Hammersley, M. (2014) The limits of social science. Causal explanation and value relevance
In this short book, Hammersley argues for a social science which eschews grand theorising in favour of the explanation of social phenomena. Drawing inspiration from Max Weber and referring to a range of social theorists and philosophers, Hammersley encourages social scientists to re-think what they are actually doing as researchers in order to create a social science which generates knowledge which is both reliable and valid. Some readers might, of course, reply that there are no problems with social research as an intellectual endeavour, but Hammersley’s purpose seems to be to awake us from our slumbers. This is a task in which he partially succeeds. Hammersley is not, for example, opposed to causal analysis in the social sciences, but argues that we should raise our game by adopting ‘within-case and cross-case analysis’. He also prioritises explanation over theorising with the proviso that ‘all purpose’ explanations are not possible because explanations are ‘always answers to particular questions’. He also argues that value conclusions cannot be derived from evidence, and offers convincing arguments why this might be the case. The consequence of Hammersley’s position is that social research should be limited to making ‘factual’ statements rather than ‘value’ claims. Although much of the book is theoretical, the author grounds his views by referring to social mobility research and to work on the English riots of 2011.
What I most enjoyed about this book is that Hammersley encourages the reader to think hard about social research practice. He is, for example, unconvinced by the view that there is a direct relationship between research and policy outcomes. On the contrary, he says that the relationship is ‘highly mediated and contingent’. Moreover, he recognises that different social science disciplines employ different methods of explanation. One has only to think of the very different approaches of the experimental psychologist and of the historian to appreciate that he has a point. But such explanatory pluralism in the social sciences has a disturbing consequence. If there is no agreed threshold which all social scientists have to meet in order to generate valid and reliable knowledge, then how do these disciplines differ from vocations like investigative or data journalism? In addition, Hammersley draws a sharp distinction between ‘facts’ which are of interest to the social scientist and ‘value claims’ which should be of interest to policymakers and think tanks. If true, it is very hard to see how social researchers can make the case for funding their work in a cultural environment which does not recognise that knowledge has value in itself. Hammersley recognises this point but does not offer any solutions.
This book is not a paean to social science as it is currently practised and will be, to use Hammersley’s own word, a ‘deflationary’ read for some. If, however, you want to read something which may question your preconceptions, this book is a good place to begin.
Review originally published in Research Matters, December 2015