Mathematics and Statistics in the Social Sciences

In Ian C. Jarvie & Jesus Zamora-Bonilla (eds.), The SAGE Handbook of the Philosophy of Social Sciences. Sage Publications. pp. 594-612 (2011)
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Over the years, mathematics and statistics have become increasingly important in the social sciences1 . A look at history quickly confirms this claim. At the beginning of the 20th century most theories in the social sciences were formulated in qualitative terms while quantitative methods did not play a substantial role in their formulation and establishment. Moreover, many practitioners considered mathematical methods to be inappropriate and simply unsuited to foster our understanding of the social domain. Notably, the famous Methodenstreit also concerned the role of mathematics in the social sciences. Here, mathematics was considered to be the method of the natural sciences from which the social sciences had to be separated during the period of maturation of these disciplines. All this changed by the end of the century. By then, mathematical, and especially statistical, methods were standardly used, and their value in the social sciences became relatively uncontested. The use of mathematical and statistical methods is now ubiquitous: Almost all social sciences rely on statistical methods to analyze data and form hypotheses, and almost all of them use (to a greater or lesser extent) a range of mathematical methods to help us understand the social world. Additional indication for the increasing importance of mathematical and statistical methods in the social sciences is the formation of new subdisciplines, and the establishment of specialized journals and societies. Indeed, subdisciplines such as Mathematical Psychology and Mathematical Sociology emerged, and corresponding journals such as The Journal of Mathematical Psychology (since 1964), The Journal of Mathematical Sociology (since 1976), Mathematical Social Sciences (since 1980) as well as the online journals Journal of Artificial Societies and Social Simulation (since 1998) and Mathematical Anthropology and Cultural Theory (since 2000) were established. What is more, societies such as the Society for Mathematical Psychology (since 1976) and the Mathematical Sociology Section of the American Sociological Association (since 1996) were founded. Similar developments can be observed in other countries. The mathematization of economics set in somewhat earlier (Vazquez 1995; Weintraub 2002). However, the use of mathematical methods in economics started booming only in the second half of the last century (Debreu 1991). Contemporary economics is dominated by the mathematical approach, although a certain style of doing economics became more and more under attack in the last decade or so. Recent developments in behavioral economics and experimental economics can also be understood as a reaction against the dominance (and limitations) of an overly mathematical approach to economics. There are similar debates in other social sciences. It is, however, important to stress that problems of one method (such as axiomatization or the use of set theory) can hardly be taken as a sign of bankruptcy of mathematical methods in the social sciences tout court. This chapter surveys mathematical and statistical methods used in the social sciences and discusses some of the philosophical questions they raise. It is divided into two parts. Sections 1 and 2 are devoted to mathematical methods, and Sections 3 to 7 to statistical methods. As several other chapters in this handbook provide detailed accounts of various mathematical methods, our remarks about the latter will be rather short and general. Statistical methods, on the other hand, will be discussed in-depth.

Author Profiles

Jan Sprenger
University of Turin
Stephan Hartmann
Ludwig Maximilians Universit√§t, M√ľnchen


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