A critique of Sayers’ statement in the context of social research

Felix Kwame Aveh


‘Social science must be critical of its object. In order to be able to explain and understand social phenomena, we have to examine them critically.’ (Sayer, 1992:6)


To be critical in the context of social science means asking how society could be improved based on verifiable facts and knowledge. Knowledge is a dynamic process not a static entity. Knowledge is not a bucket into which grains of information are dropped in the hope that they somehow coalesce into some kind of explanation of the world. For critical methodologist, knowledge is a process of moving towards an understanding of the world and of the knowledge which structures our perceptions of the world. (Harvey 1990: 3-4).

However, some researchers point out that this critical approach to social science goes further than they want to go. By being radically critical of society, a researcher takes a leap into being normative and judgmental. Some authors such as Webster (1986) for instance, have introduced some alternative meanings of the term critical in the phrase ‘critical’ social science. A weaker meaning would be when a researcher is merely critical of the terms of a debate – not of existing social arrangements per se.


Wherever people have engaged in corporate activities, there has been one among them who has attempted to “explain” what and why about the effort. Wherever one dreams, one has explained; wherever one acts, one has given reasons why.


Thus, when entering the world of thought, of reflective self-awareness and explanation, we enter not a new realm but one primordial. The need to act has always been conjoined with the need to know and explain the action. From the earliest of human thinking about human activity, of theorizing about social life, the human community has sought to understand not merely the “what” of human endeavours but the “why” of these endeavours. What happens as we interact with each other and why does it happen. Such is our primordial concerns. From the earliest records of the Assyrians and Egyptians, the Chinese and the Greeks, man has sought to understand and explain social phenomena by subjecting them to severe critique.


In order to fully understand how society and man has sought to understand his environment vis-a-vis social phenomena, the following perspective of knowledge must be understood: Rationalism, empiricism, relativism, constructionism, positivism, realism and discourse analysis. These theories and others together have moved man and society in his quest to improve his understanding of social issues. They have helped man to make a conscious effort to develop the most appropriate tools to enhance research.

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