University Homepage
DRPS Homepage
DRPS Search
DRPS Contact
DRPS : Course Catalogue : School of Social and Political Science : Postgrad (School of Social and Political Studies)

Postgraduate Course: Explanation and Understanding in Social and Political Research (PGSP11017)

Course Outline
SchoolSchool of Social and Political Science CollegeCollege of Humanities and Social Science
Credit level (Normal year taken)SCQF Level 11 (Postgraduate) AvailabilityAvailable to all students
SCQF Credits20 ECTS Credits10
SummaryThis course explores a range of theoretical and philosophical issues that arise in social and political research, asking about the nature of the social world and how it might be understood. It raises questions about the derivation and status of social scientific knowledge, its function and purpose. It explores ways of thinking about the actions and interactions, individuals and groups, ideas and institutions, structures and systems of which the world seems to consist, as well as about the relationships between them.
Course description The course is divided into two parts, one principally concerned with problems of epistemology, that is with ways of knowing about the world, and the other with ontology, with what we think exists. The first part considers positivism as an account of what science is and does, as well as different criticisms made of it, and considers whether social science is or should be scientific in the same way. We discuss meaning and interpretation as distinctive characteristics of social world, the role of values in research and the possibility and purpose of criticism. We ask whether social science makes - or should expect to make - 'progress'.

In the second part of the course we consider, from different theoretical perspectives, what seem to be the basic units or objects of social investigation. These include individuals and the decisions they make; the origins, role and function of institutions; the process and power of social construction and the scope and operation of social systems. We consider complexity and what may be the irreducible 'messiness' of social and political phenomena.

By the end of the course, we hope to have encouraged students to think in new ways about the intellectual materials, processes and purposes of social and political research. In doing so, we encourage them to reflect critically on key contributions to their chosen fields, and to use key theoretical ideas to inform and develop their own research.

Outline Content

Indicative topics include:

Ontology and epistemology: being and knowing; positivism and its critics, naturalism and anti-naturalism

Rational Choice Theory: mind and agency, methodological individualism, game theory, the economic theory of democracy, the logic of collective action

Institutionalism: institutionalisms old and new: historical, rational and sociological; public choice theory, learning, grid and group

Social Constructionism; interaction, language, practice, performativity, translation

Systems: general systems theory, cybernetics, structural functionalism, governance; complexity and mess

Criticism: value-freedom, critical theory, evaluation

Progress: universalist and relative accounts

The course is taught in two-hour workshops, with both lecture and discussion components. There are set readings for each class. A project workshop supports students in applying and developing issues raised in the course to their own theoretical and empirical research interests. The course engages with issues relevant to all social science disciplines, and is compulsory for research students in Politics and International Relations.
Entry Requirements (not applicable to Visiting Students)
Pre-requisites Co-requisites
Prohibited Combinations Other requirements Only available to students of Data Science, Technology and Innovation online distance learning programme
Information for Visiting Students
High Demand Course? Yes
Course Delivery Information
Academic year 2018/19, Available to all students (SV1) Quota:  35
Course Start Semester 2
Timetable Timetable
Learning and Teaching activities (Further Info) Total Hours: 200 ( Seminar/Tutorial Hours 20, Programme Level Learning and Teaching Hours 4, Directed Learning and Independent Learning Hours 176 )
Assessment (Further Info) Written Exam 0 %, Coursework 100 %, Practical Exam 0 %
Additional Information (Assessment) Assessment is by a 3,500 to 4,000 word course paper, which may be either wholly theoretical or link theoretical issues with particular research topics. Students may write on topics set by the Course Organisers, or identify relevant issues in their own work and write about them.
Feedback The project workshop provides an opportunity for formative assessment and feedback from peers as well as from academic staff, and students are encouraged to discuss their ideas for course papers with staff as they develop.
No Exam Information
Learning Outcomes
On completion of this course, the student will be able to:
  1. Have a good understanding of key ontological issues within the social sciences, that is, be able to participate in debates about the basic building blocks of the social world
  2. Understand central epistemological debates within the social sciences. This will mean grasping different views about the status and purpose of social scientific knowledge
  3. Critically reflect on ontological and epistemological theories
  4. Make insightful connections between theoretical debates and empirical research issues in their area of interest
  5. Productively discuss theoretical debates and their empirical consequences with other students
Reading List
There is no set text for the course, but the following textbooks might be helpful:

Hay, Colin (2002) Political Analysis: A Critical Introduction, Houndmills, Palgrave
Smith, Mark J. (1998) Social Science in Question, London: Sage

Examples of course readings include:

Dowding, Keith (2005), 'Is it Rational to Vote? Five Types of Answer and a Suggestion', British Journal of Politics and International Relations, 2005, 442-459
Hall, P & Taylor, R (1996) 'Political science and the three new institutionalisms', Political Studies 44 (5) 936-957
Haas, P M (2004) 'When does power listen to truth? A constructivist approach to the policy process', Journal of European Public Policy 11 (4) 569-592
Edwards, D. Ashmore, M, and Potter, J. (1995) 'Death and Furniture: The Rhetoric, Politics and Theology of Bottom Line Arguments Against Relativism', History of the Human Sciences, 8(2): 25-49
Kapur, R. (2002) 'The Tragedy of Victimisation Rhetoric: Resurrecting the "Native" Subject in International/Post-Colonial Feminist Legal Politics', Harvard Human Rights Journal, 15: 1-38 Spring
McCall, Leslie (2005) 'The Complexity of Intersectionality', Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 30(3): 1771-1800
Additional Information
Graduate Attributes and Skills Not entered
KeywordsNot entered
Course organiserDr Philip Cook
Tel: (0131 6)51 1577
Course secretaryMr Jack Smith
Tel: (0131 6)51 1485
Help & Information
Search DPTs and Courses
Degree Programmes
Browse DPTs
Humanities and Social Science
Science and Engineering
Medicine and Veterinary Medicine
Other Information
Combined Course Timetable
Important Information