical perspective. It illustrates many of the crucial stages of development, including criticism and streams of ideas at different times during the last centuries.


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