Summary of Singleton and Straits, 2005, Chapter 2: The Nature of Science, in Approaches to Social Research

Singleton and Straits’ Chapter, The Nature of Science (2005) deals with exactly that, the nature of science. It is an attempt to offer a response to the questions of what science is, what it is not, how it is developed and what are its limitations. It is interested particularly in social science with heavier reference made to sociology and political science. The content of this chapter is foundational for developing an understanding of (and appreciation for?) scientific research.

“What unites science are its objectives, its presuppositions, its general methodology and its logic” (2005, pg. 14). Accordingly, the goal of science is to produce ideas about questions which are appropriate to ask of science (i.e. questions whose answers may be observed). Importantly this means that questions of “morality, existence or ultimate causality” (pg. 16) are outside the purview of science as they are arguably not verifiable through observation.

The product of science, ideas or knowledge helps with our understanding of the world by offering a tentative description of, explanation for, prediction about and/or relationship between certain phenomena. Singleton and Strait state that “Scientists never achieve complete understanding, nor do they assume access to indubitable truths” (pg. 22). While I agree that this is a principle that is inherently at the core of scientific inquiry, I am concerned by a feeling that this is not a characteristic of science that is often emphasized when its products (ideas) are applied to “real world” problems.

While ideas and knowledge are the products of science, the process and principles and/or conditions under which these are produced, are perhaps most characteristic of science. These principles/conditions are:

  • Logical reasoning: requiring that conclusions are based in evidence (whether inductive or deductive)
  • Empiricism: requiring that evidence be observable using at least one of five senses (observation may be direct or indirect, using tools which extend ability/capacity to observe
  • Objectivity: requiring intersubjective testability – the notion that “it would be possible for two or more independent observers…to agree that they are observing the same thing or event” (pg.31).
  • Control: requiring efforts to “eliminate, as far as possible, sources of bias and error that may distort their results” (pg. 32).

These authors are forthcoming in offering that their view of science is idealized and that in reality, there are a number of constraints and challenges which prevent science from being fully actualized as described. The strength of this chapter is that it offers a very clear definition and description of science, which can (and likely should) be applied when considering any research which claims to be based in scientific inquiry. While these authors acknowledge the limits of science and the imperfection of its general application (though I might argue that this is perhaps a bit underemphasized), they offer an extremely straightforward standard by which ideas may be characterized as scientific or not, and they provide students (such as myself) a tool for understanding the principles which should be apparent in the social scientific work that we read, absorb and utilize as a foundation for our own pursuits.

Really annoying discussion question:
If the scientific method is required to produce scientific ideas, does this mean that this chapter – which offered little verifiable evidence to suggest that the “nature of science” was determined using scientific methods – is unscientific? What is the nature of these author’s knowledge about what science is or is not?

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