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Causal explanation of human behavior in the social sciences

Maria R Zavada, University of Nebraska - Lincoln


The social sciences have something to offer our understanding of human behavior. However, the social sciences have been subjected to a great deal of criticism, both internally and externally. Cultural anthropology provides a microcosm of the problems within the social sciences and serves as an apt case study. There are many problems with the social sciences, some as fundamental as whether or not the social sciences are indeed sciences, and others that address specific issues with goals, methods, and data collection. Using anthropology as a case study, I articulate the connection between the methodological problems in anthropology and the philosophical problems that underlie them. I argue first that the most basic goal of anthropology, understanding human behavior in a cultural context, is a legitimate goal. Second, I argue that a radically skeptical epistemology, like postmodernism, cannot be the basis for the theory and method in anthropology or any other social science. Third, I argue that anthropology cannot be replaced by sociobiology or evolutionary psychology. Fourth, I argue that the root of the disagreement about the best methods to use in anthropology stem from faulty assumptions about reductionism and implicit assumptions about the causal relevance of intentional states. Finally, I argue that the challenges to the scientific status of explanations in the social sciences are the result of philosophical disagreements about the causal relevance of intentional states. I argue that these disagreements can be resolved in a way that provides anthropologists, and other social scientists, with a path to a coherent scientific theory of explanation.

Subject Area

Behavioral psychology|Philosophy of Science|Philosophy

Recommended Citation

Zavada, Maria R, "Causal explanation of human behavior in the social sciences" (2013). ETD collection for University of Nebraska - Lincoln. AAI3558799.