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York University
CRIM 2653
Anita Lam

Positivism & Criminology The Social Sciences, Methodological Legitimacy, and the CJS Scientific Method • Seeks to prevent errors of causal inquiry—of checking our research against our own limitations. • Objectivity, logic, theoretical understanding, and knowledge of prior research • Systematic search for the most accurate and complete explanation—there are discrete steps to verify the results • Note on the importance of science: It was a reaction against social tradition and common sense • Avoid errors in reasoning: overgeneralization, resistance to change, selective observations, illogical reasoning Social Science (LOOK AT CHART ON PPT ONLINE) Social sciences are different from the natural sciences in the object of their study and the nature of the knowledge they seek. – SOCIAL SCIENCE IS NOT OBJECTIVE BUT RIGOUROUS --difference between the two worlds themselves --nature of relationship between the observer and the observed. --we study nature from without --human sciences, the observer, every aspect of themselves, is part of the object of study Scientific Method and Criminological Research Empiricism: seeking answers to questions through direct observation Skepticism: search for disconfirming evidence, continued process of questioning the conclusions drawn (we often call this the principle of falsification) Objectivity: sees the world as it really is, free of prejudice or perspective. Intersubjectivity: attempt to mitigate the effects of one’s biases by building guards against into one’s research model. In other words, there needs to be more proof by other people; not just one. Ethical neutrality: the researcher’s private beliefs or predelictions should not enter into the analysis of the data. Parsimony: reduction of possible explanations for something to the fewest, best single, explanation. Often called “occams razor” Accuracy: observations should be recorded correctly exactly as they occurred. Precision: specifying the number of subcategories of a concept that are available. Claim to Objectivity • The authors make the following, astonishing, claim (pg. 6): • “Just as a criminal investigation is a search for “the facts” and a criminal trial is a search for “the truth”, the scientific method is a search for knowledge.” This is a fallacy. Refers to a positivistic approach Relationship between Theory and Practice • Practice: deals with those things, which “practical good is that which is capable of being otherwise” (Barry 30) and this involves prudence: the process of deliberation or weighing up of different contending options. Practical sciences, then, deal with the deliberation over issues “capable of action with regard to the things that are good or bad for man”. Description and Prescription • Science and Social Sciences: – Scientists seek elegant explanations for the things that exist in the world. – Empirical studies; – Justified by repeatable procedures; – Evidence that is deduced from controlled experiments; – Conclusions are closer to tautologies (at least in a limited sense that they are more reliably justified); – Their conclusions do prescribe in the sense that they set limits on the possible for the objects of study, but we take their conclusions to be universal. Description and Prescription • Social Sciences (Criminology) – Social scientists use a form of knowledge that is both descriptive and prescriptive, and, given the practical nature of their knowledge, their explanations cannot be considered universal or unchanging. – Social Sciences in general are characterized by dualism (mind and body) Normativity (we cannot escape our norms) • Posner (288): • “A social norm…is a rule that is neither promulgated by an official source, such as a court or a legislature, nor enforced by threat of legal sanctions, yet it is regularly complied with (otherwise it wouldn’t be a rule). • Facts and Values: duality of social science The Problem • Can Criminology claim scientific legitimacy? • Ought we treat research into crime and deviance as analogous to research in the natural sciences? – Questions of reality – Questions of Language – Facts and Values • How do we describe the ways things are? Our Understanding of the social world is dependent on our perceptions and observations in the first place, and on our ability to describe them in the second-place. • --most of the concepts we use in the social sciences are essentially contested, which makes objectivity almost impossible. Overview of Positivism • Main Claims: 1. Philosophy and Social Theory should be scientific 2. Metaphysical speculation about the nature of reality and ultimate ends is meaningless and useless 3. Universal and a priori scientific method 4. Purpose of theory is analyze that method 5. Method is the same in the sciences and the human sciences 6. The various sciences should be reduced to physics 7. Theoretical aspects of science should be reducible to observations • Main Claims: • Philosophy and Social Theory should be scientific: this position is responsible for the sharp division between “theory and practice” (philosophically sophia and praxis) that seems to torture criminology students. One of the unacknowledged aspects of social theory in the so-called “applied” versions of sociology, of which criminology is one, is this very notion of positivism. It rests on the assumption that those elements of crime and criminality of which we theorize must be reducible to some alleged “social” phenomenon; thus, the tendency of criminologists to rely heavily on crime statistics and the like to try to quantify their observations. There is a kind of rump functionalism in this position: a post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy built into this kind of work that makes it viciously circular. It is worth discussing the possibility that a better way to analyze crime, criminality, and criminal justice is to start from a normative and value-laden perspective, which is exactly what we have done in this course. • Metaphysical speculation about the nature of reality and ultimate ends is meaningless and useless: the most obvious of such claims are utopian claims about the “just society”. I would argue that penal abolitionists need to consider possibility that the abolition of prisons is impossible because, no matter how lofty the ideal of abolitionism, it is a virtual impossibility that we will achieve a level of civilization in which some element of our population must be separated from the rest because too dangerous. There is really no “open question” about it that can be settled by a theoretical debate. • Universal and a priori scientific method: We all fall prey to this belief in some form. We like to think that there are definitive causes for the way things are, and that those causes can be made transparent by some method that guarantees that others will accept our conclusions. I argued last term that criminology suffers from this belief as well, when I argued that even Marxist criminology theories, such as conflict theories, rely on allegedly “scientific” forms of knowledge to justify their beliefs. • Purpose of theory is analyze that method: Here the gap between the positivists and other theorists becomes apparent. For positivists, as you will recall from the first term’s readings, theory was supposed only to clarify the conceptual puzzles left over as a result of the scientific method. For a positivist of the “hard” sort (e.g., Raz in his early writing), the sharp distinction between law and morality was necessary to sort out fact from fiction, the “is” from the “ought”. The real purpose of legal theory, and social theory in general, was confined to defining and clarifying the meaning of key concepts and categories to avoid confusing law and morality. In other words, the hard positivists sought to make the distinction between that which we could speak about authoritatively (most obviously on the basis of legal authorities if you think about the principle of stare decisis), and that which we could speak about only conventionally or normatively. For the positivist, how things are is much more important than how they ought to be. In a way, the positivist might argue that things are just the way they ought to be, or they may argue that things could easily be made how they ought to be if authorities would follow the proper methods (think about Bentham’s criticisms of Natural Law and the Common Law). For the positivist, some things are just obvious, and there is little or no consideration given to the presupposition about they take to be the facts of the matter. The critique of science in the 20 Century by people like Paul Feyerabend and Thomas Khun showed up some the weaknesses of these unacknowledged presuppositions. The most important of these presuppositions was the claim that the questions scientists raise, and the criteria by which they measure the truth of the answer are socially or contextually determined; thus, truth for us may not be truth for people of another age or Alpha Centurions and so forth. This opened the critical space for feminists and other more radical thinkers to launch skeptical attacks on the truth-conditionals of modern knowledge. • Method is the same in the sciences and the human sciences • The various sciences should be reduced to physics: Claims 3, 5, and 6 can be taken of a piece if we think of them as essentially “naturalist”. Na “Epistemological naturalism is the thesis that the social life of humans is knowable in just the same sense, and will take the same form, as knowledge of the natural world. So, the natural sciences – physics, chemistry and biology – are taken as paradigmatic for social scientific knowledge.” The essential claim here is that social world operates on regular and predictable laws just as do the laws of nature. For example, where Newton’s laws of physics (at least those that remain valid) explain the operation of gravity and the motion of celestial bodies, the laws of human nature such as “self-interest” or “capitalist accumulation”, or “the laws of supply and demand” explain the social world. Think of this in terms of criminology. What elements of the theories you have been taught can be considered “naturalistic” even when, like the Critical Theorists, they reject these sorts of causal arguments? If we try to reduce the study of crime and criminology down to three essential categories such as “race, class, and gender”, haven’t we made a tacit commitment to some causal argument, even if we want to say that it is a normative commitment? By normative, I mean here only the simple acknowledgment in ethics since Aristotle that things in the social world “could be otherwise” because human made. I suggest to you that there is a tension between these two claims that persists in the social sciences, which becomes particularly clear when we rely heavily on the natural sciences to convict the accused in the criminal law. • Theoretical aspects of science should be reducible to observations: This is the crux of the matter in the social sciences. Are the observations of social scientists as valid as the observations of natural scientists? Are theories derivative or deducible from observations? Critics of positivism suggest that we push the analogy too far when argue that social theories are even based on observations. Societies are not laboratories, and there are few “controls” we can employ to render our observations reliable in the same way that the observations of the physicist or the chemist may be. It follows, then, that our claims to scientific validity may be nothing more than rhetorical flourish designed to convince the skeptics of the reality of our work. • (notes on the meta-theoretical point of Reason) Impact of Positivism • Empiricism • Priority of Logic • Value-Free Science • Operationalism: all theoretical terms should be specified by the operations that measure them – Translate theoretical terms into empirical observations • Operationalism is a common view in the social sciences, and criminology is no less influenced by it. If we think of the categories that we employ the most here at York, including those categories: i.e., race, class, and gender, we justify our use of those categories on the basis of what we take to be the empirical facts of
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