Interpretive Social Science and Policy Analysis

  • Bruce Jennings
Part of the The Hastings Center Series in Ethics book series (HCSE)


The last ten years have been a period of remarkable theoretical and methodological diversity in the social sciences. In one sense, there is nothing unusual about this. The social sciences have never had the kind of standardized textbook education and puzzle-solving, normal research that Thomas Kuhn describes as characteristic of the mature natural sciences.1 But, at least until recently, most social scientists did share a common view of what scientific inquiry ought, in principle, to be like. So, in spite of the fact that social scientists were divided among a plethora of various theoretical “approaches,” methodologically and epistemologically they enjoyed a relatively secure set of common aspirations and regulative ideals: de- ductive—nomological explanation, the experimental testability of proposed theoretical and empirical laws, the operationalization of concepts, formal modeling, and the like.2 What is new about the course that discussions of these matters has taken in the 1970s is that, while substantive theoretical diversity continues to be the rule, the epistemological consensus centering around the tenets of logical positivism and empiricism has itself been shaken almost to the point of nervous collapse. The principal reason for this is that recent work in the history and philosophy of science has persuasively called into question the validity of these tenets, showing that they do not provide an adequate conception of the nature of inquiry within the natural sciences themselves.3 This thoroughgoing philosophical reassessment of the natural sciences has created, in turn, an opening for a parallel reconsideration of the nature of social scientific inquiry. As a result, the theoretical situation in the social sciences has become a good deal more difficult and complex than it used to be, because now each “approach” must not only defend itself on substantive and conceptual grounds but also cast about for its own epistemological justification.


Social Science Policy Analysis Social Scientific Inquiry Policy Analyst Interpretive Approach 
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Copyright information

© The Hastings Center 1983

Authors and Affiliations

  • Bruce Jennings
    • 1
  1. 1.The Hastings CenterInstitute of Society, Ethics and the Life SciencesHastings-on-HudsonUSA

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