Some notes on science and the social world

There is a troubled relationship between social work and science. Although western social work is not separate from the historical development of Enlightenment science and what has come to be understood as the project of modernity, it has always sat uncomfortably within this schema of knowledge. Since the time of Descartes (1596-1650) science has advanced a claim to objective truth – that the tool of scientific reason is a mechanism for naming, understanding, and controlling the world (Hyslop, 2012). There are more than a few problems with this belief system.

The scientific approach to understanding the world is based on the application of a particular form of reason: the idea is that chains of causation can be identified through scientific method. This has tended to involve the division of the natural world into identifiable constituent parts and study of the relationship between these parts. Once these relationships are understood it follows that they can be manipulated, regulated, and controlled: human mastery can be established. This methodology has clearly facilitated unprecedented growth and development over the last two centuries, particularly in cahoots with capitalist economics and liberal politics.

However, like all hegemonic doctrines, science also backgrounds other ways of knowing and seeing the world. This has been particularly true in relation to the destruction of Indigenous life-worlds in the process of colonisation. This is partly a result of the scientific imperative to separate and categorise nature into its component parts, and it is also a result of the politics of modernity. By this I mean the power interests that are at stake and in play. It was Nietzsche (1844-1900) who called out the supposed neutrality of scientific knowing, arguing that it is essentially a form of domination. Foucault developed this critique at length, arguing that knowledge is never pure; it is always suffused with relations of power.

So, there are, then, some reservations about the sanctity of scientific method itself, because of the understandings which are excluded. Indigenous cosmologies, for example, tend to be relegated to the realm of the irrational. There are related problems with the tendency for science to be driven by means-ends rationality or what is called instrumental reason. Scientific reason tends to focus on the question of “can this be done” and, “if so, ‘how?” – and, despite the reassurances of ethical procedures, this approach can have horrendous consequences. And, even if we accept, for argument’s sake, the proposition that scientific method is a neutral engine of truth production, we still have the question of who’s interests are served by science in a class society?

The hierarchical approach to knowledge (and to understandings of life) which science engenders, placed white middle class men at the top of the evolutionary tree of life: as the arbiters of reason. This was, of course, because of a confluence of social and economic power, privilege, and politics. It justified colonial genocide. Bauman (1992) has argued that the tendency of instrumental modernist reason to understand human society hierarchically and to manage problem populations through efficient bureaucracy led, almost inevitably, to the Nazi holocaust.

All of this brings us back to the relationship between social science and social work. Applied social science has its roots in the Victorian social imagination: the possibility of applying scientific discipline to the problems of the social world.

The desire for intervention to be made on ‘scientific’ footings loops back to the desire for the ‘problem’ itself to be defined in ‘scientific’ terms. It represents the imposition of the ultimate form of order (scientific method) on this most disorderly of problems. (Flanagan, 2018, p. 697)

The classification of humans into differing categories of social competence tends to dehumanise identified problem groups and rationalise discriminatory treatment. The historical links between social work and the ‘science’ of eugenics is the most flagrant example of this of course, and this sort of thinking continues to haunt our approaches and attitudes in relation to the notion of underclass families.

When inscribed into the case notes, textbooks and datasets of the welfare state, a given ‘problem family’ can be joined to other ‘problem families’, becoming just one example of a ‘type’ and consequently, available for collation, comparison and the accrual of evidence that can be operationalized into intervention.                             (Flanagan, 2018, pp. 697-8)

The relatively recent classification by the New Zealand Productivity Commission (2015) of social service recipients into four classes (A-D), with differing capacities for agency is a clear example of this legacy. The “science/s” of attachment, trauma and normal development all risk diagnostic determinism, cultural imperialism, and discriminatory outcomes if applied uncritically and without reference to the systemic drivers of inequality.

Before we uncritically invest scientific knowing with the superiority which it demands we would be wise to consider the flaws which hyper-rationalism is riddled with in a contested social world. The practice of social work has the capacity to generate communicative understandings which provide a much richer, more diverse and more egalitarian view of the human condition. Importantly it allows, at least potentially, for the idea that we are part of the world rather than its natural masters.

Image credit: joseph.stuefer



Bauman, Z. (1992) Modernity and the Holocaust, Oxford, UK, Polity Press.

Flanagan, K. (2018) ‘ “Problem families” in public housing: discourse, commentary and (dis) order, Housing Studies, 33(5), 684­707.

Hyslop I. (2012) Social work as a practice of freedom. Journal of Social Work. 12(4), 404-422. doi:10.1177/1468017310388362

New Zealand Productivity Commission (2015) ‘More Effective Social Services’,  Available from:


2 replies on “Some notes on science and the social world”

I not so sure about that Barb – but the idea that scientific knowing is the font of all reasonable and rational knowing has been … err … ‘in the news’ a bit lately and this has always seemed to be a pretty dubious idea to me – so I thought I’d add my two bob’s worth.

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