What Is the Purpose of Social Science? Freedom

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What is the purpose of social science? What should it be?

In The Sociological Imagination, professor and sociologist C. Wright Mills argues that the main purpose of social science must be the preservation of freedom. In his definition of freedom, Mills directly connects it to our choices. He also discusses the contemporary trends he says threaten the possibility of a free society.

Keep reading to learn Mills’s perspective on the purpose of social science.

The Purpose of Social Science

What is the purpose of social science? Mills believes that it’s the preservation of freedom, which he defines as the ability to understand, debate over, and decide between choices—particularly in a social and political context. Freedom, explains Mills, is the main mechanism for making social and political decisions. All three components of his definition contribute to decision making:

  1. Freedom allows people to understand problems and the choices they have to address them.
  2. Freedom allows people to debate over choices of how to respond to problems. 
  3. Freedom allows people to decide on a specific response.

(Shortform note: While many other social scientists try to use their work to benefit a free and open society, they often differ in how they try to achieve this purpose. Often, social scientists suggest that their work should inform the policymaking of governments or other major social institutions. However, Mills rejects this approach and instead argues that social science should directly inform members of society—who then can decide for themselves how to improve their society. He believes influencing policymakers isn’t enough to preserve a free society, because their institutions have become fundamentally anti-freedom (an argument he explains in his earlier work, The Power Elite).)

The Main Threat to Freedom

In contemporary Western society, Mills argues, the main threat to freedom is complexity.  In other words, societies and their institutions have become so complex that people don’t understand what they are, how they work, or why they matter. For example: Not only does nobody know all the federal laws in the United States, nobody knows how many federal laws there are in the United States.

This complexity threatens freedom because it prevents members of society from understanding what’s happening in their society and how it affects them. Lack of understanding leads people to political apathy or the feeling that they can’t effect social change—under these circumstances, nobody will prevent small groups of elites from taking political power at the expense of the rest of society.

(Shortform note: To Mills, the link between powerful elites and political apathy is intentional and informs many of his concerns in The Sociological Imagination. In The Power Elite, Mills suggests that there is a growing centralization of political and economic power in the United States. He claims that this deprives the average American of a political voice—as the group of elites making major decisions becomes smaller and smaller, it becomes harder for regular people to politically mobilize or even understand their country’s politics. Therefore, to Mills, a country run by a few powerful elites isn’t a consequence of political apathy—it’s the cause of political apathy.)

What Is the Purpose of Social Science? Freedom

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  • C. Wright Mills's theory of how social science can preserve freedom
  • What grand theory is and how it's flawed
  • How social science based entirely on empirical evidence harms freedom

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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