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Weekend Read – The puzzle of western social science

from Asad Zaman


Introduction: Briefly, we can state the puzzle as: “Why does Social Science claim to be UNIVERSAL, when it is based on analysis of European historical experience?”. Many authors have recognized this problem, which manifests itself in many ways. For example, Timothy Mitchell (2002) writes: “The possibility of social science is based upon taking certain historical experiences of the West as the template for a universal knowledge.” Many other authors have recognized that Western Social Sciences is founded on European historical experience, and requires radical reconstruction. Our goal in this note is mainly to articulate this puzzle. Some suggestions on possible solutions are sketched in the concluding remarks.

Restatement of the Puzzle: Social Science is study of human experience. CAN we generalize from the European experience to universal laws about mankind? Can the tragic European experience of brutal religious warfare between Protestants and Catholics be generalized to all humanity and all religions? Does it hold for the Amish, Buddhists, Confucians? What were the patterns of war and peace within the Islamic Civilization, The Chinese, African, and South American Empires? Without any study or discussion, can we assume that lessons from European experiences will be valid for these societies?

Evolution of Property Rights: We have strong reasons to believe otherwise. Universal Laws are blind to diversity & evolution. As an extremely specific example, consider the evolution in notions of property, as it was shaped by historical circumstances in Europe. In 16th Century England, property was held to be a TRUST, subject to rights of public; see Tawney (1998). The owner could not destroy or damage it, nor withhold rights of access or passage to others, when it served the public interest. However, frequent battles for power among landed nobility, often led to expropriation of properties of losers. This led to the emergence of the notion of property as inviolable right, not subject to authority of current ruling powers. This notion of absolute rights to private property is built into modern economic theory, without any recognition of its specificity to European historical context. To see this more clearly, note that other societies have, in accordance with their own historical and geographical contexts, evolved other conceptions of property. For example: The Cherokee Constitution of 1839 states: “The lands of the Cherokee Nation shall remain common property”.


Rational Decisions Based on Past Experiences? To understand this issue better, let us transpose this question to a smaller scale. Let us look at my personal life. Suppose I am choosing a career, choosing who to marry, or making other major life-decisions.  Are there universal laws – based on past human experience which can guide me? Can I rely on past experiences of myself or others, to help me decide whether I should be an artist, engineer, mountain-climber, or philosopher? This seems unlikely, given that many career options open now did not exist in the past. During the space-race with Russia, NASA was hiring physicists in huge numbers, in an all-out effort to win. The market responded by producing large numbers of physicists. After the lunar landing, NASA declared victory and dramatically downscaled the space program. As a result, physics Ph.D.’s could be found driving taxicabs in the streets of New York. Past experience did not serve well as a guide to the future.

The Binary Opposite of Universal Laws: Even though truth often lies in the middle, focusing on the polar extremes in a binary opposition helps to clarify thought. Accordingly, let us MEDITATE on Uniqueness as the polar opposite of laws based on patterns of past experience.

Meditation on Uniqueness: I am unique: there has never been any person like me in the past, or among my contemporaries. My current position, geographical and historical context,  are unique. My network of social relationships is unique.  Any LAW based on past experience can only provide general guidance – to be taken with a large grain of salt.  What if past experience is misleading? This moment of time never occurred in the past. The opportunities, threats, choices of this moment which I am living in never existed in the past.  Use of experience would BLIND me to these!!

The First Time: Questions which face those in touch with their uniqueness are rather different from those who would rely on general human experience, or rational decision theory. How to act when past experiences, and laws based on them are a handicap? How can revolutionaries acquire the courage to think thoughts which have never been thought before? Reach of human Intuition – the EUREKA moment! – Is outside the realm of past experience.


Uniqueness of European Historical Experience: We can translate these lessons from our meditation on uniqueness back to the Western Social Sciences.  What if lessons of European experience do not apply to the Islamic Civilization? What if European experience is unique and distinct, and the rest of world cannot use it? As a simple example, no one can embark on a program of global conquest and colonization as a path to progress today. Some specifics of the European historical experience are neither possible nor desirable as models to replicate for all humanity. Gutting & Oksala (2003) express the central message of Foucault as: “modern human sciences (biological, psychological, social) purport to offer universal scientific truths about human nature that are, in fact, mere expressions of ethical and political commitments of a society”.

Hedging Grand Claims: I have laid out a grand thesis impugning all of modern social sciences as merely an ideological commitment, a religion of secular modernity, which replaced Christianity in the European intellectual tradition. It is worth noting that several authors have formulated and defended this radical thesis, on different grounds. See, for example, Manicas (1987), Winch (1990), Epstein (2015), Wallerstein (2001), and many others. Articulating such a polar extreme is useful in achieving clarity, before hedging these claims. My own expertise lies in economics, which provides a perfect model for my thesis. In Zaman (2012), I have spelled out how the apparently objective foundations of “scarcity” conceal three different normative commitments. However, awareness of the problematic foundations of the social sciences exists to varying degrees in different disciplines within the social sciences. Anthropologists have rejected the racist origins of their discipline, and re-built it on new foundations. Economists are at the other polar extreme, and remain passionately committed to the scientific objectivity of their theories, denying the possibility of value-laden economic theory. Other disciplines within the social sciences lie between these poles. At the heart of the battle of methodologies (Methodenstreit) in the late 19th century, was the problem of historical specificity: “how can we extract universal lessons from specific historical experiences?”. Hodgson (2001) discusses this in detail, showing how this problem was never resolved, even though the scientific and mathematical approach to methodology prevailed in this battle.


Max Weber & Value-Free Social Science: At the risk of over-simplification, we may attribute current methodology to Max Weber’s (1949) call for value-free social science. This led to a scramble to rebuild the foundations on scientific, value-free grounds in the early 20th Century. The impact of this transformation on university education has been traced by Reuben (1996). She writes that: “In the late nineteenth century intellectuals assumed that truth had spiritual, moral, and cognitive dimensions. By 1930, however, intellectuals had abandoned this broad conception of truth. They embraced, instead, a view of knowledge that drew a sharp distinction between “facts” and “values.” They associated cognitive truth with empirically verified knowledge and maintained that, by this standard, moral values could not be validated as “true.” In the nomenclature of the twentieth century, only “science” constituted true knowledge. … The term truth no longer comfortably encompassed factual knowledge and moral values”.

The Entanglement of Facts and Values: The idea that facts and values are sharply separated, and scientific knowledge is based on facts alone, dominated the creation of modern social sciences. As Putnam (2002) writes in “The Collapse of the Fact/Value Dichotomy”, facts and values are “inextricably entangled” in most of our social science discourse. It is not possible to separate the two. Social science aims to extract lessons relevant to the life-experiences of the 7 billion people living on the planet today. Any comprehensible summary of this experience will involve massive reduction, which will necessarily utilize values to prioritize and pattern these facts. Focusing on the European experience would lead to radically different lessons from those of the African or Chinese experience. Given that it is impossible to construct value-free social science as per Weberian ideals, it is essential to rebuild the social sciences on explicit values rather than concealed ones.


The Way Forward:  Hausman and McPherson (2006) have a book length exposition of how values are embodied within apparently objective and ethically neutral economic theories. In particular “rational” behavior is the Trojan horse used to smuggle values into the citadel of economics. Given that values are inevitably involved in the study of human societies, it seems essential to create a methodology which explicitly acknowledges a guiding moral framework, instead of concealing it. One possible three-dimensional framework is given in Zaman (2019). Social sciences should explicitly specify:

  1. Normative: An ideal society.
  2. Positive: Description of existing society, in terms of shortcomings from ideal.
  3. Transformative: Effective policies to remove such shortcomings.

In fact, current social sciences use such frameworks, without explicit recognition or acknowledgment. Making the moral foundations explicit would add substantial clarity, and permit progress.


Epstein, Brian (2015). The ant trap: Rebuilding the foundations of the social sciences. Oxford Studies in Philosophy: Oxford.

Gutting, Gary and Johanna Oksala (2003) “Michel Foucault”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2003 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2003/entries/foucault/

Hausman, D. M. and McPherson, M. S. (2006). Economic Analysis, Moral Philosophy, and Public
Second Edition, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge

Hodgson, Geoffrey M. (2001) How economics forgot history: The problem of historical specificity in social science. Routledge, 2001.

Manicas, Peter T. (1987) A History and Philosophy of the Social Sciences, Basil Blackwell: Oxford.

Mitchell, Timothy (2002) Rule of experts: Egypt, techno-politics, modernity. Univ of California Press

Putnam, Hilary (2002) The collapse of the fact/value dichotomy and other essays. Harvard University Press.

Reuben, Julie A. (1996) The making of the modern university: Intellectual transformation and the marginalization of morality. University of Chicago Press.

Tawney, Richard Henry (1998) Religion and the Rise of Capitalism. Transaction publishers.

Wallerstein, Immanuel Maurice (2001) Unthinking social science: The limits of nineteenth-century paradigms. Temple University Press.

Weber, Max. (1949) Max Weber on the Methodology of the Social Sciences. Trans. and eds. Edward A. Shils and Henry A. Finch. Glencoe, IL: Free Press.

Winch, Peter (1990) The idea of a social science and its relation to philosophy. Psychology Press.

Zaman, Asad (2012) “The Normative Foundations of Scarcity,” Real-World Economics Review, issue no. 61, pp. 22-39. URL= https://ssrn.com/abstract=1554202 Zaman, Asad (2019) “Islam’s gift: An economy of spiritual development.” American Journal of Economics and Sociology 78.2 pp. 443-491. https://ssrn.com/abstract=3321866

  1. Ken Zimmerman
    April 4, 2021 at 9:58 am

    Life is messy. Being a human is messy. It’s not so neat as our ‘shoulds’ and ‘should nots’ would have us believe. Life is Messy: Stop Looking For Perfect and Embrace What Is. Nothing if perfect. Life is messy. Relationships are complex. Outcomes are uncertain. People are irrational sometimes, rational sometimes, and sometimes neither.

    This is, as they say, the ‘real world’ in which people act and interact every day. Not the world depicted by philosophers or scientists. The world people invent and make their own. What happens when social science tries to describe things that are complex, diffuse and messy. The answer, I will argue, is that it tends to make a mess of it. This is because simple clear descriptions do not work if what they are describing is not itself very coherent. The very attempt to be clear simply increases the mess.

    No doubt some things in the world can indeed be made clear and definite. Income distributions, global CO2 emissions, the boundaries of nation states, and terms of trade, these are the kinds of provisionally stable realities that social and natural science deal with more or less effectively. And thus, with which people can deal. But alongside such phenomena the world is also textured in quite different ways. Academic methods of inquiry do not really catch these. So, what are the textures they are missing out on? If we start to make a list then it quickly becomes clear that it is potentially endless. Pains and pleasures, hopes and horrors, intuitions and apprehensions, losses and redemptions, mundanities and visions, angels and demons, things that slip and slide, or appear and disappear, change shape or do not have much form at all, unpredictabilities, these are just a few of the phenomena that are hardly caught by social science methods. It may be, of course, that they do not belong to social science at all. But perhaps they do, or partly do, or should do. That, at any rate, is what I want to suggest. Parts of the world are caught in our ethnographies, our histories, our statistics, and our theories. But other parts are not, or if they are then this is because they have been distorted into clarity. This is the problem I see before every social scientist and thus every lay member of society. If much of the world is vague, diffuse or unspecific, slippery, emotional, ephemeral, elusive or indistinct, changes like a kaleidoscope, or does not really have much of a pattern at all, then where does this leave social science? How might we catch some of the realities we are currently missing? Can we know them well? Should we know them? Is ‘knowing’ the metaphor that we need? And if it is not, then how might we relate to them?
    I do not have a single response to these questions. In any case, if much of reality is ephemeral and elusive, then we cannot expect single answers. If the world is complex and messy, then at least some of the time we are going to have to give up on simplicities. But one thing is sure: if we want to think about the messes of reality at all then we are going to have to teach ourselves to think, to practice, to relate, and to know in new ways. We will need to teach ourselves to know some of the realities of the world using methods unusual to or unknown in social science.

    For example? Here are some possibilities. Perhaps we will need to know them through the hungers, tastes, discomforts, or pains of our bodies. These would be forms of knowing as embodiment. Perhaps we will need to know them through ‘private’ emotions that open us to worlds of sensibilities, passions, intuitions, fears and betrayals. These would be forms of knowing as emotionality or apprehension. Perhaps we will need to rethink our ideas about clarity and rigor and find ways of knowing the indistinct and the slippery without trying to grasp and hold them tight. Here knowing would become possible through techniques of deliberate imprecision. Perhaps we will need to rethink how far whatever it is that we know travels and whether it still makes sense in other locations, and if so how. This would be knowing as situated inquiry. Almost certainly we will need to think hard about our relations with whatever it is we know and ask how far the process of knowing it also brings it into being. And as a theme that runs through everything, we should certainly be asking ourselves whether ‘knowing’ is the metaphor that we need. Whether, or when. Perhaps the academy needs to think of other metaphors for its activities – or imagine other activities. Such talk is new but at the same time it is not so new. There are many straws in the social science wind which suggest that it is starting to blow in directions such as these. Over the last two decades methods for the analysis of visual materials, performance approaches, and an understanding of methods as poetics or interventionary narrative have all become important. Students of anthropology, cultural studies and sociology have grappled with ways of thinking about and describing decentred subjectivities and the geographical complexities that arise when intimacy no longer necessarily implies proximity. There is also a developing sense that global flows are uncertain, unpredictable indeed chaotic in the mathematical sense. Many now think that ethnography needs to work differently if it is to understand a networked or fluid world. The sense that knowledge is contexted and limited has become widespread, and feminists have talked of situated knowledges while anthropologists have explored writing and receiving culture. Market research, often more imaginative than academic social science, has developed methods such as tasting panels for understanding the non-cognitive and the ephemeral. And never to be outdone, management consultancy has adopted ‘soft methods’ for intervening in organizations by turning to dramatizations, enactments and performances.

    So, the world is on the move and social science more or less reluctantly follows. Agency is imagined as emotive and embodied, rather than as cognitive: the nature of the person is shifting in social theory and practice. Structures are imagined to be more broken or unpredictable in their fluidity. But at the same time, within social science, talk of ‘method’ still tends to summon up a relatively limited repertoire of responses. The collection and manipulation of certain kinds of quantitative data is emblematic for research methods in many parts of social science including much of sociology, economics, psychology, and human geography. The collection and manipulation of certain kinds of qualitative materials is iconographic in anthropology, cultural studies, science studies, and other parts of sociology and human geography. The quantitative/qualitative iconography – and its division – is built into many courses on research methods. In the English-speaking world it is unusual, perhaps impossible, to qualify as a degree-level social scientist without following such courses and learning the appropriate suites of methods. Indeed, national recognition of social science courses in the United Kingdom now demands that these include both quantitative and qualitative methods, though many students and teachers dislike such courses and find their content to be at best marginally relevant to the research process.

  2. Gerald Holtham
    April 5, 2021 at 5:41 pm

    I agree with Ken. Social science is not the search to define utopia, it is the study of actually existing social arrangements. Of course they will differ over time and place and very few generalizations apply irrespective of particular context. You can study something without endorsing it. Suggesting “improvements” requires a social consensus on objectives, which may or may not exist. Getting to agreed objectives is a matter for politics. How is social science supposed to mediate between the different ideal visions of the Chinese Communist Party, Alternative for Deutschland or Daesh?

    • Ken Zimmerman
      April 5, 2021 at 10:01 pm

      Gerald, in my view social science is comparable to a horse following a stream to water. It does not matter how the horse follows or finds, only that the horse finds the water. Social scientists, in my view ought to spend their time looking for the markers and ‘clues’ humans show in their actions and inactions, pronouncements and silences back to the cultures (ways of life) from which these actions, etc. are sourced. On the surface a rather simple job. But actually a complex one when one has learned through experience the variability, subtlety, and denseness of human cultures. Theorizing is never the first or even second job of a social scientist. Neither is the philosophy of their methods. The first and always primary job of social scientists is to follow humans in all they do, say, write, export, and import. To paraphrase what a BMW executive told me once, all else follows from this.

      • Laurent Leduc
        April 6, 2021 at 7:43 pm

        Hi Ken Z.

        The BMW executive forgot ‘think’ and ‘believe’.

        Also, being acquainted with horses, why would a horse on finding a stream be interested in looking for its source?

      • Ken Zimmerman
        April 6, 2021 at 9:41 pm

        Cannot really stop thinking and believing. Goes with the territory. As to horses, they are pretty stupid so I am not sure what they do or why they do it. Plus, I am not good at analogies.

  3. Questa Nota
    April 6, 2021 at 2:36 pm

    See also Joseph Henrich and his books on the unique aspects of WEIRD countries and related topics. His works provide further detail about the puzzle mentioned at the start of the column.

    People in different cultures think and live differently, in ways that simpler models and assumptions don’t capture or even acknowledge.

  4. Gerald Holtham
    April 6, 2021 at 4:52 pm

    Agreed. But what is science? It is the search for simple principles underlying complex and apparently disordered phenomena. Such principles have been revealed in the the natural world. Perhaps the search for them in human societies and interactions is a vain search but it is not an unworthy one in itself. In any case we are not obliged to like what we find. Explication does not signify agreement.

    • Ken Zimmerman
      April 6, 2021 at 9:59 pm

      There is no agreed upon definition of science of which I am aware. The American Physical Society tried to create one back in the 90s and failed. My view is that science is the search for patterns in the world (the events and things around us) through observation and testing of hypotheses. The question of how far these patterns exist in time and place is impossible to answer with finality. The physical universal is endless. Or, so we believe. As is the human cultural worlds. Or, so we believe. From this perspective the science of anything is never done. Always in process.

  5. Laurent Leduc
    April 6, 2021 at 7:54 pm

    Hello Asad Z.

    I’m starting to read your work (in addition to this posting) and do certainly appreciate your comments and critique. I see important parallels between your thinking and that of John Cobb and Herman Daly in their For the Common Good. Cobb is a Process Theologian who follows Whitehead’s process philosophy.

  6. Robert Locke
    April 9, 2021 at 10:50 am

    There are lots os comparative studies, see the Journal of World History that publishes research into historical questions requiring the investigation of evidence on a global, comparative, cross-cultural, or transnational scale. It is devoted to the study of phenomena that transcend the boundaries of single states, regions, or cultures, such as large-scale population movements, long-distance trade, cross-cultural technology transfers, and the transnational spread of ideas. Individual subscription is by membership in the World History Association.

    World History Association Logo

    Sponsored by the World History Association and the Department of History, College of Arts & Humanities, University of Hawai’i

    The journal editorial office is hosted by Weber State University.

    Submit your manuscript online.

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