Chapter 19 – How To Read Social Science (part 2 of 2)


Paradoxically, the very factors we have discussed, the factors which make social science seem easy to read, also make it difficult to read. Consider the last factor mentioned, for instance – the commitment that you as a reader are likely to have to some view of the matter your author is considering. Many readers fear that it would be disloyal to their commitment to stand apart and impersonally question what they are reading. Yet this is necessary whenever you read analytically. Such a stance is implied by the rules of reading, at least by the rules of structural outlining and interpretation. If you are going to answer the first two questions that should be asked of anything you read, you must, as it were, check your opinions at the door. You cannot understand a book if you refuse to hear what it is saying.

The very familiarity of the terms and propositions in social science writing is also an obstacle to understanding. Many social scientists recognize this themselves. They object vigorously to the use of more or less technical terms and concepts in popular journalism and other writings. An example of such a concept is that of the Gross National Product (GNP). In serous economic writing, the concept is employed in a relatively limited sense. But many reporters and columnists, some social scientists say, make the concept do too much work. They use it too widely, without really understanding what it means. Obviously, if the writer of something you are reading is confused about his use of a key term, you, as reader, must be so, too.

Another is that stipulation of usage in the social or behavioral sciences is harder to do. It is one thing to define a circle or an isosceles triangle; it is quite another to define an economic depression or mental health. Even if a social scientist attempts to define such terms, his readers are inclined to question his usage. As a result, the social scientist must continue to struggle with his own terms throughout his work – and his struggle creates problems for his reader.

The most important source of difficulty in reading social science derives from the fact that this field of literature is a mixed, rather than a pure, kind of expository writing. We have seen how history is a mixture of fiction and science, and how we must read it with that in mind. … The situation in social science is quite different. Much social science is a mixture of science, philosophy, and history, often with some fiction thrown in for good measure.

If social science were always the same kind of mixture, we could become familiar with it as we have with history. But this is far from the case. The mixture itself shifts from book to book, and the reader is confronted with the task of identifying the various strands that go to make up what he is reading. These strands may change in the course of a single book as well as in different books. It is no easy job to separate them out.

You will recall that the first step the analytical reader has to take is to answer the question, What kind of book is this? In the case of fiction, that question is relatively easy to answer. In the case of science and philosophy, it is also relatively easy; and even if history is mixed form, at least the reader ordinarily knows that he is reading history. But the various strands that go to make up social science – sometimes interwoven in this pattern, sometimes in that, sometimes in still another – make the question very hard to answer when we are reading a work in the fields involved. The problem, in fact, precisely as difficult as the problem of defining social science. 

Nevertheless, the analytical reader must somehow manage to answer the question. It is not only his first task, but also his most important. If he is able to say what strands go to make up the book he is reading, he will have moved a good way toward understanding it.

Outlining a work in social science poses no special problems, but coming to terms with the author, as we have already suggested, may be extremely difficult, owing to the relative inability of the author to stipulate his usage. Nevertheless, some common understanding of the key terms is usually possible. From terms we move to propositions and arguments, and her again there is no special problem if the book is a good one. But the last question, What of it?, requires considerable restraint on the part of the reader. It is here that the situation we described earlier may occur – namely, the situation in which the reader says, “I cannot fault the author’s conclusions, but I nevertheless disagree with them.” This comes about, of course, because of the prejudgments that the reader is likely to have concerning the author’s approach and his conclusions.


More than once in the course of this chapter we have employed the phrase “social science literature” instead of “social science book.” The reason is that it is customary in social science to read several books about a subject rather than one book for its own sake. … when reading social science, we often have our eye primarily on a particular matter or problem, rather than on a particular author or book. Typically, there is no single, authoritative work on any of these subjects, and we must therefore read several.

The rules of analytical reading are not in themselves applicable to the reading of several works on the same subject. They apply to each of the works that is read, of course, and if you want to read any of them well you have to observe them. But new rules of reading are required as we pass from the third level of reading (analytical reading), to the fourth (syntopical reading). We are now prepared to tackle that fourth level, having come to see, because of this characteristic of social science, the need for it.