Social Science and Public Policy

Richard Freeman

Explanation and Understanding

The course explores theoretical issues that arise for those undertaking social and political research. It aims to both offer a clear introduction of a range of theoretical issues and puzzles, as well as stimulate discussion and debate about how to deal with these. The course is divided into two halves. In the first half, the main concern is what the units of study should be for social and political analysis. Should we focus our attention purely on individuals and their choices, or are there institutions that shape and constrain what individuals do? If such institutions exist, how can we characterise them? Does it make sense to look not only at institutions, but also systems?

In the second half of the course, we look at issues around the status and purpose of social scientific knowledge. Is it the case that social scientists can justifiably criticise the understandings of actors? Do the social and political sciences make progress? By the end of the course, we hope to have encouraged students to think in new ways about the nature, objects and goals of social and political research. We also hope to have encouraged students to reflect critically on research in their chosen fields, and to be able to use theoretical concepts to inform and develop their research in these areas.

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