EMPIRICISM (Social Science)

Empiricism can be traced back to Aristotle’s dictum, "there is nothing in the intellect that is not first in the senses," although Aristotle himself is not usually regarded as an empiricist in the modern sense. The theoretical foundations of modern philosophical empiricism are found in the works of John Locke, George Berkeley, and David Hume, and in the nineteenth-century philosopher William James. These philosophers inquired about the limits and scope of the human mind, and argued that experience itself is the primary source of all knowledge. Empiricism is thus a theory of knowledge that highlights the importance of experience. The term experience can be defined minimally, as in terms of the senses, or expanded to include all forms of consciousness.

Locke’s project in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690) was to set out "to enquire into the origin, certainty, and extent of human knowledge" (Locke 1975, p. 43). Locke argued that knowledge is restricted to ideas generated by objects that one experiences through the senses (ideas of sensation) or by reflection upon our mental operations on those ideas (ideas of reflection). In this complex sense, knowledge and human understanding in general (including unscientific beliefs such as justice) originate in experience, as the origin of all ideas is in experience, which involves two logical levels, sensation and reflection. Each person’s mind can be thought of as initially a blank tablet (tabula rasa) first written upon by the sensations of experience (ideas of sensation), which can then be manipulated in various ways, the ideas of which— the ideas of reflection—being the second level of experience.

Berkeley argued in both Principles (1710) and Dialogues (1713) against the actual existence of matter, and claimed in his dictum "to be is to be perceived" (or to perceive). This means that objects can never be understood independently of their ideas since, for Berkeley, the object and sensation are the same thing. Berkeley maintained that there are only ideas and minds, or the location where ideas occur. Thus a thing is understood as the sum of perceived qualities. Although for Berkeley it is impossible to think of anything except as it related to the mind, both Berkeley and Locke believed that all knowledge about the existence of things and the reality of matter depends on visual and sensory experience.

In his work Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1784), Hume claimed that human senses allow people to perceive, and these perceptions (made up of impressions and ideas) are the contents of the mind. The original thought itself, according to Hume, is an impression, and an idea is only a copy of an impression. The difference between the two is their vividness, for when one reflects upon these impressions one has ideas of them. Hume’s work does not ground impressions to a material world, and argues instead that impressions are internal subjective states that do not provide evidence of an external reality.

In his metaphysics, James wrote in a tradition that focuses on the process of consciousness based in experi-ence—a "process metaphysics." For James, humans have a continuous development of thought that is based in interpretations of the experiences themselves. In this way, human consciousness consists of experienced relations (a "stream of thought"), which are themselves experienced (affectively and effectively), as one both transforms and is transformed by these experiences. Indeed, James’s radical empiricism is pluralistic in that it allows for different points of view—different "givennesses"—of reality. Because James allowed for individual perspectives of experience, it follows that one’s epistemologies themselves are informed by one’s experiences. Absolute unity of reality, for James, is "ever not quite," as "fact" is based on experience, and the multiple experiences of experience itself. Thus there is no objective truth, as Jamesian truth is experientially cognized at the level of subjective/individual perception.

The empirical tradition runs counter to rationalist philosophy, which poses that knowledge can be derived through the exercise of reason alone, and in terms of a person’s rational power. All of the aforementioned philosophers wrote in a tradition that opposes the rationalist view, represented most notably by the French mathematician and philosopher Rene Descartes, that humans enter the world with innate ideas built into the mind itself. Instead, these philosophers argue that persons must rely on experience itself to inform knowledge claims.


Within the social sciences, empiricism describes research methods that depend on the collection of facts and observations, some of which require verification, counting, and measuring. Although a researcher may use empirical methods, it does not follow that he or she is a philosophical empiricist, and does not make one an empiricist per se. There are thus many forms of empirical research methods.

Auguste Comte, a sociologist and philosopher, held that knowledge of the world arises from observation, and conceived of positivism as a method of study based on the strict use of the scientific method. He asserted that authentic knowledge (or all true knowledge) is scientific knowledge that is objective, predictable, and has logical structures. Logical positivism (or logical/rational empiricism) combines positivism with a verifiability criterion for meaningfulness. For logical positivists, all knowledge should be based on logical inference, justification, and verifiability through experience or observation. Meaningful statements fall into two categories for the logical positivist, a priori analytic knowledge (necessary truths that are knowable prior to experience; for example, all circles are round) and a posteriori synthetic knowledge (or contingent knowledge that is verified by sensory experience; for example, it is raining outside). Quantitative methodology is a kind of scientific empiricism and refers to the compilation and analysis of numerical data, which for the social scientist is empirical in nature since it can be tested and verified (validated or falsified) by empirical observation. Moreover, quantitative methodology is positivistic since it relies on scientific and systematic observation and experiment, and can be thought of as the scientific approach to the study of sociocultural life.

Nonetheless, although social scientists do not ask underlying metaphysical questions about the actual existence of objects, they are indeed concerned with the experience of social objects and phenomena. For example, the first professor of sociology, Emile Durkheim, in his book The Rules of Sociological Method (1938), enshrined this idea with his conceptualization of a "social fact," which is as objective as facts are in the natural sciences.

For Thomas Kuhn, empirical methods are capable of elucidating and eradicating problems within paradigms during periods of "normal science." Interestingly, Kuhn shows how this "science" is reflective of one’s theoretical connectedness to a specific paradigm itself, and is not the reflection of any truth-claims to knowledge.

Social constructivism is a philosophical theory of knowledge that states that knowledge itself is contingent upon social experience, context, convention, and human perception. Some examples of socially constructed knowledge are gender (feminine and masculine), sexuality, and racial categories. This theory of knowledge does not necessarily reflect any external "transcendent" metaphysical reality, and is instead based on a socially constructed reality as opposed to an ontological reality. However, the notion of experience is still important for a constructivist, as experiences between and among individuals differs within and outside of varying contexts, thereby allowing for different "realities," some of which are based in oppression (for example, women, minorities, and homosexuals).

Empirical methods have been used to study race, gender, sexuality, and religion, among a plethora of other social phenomena such as crime, deviance, attitudes, and beliefs.

Considering race, there has been much research done in social science regarding migration, connections with class, connections to skin color, social surveys of self-image and self-regard among ethnic minorities, and measuring prejudice in terms of scales of social and ethnic "distance." Additional quantitative studies concerning race have focused on social inequality, institutional racism, patterns of interaction and segregation, genocide, social standing, poverty, and assimilation of dominant culture patterns.

Gender has been studied in the social sciences through the analysis of images of women in media and culture. These empirical studies of symbols and images range from studies of archaeological statues of goddesses to contemporary studies of how women are portrayed in film or advertisements. Discrepancies in gender stratification and sexism can be analyzed from a quantitative approach, as can the important issue of violence against women. Additionally, empirical studies of gender also inform analyses of family relations, employment patterns, and distribution of wealth, education trends, and politics.

Using empirical methods to study sexuality, social scientists focus on topics such as sexual orientation, contraception, prostitution, gender identity, and attraction. Additional research can also be found on teen pregnancy, fertility, pornography, activist movements, sexual violence, sex education, and queer studies. One of the most important works in this area is The Archaeology of Knowledge (1972) by Michel Foucault.

Religion has also been analyzed empirically in terms of socioeconomic status, the family, marriage patterns, social class, family violence, cohabitation, political affiliation, church attendance, opinions about religious matters, as well as feelings, beliefs, and behaviors pertaining to religion as measured by social surveys. This is especially evident in the work of Rodney Stark, but began as early as 1904 in Max Weber’s seminal work The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.

Louis Althusser critiqued empiricism as a methodological stance and argued against the empirical process of knowledge, claiming that theoretical discourse is a "production," making empiricism itself ideological and dogmatic, and therefore not scientific. According to Althusser, "facts" of theoretical discourse are tied to theoretical practice, making knowledge itself a form of discourse.

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