Valedictory Address of the Seven-Day Research Methodology Workshop
Prof. T.K.Oommen, Professor Emeritus at the Centre for the Study of Social Systems, Jawaharlal Nehru University, began his lecture by posing the question ‘whether there can be a social science which is of universal character?’ To address this question he narrated the difference between nomothetic and ideographic orientation. Nomothetic implies the discovery of universal laws whereas ideographic stands for the uniqueness of an individual phenomenon.
He said that positivism was the approach that emphasised on nomothetic tradition implying that all branches of knowledge can be studied through one standard approach. Contrary to this, humanist approach propounded by German Sociologist Max Weber dealt with the idea of verstehen which means empathy with the subject matter and understand the position of others. With this brief introduction, he categorised three fields of knowledge.
The first category deals with the material objects and their specificity. It is one dimensional and has no dimension of agency. Matter is capable of only reactivity. The second category is life sciences in which objects are capable of responsivity. Plants and animals are the objects of study in life sciences. It is two dimensional consisting of both matter and life. Researches in life sciences are complex than the material sciences. The third category is Cultural Science or Social Science that deals with three dimensions of matter, life and culture. It is only human beings who have culture. In opposition to reactivity and responsivity of material and life sciences, Cultural Science is reflexive in nature. It is because of the complex nature of culture research in social science is difficult. The core element of culture is the ability of humans to create symbols. Hence, Social Science’s subject matter is deeply embedded in cultural symbols.
After describing nature of Social Science and its complex subject matter, Prof. moved to other related question i.e. ‘can we think in terms of objectivity in social science?’ He said that objectivity as it is preached in natural sciences is not possible to apply in Social Science. He explained this argument with the help of an example: if there is cold water in a bucket and hot water in another, one can easily find this out by putting the hand in the water. So the physical properties of being hot and cold make it easy to differentiate water. But if there is ordinary water in a bucket and ‘holy’ water in the other, one cannot differentiate it with the physical properties. It can only be differentiated through symbols. So natural sciences can make universal generalisations and are capable of producing generalising objectivity whereas social sciences are capable of generating particularising objectivity. The objectivity in social sciences is cultural context specific. Therefore, if one accepts the proposition that social science deals with extremely complex subject matter and the findings are influenced by value orientations, then one should not emphasise much on objectivity in Social Science.
With these remarks, Prof. Oommen discussed Indian society and its specificity. He said that there are four criteria through which any society is studied i.e. heterogeneity, stratification, hierarchy and externality. Most of the societies are heterogeneous and stratified in nature, but Indian society has all the four characters making it all the more difficult to study. All these elements interact and overlap in Indian society generating cumulative domination and discrimination as against the dispersed discrimination in other countries. All these aspects make it difficult for the researchers to study any phenomenon of Indian society. Hence, the task for Social Science researchers in India is more challenging.