Archive for April, 2012

Measurement of Social Variables: Placing Social Science Research in Context

T.K. Oommen

Date: April 4, 2012, JNU, New Delhi


According to Professor T.K. Oommen, there are three kinds of sciences: (1) Material Sciences, (2) Life Science, and (3) Social and Cultural Sciences. These three sciences are very different from each other in terms of their theories, methods and objects of study. It is therefore important to place social science in context in order to understand the quantitative methodology or measurement of social variables in social sciences.

Material Sciences: Material sciences study physical objects, which do not have ‘agency‘ or consciousness. These sciences deal with one-dimensional aspects of matter – physical aspect. The objects are capable of ‘reactivity‘ to the experiment. Here the objects under study are less complex, hence easy to measure.

Life Sciences: Life science is the study of plants and animals. Here life scientists deal with two-dimensional aspects – matter as well as life. It is comparatively more complex than material or physical sciences. It is more difficult here to measure the object because of their ‘responsivity‘. Animals have motives. Motives could be of two types: Biogenic and socio-genic. Biogenic motives are rooted in biology of animals. Plants do not have this, so it is difficult to study the responses of the animals than plants because animals are capable of behaviour.

Social and Cultural Sciences: This is the field of knowledge that deals with human beings. Here social scientists are dealing with three-dimensional aspects of the object of study – matter, life and culture. The degree of complexity involved here is very high, hence the possibility of precision is very less. If you make a study on rocks or plants, it cannot be interrogated. But social science study human beings which can be interrogated. Human beings are capable of ‘reflexivity‘ or interrogation, question and often revolt. The capacity of the object to question and interrogate makes research a more complex phenomenon. If a Sociologist can not quantify, it is not the problem of his or her but with the complexity of the object s/he studies – human beings. Each dimension added in physical, life and cultural sciences not only qualitatively different but also more complex. The distinct thing about human beings is that they are capable of creating ‘culture‘ – a meaning system or symbols.

Verification is possible through sense organs by touching it or experiencing it. But the scope of verifying is very limited. Symbols are difficult to verify. The capacity of human beings to imagine and to give meanings to symbols is very distinct to human beings. Believers believe in some objects as sacred. All religion have their sacred objects. Ganga Jal is sacred to the believer but not to a dog or a plant or a non-believer. The manner in which we handle sacred objects is different from normal objects. This symbolic value or the sacred character of Ganga Jal is difficult to study and incapable to measure although it is the same H2O like tap water. The value orientation or sacred character of Ganga Jal is difficult to measure. Throwing a piece of meat to a temple is to offend the sensibilities of Hindus has symbolic value. Social reality is thus difficult to measure.