Social Science Theory and Methodology Term Paper

Pages: 6 (1619 words)  ·  Bibliography Sources: 1  ·  File: .docx  ·  Level: College Senior  ·  Topic: Mythology - Religion

Social Science

Religion, Society, and the Scientific Method

The social sciences are often referred to as the "soft sciences," in comparison to the "hard sciences" such as physics and chemistry, where direct empirical observation can lead to fairly certain conclusions. This type of certainty is simply not achievable in the social science for several reasons, the most insurmountable of which is the sheer size and scope of the questions that the social sciences attempt to answer, which cannot practically (or ethically, even if it were practically possible) be reduced to controlled laboratory settings, as the questions investigated by the hard sciences can. This does not mean that empirical observation and objective analysis are irrelevant in the social sciences, however; they are, in fact, still the only reliable means of drawing scientific conclusions. The construction and application of such techniques in the soft sciences, however, becomes much more complex.

Religion and the Western World

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One major question that social scientists have grappled is, to what extent does religion act as a force in shaping modern society? This question can also be examined historically of course, though for much of Western history politics were intimately and inextricably united with religion (at least officially), enabling somewhat more definite connections to be drawn between religion and society until the beginning of the modern period. The separation of Church and State, however, as well as the growth in religious diversity and the increasing secularization of large portions of Western society, has led to a definite shift in the dynamic that exists between society and religion, which certainly warrants examination.

Term Paper on Social Science Theory and Methodology Assignment

The decades following World War II, and arguably the last two decades especially, have made this question of increasing importance, as religious beliefs have been cited by some as major shapers of ideologies, which themselves are perceived at the heart of many political and military actions (Perry & Perry 2008; pp. 365). In addition, Karl Marx perceived an extremely alienating effect produced by religion and specifically by the worship and fear of a God that was a human creation, and that this alienation was used -- both consciously and subconsciously -- to create social and political divisions that could be exploited by certain power structures (Perry & Perry 2008; pp. 365). This understanding of religion suggests that, despite the increased secularization of many Western nations, religion could still play a very important role in the shaping of Western society.

Dominant Religious Beliefs

The first major issue that is encountered in trying to ascertain the extent of religion's influence on society is finding a way to determine exactly what the religious beliefs of Western society as a whole are. The issue is only somewhat simplified by narrowing the focus of the question to a single country; the United States, which in many ways (for better or for worse) epitomizes modern Western society, has an incredible diversity of religious views, and hugely varying degrees of fervency among those that share the same beliefs. Establishing precisely what the dominant religious beliefs of Western society generally -- or the United States specifically -- actually are is a very necessary first step in determining the level of influence these beliefs have on society and politics.

The question cannot be answered purely empirically via the scientific method; there is simply no way to codify all of the differing beliefs that exist. Judaism, for example, is discussed as a single religion by Perry & Perry (2008), with a certain set of beliefs. The picture that appears on page 364 shows a young girl -- presumably receiving her bat mitzvah -- reading from the Torah, the sacred scroll of the Jewish religion. In Orthodox Jewish congregations, however, women are not permitted to read from the scroll itself or to lead religious ceremonies, and in fact Orthodox synagogues are physically segregated by gender. The differences that exist in the basic theological beliefs of the many Christian sects and sub-sects are even greater, and in many cases these differences are unquantifiable, rendering them unapproachable by traditional scientific methods -- subjective questionnaires must be used instead.

Dominant Political Ideologies

Though determining the dominant religious beliefs in a society is difficult, it is nothing compared to determining the dominant political beliefs in a Western democratic culture. The media has a tendency to divide individuals and political beliefs into two camps, "conservative" and "liberal." These terms are vague enough to cause a host of confusions and complications, and making matters still worse is the way they are equated with the dominant political parties in the U.S. And other countries. In reality, of course, most individuals hold beliefs that can be seen in the gray areas of the liberal-conservative continuum; this type of binary opposition necessarily oversimplifies many issues, and inherently excludes many individuals and their beliefs from political dialogue and scholarship.

In order to scientifically analyze the actual political beliefs of society, incredibly detailed questionnaires would need to be distributed to a large portion of the population in the different regions of the Western world (or within the different regions of the United States, for a narrowed focus), and even after careful analysis of the responses to these questionnaires, certain generalizations and assumptions would have to be made in order to come to a practical and useful determination of what dominant political ideologies existed in the population in general. This approach is as scientific as is truly possible given the wide array of non-quantifiable political views that exist, yet it does not conform to the same standards of the scientific method that exist in the hard sciences, where precise and direct measurements can be taken.

Relationships Between Dominant Beliefs

After the dominant religious and political beliefs have been determined insofar as they accurately can be, there is still another issue that must be tackled before a full consideration of the level of influence religion plays in society can be undertaken. The various relationships between certain religious and political ideologies must first be established. Though this might seem to be the same question, it is in fact a subsidiary to the larger question at hand -- the primary question attempts to determine whether or not a causal link exits between religion and politics, but before a determination of causation can be determined the relationship must be understood on more simple terms. Some of these relationships might be directly and obviously causal, such as religious beliefs affecting an individual's views on abortion and the death penalty, but others are far more complex.

The research methods for establishing such relationships is somewhat more objective and empirical than the initial determinations of religious beliefs and political ideologies were, though the necessary subjectivity in codifying these beliefs would of course influence the view of any relationships perceived between the two. Essentially, the data collected and analyzed that established the dominant religious beliefs and political ideologies of the populations studies would have to be compared to each other, and any apparent relationship would arise out of established patterns of belief. That is, if a particular religious belief was often reported by individuals that also reported a specific political ideology, a relationship could be said to exist between the two beliefs. This does still not determine causation, which it is still the eventual goal of the research to render explicit.

Social Sciences and the Scientific Method

The first several steps of the scientific method can be wholly applied to investigations undertaken in the social sciences without any substantive changes. Defining a particular problem demands that more complex issues be considered, such as the difference between a relationship and causation, but in general the real differences are to be found in research design and the subsequent steps. For the questions detailed above, experimentation and case studies will not yield reliable (or necessarily any) results, and research must… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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