Social Science and Social Struggle: Understanding the Necessary Confluence of Scholarship and Political Commitment


  • Michael Clow St. Thomas University



Social scientists and historians are wary to acknowledge that political commitments play a part in their explanations of society. But we all know they do. Are we poor scientists? Not according to the Edinburgh School, which argues all successful scientific theories are but practical knowledge, shaped by the encounter of human purpose and empirical world. Practical knowledge always involves the uncertain, trial and error application of the intellectual resources drawn from exemplary solutions to new situations. Praxis is the only valid path to knowledge. But no matter how successful, practical knowledge is a theoretically and empirically limited ‘working knowledge' which cannot produce sure understanding of the generative processes producing what we see. What distinguishes studies of society from those of Nature is that the political purposes of conflicting scholarly traditions are so deeply and manifestly divergent. 


Implications? Above all we should be skeptical about any strong claims to theoretical certainty, on our part or by others. Dogmatism and sectarianism are epistemologically untenable in the Edinburgh view. Scientific debate would be advanced if we were as open about our political orientations as we are enjoined to be about research design and methodology. And demanded the same of others. This may be possible across ‘camps' in the same tradition and even ideological barriers, where goodwill prevails.  In the public sphere the Edinburgh perspective suggests the shifting of the grounds of debate and the framing/reframing of issues requires a tacit recognition that social knowledge is shaped by its political purposes and cannot simply be ‘the facts m'am, just the facts.'

Author Biography

Michael Clow, St. Thomas University

Michael Clow is a Professor of Sociology at St. Thomas University in Fredericton, New Brunswick. His interests include the sociology of scientific knowledge, news and ideology, Canadian and Maritime political economy, society and ecology, and the industrialization of tree harvesting. He is the author of Stifling Debate: Canadian Newspapers and Nuclear Power, Fernwood Books (Halifax, 1993) and ";Just More of the Same?: Confederation and Globalization";, in Henry Veltmeyer and R. James Sacouman, From the Net to the Net, Broadview Press (Aurora, ON 2006).