Human Science: The mother of the social sciences

This page has two parts. The first is my more recent description, meant to explain the value of human science beyond the academic. The second is what I recovered from the old database for a site that is now offline and was my original, more comprehensive description.

Introduction: What is Human Science?

Human Science predates and is, in an analogy I use for a couple purposes here, the “mother” of the social sciences, including communication (in some contexts), political science, sociology, anthropology, psychology, and—an evil stepchild—economics. It is, intentionally broadly (and probably the only way I could have gotten through a Ph.D. program), about the experience of being human in social contexts, which sometimes leads people to confuse the mother with one or more of her children.

But no, as a mother who gave birth to these children, the social sciences, Human Science is not any of her children. Moreover, even as the social sciences have flourished (prior to neoliberalism, anyway), they ignore their mother. Which is why it is highly likely you’ve never heard of her.


Human Science is transdisciplinary or, as I prefer it, post-disciplinary. Where interdisciplinary studies start from the perspective of a single discipline and seek to reach into other disciplines, transdisciplinarity starts from its own, distinct perspective—the mother, in contrast to her children. Post-disciplinarity takes this a step further, critiquing the disciplines for what you’ll sometimes see referred to within academia as “siloization.”

There are a number of problems with the specialization of disciplines in the social sciences—and here is where my mother-children analogy breaks down:

  1. A mother can usually distinguish between her children. With the social sciences, the distinctions between these disciplines are, as communication scholars say of language generally, abstract, arbitrary, and ambiguous. What, for example, is the difference between sociology and anthropology? Is it that sociology tends to focus on European culture and anthropology focuses on “other” cultures, especially those colonially considered “primitive?” However you manage to distinguish these disciplines, that distinction is and will be fraught.

  2. So when, inevitably, scholars transgress the boundaries between these disciplines, they lack the necessary background for doing so. And they can make rookie mistakes, some of which are truly astounding. For example, as a general rule, in the question of nature versus nurture, social scientists lean heavily towards nurture. (This, by the way, is one reason gays, lesbians, and transgender individuals have had trouble gaining acceptance for their claim to have been “born that way.”) So it was astounding to read, as I did in my undergraduate career, a human development textbook that relied heavily on biological causes. I have also seen published articles that relied on a linear communication model that was, at least at the time of my undergraduate career, still taught but dismissed as simplistic and outdated. Discrepancies of this sort are rife within the literature and rarely addressed because (surprise, surprise!) peer reviewers are typically from the very same disciplines, with the very same biases, as authors.[1]

  3. In this way, siloization of disciplines fails to yield necessary corrections as the advance of “knowledge” progresses.

The Human Science “value proposition”

As a Human Scientist, there are five major and interrelated aspects to what I do:

  • Critical Theory, heavily focusing on power relationships: That distinction I drew between sociology and anthropology sounds awfully Eurocentric, because it is Eurocentric. Who are the scholars? Typically well-off Europeans or people of European origin, historically, and in some ways still, colonizers. It would be absurdly naïve to suggest there is no bias here.

  • Epistemology, the question of how one “knows” what they claim to know: There is a huge problem in that there is no theory of truth that withstands scrutiny. So-called objectivity, a “God’s eye” view, is simply hubris. We do not, in fact, know what we claim to know. But nonetheless, claiming such objectivity, too many “scientists” disparage other ways of knowing and other ways of inquiry: Positivism (so-called “scientific method”) relies on circular reasoning, discarding alternative ways of (“subjective”) knowing and (“non-scientific”) inquiry to affirm its own “knowledge” and methods of inquiry with no valid rationale, constraining its validity in addressing ways of knowing that are not “scientific.” Bias, again, but really, also, a colonial approach to knowledge that disrespects its “subjects.”

  • Representation: I seek to represent people as they would seek to be represented. I try to understand their ways of knowing. I observe the power relationships that affect them. And yes, I critique all of it, but generally (not always) with respect (no respect is due those who abuse others).

  • Qualitative inquiry, in contrast to quantitative inquiry: At the very least, I understand quantitative results as questions, misleading due to their inherent superficiality. Quantitative research needs to be followed up with a qualitative approach to better understand what the numbers tell us or, as it may turn out, fail to tell us.

  • Storytelling: My old department chair and dissertation committee member, JoAnn McAllister, highlights story as what I think she sees as the heart of Human Science. She would likely cheer Margaret Atwood’s proposition that storytelling is inherent to being human, an evolutionary necessity to communicate tragedy, danger, and triumph.[2]

    For human scientists, story isn’t just story as, perhaps, an English major might tell it: Our storytelling needs to incorporate all of the above aspects of our inquiry, namely, critical theory, epistemology, representation, and qualitative inquiry. This isn’t telling a story just to make people feel good, but about representing people as they would be represented, understanding how they ‘know’ what they claim to know, and examining the power relationships and the larger context that make up that story. I seek to thoroughly understand that story and to tell it richly.

    But perhaps most profoundly, it is this, the story and its telling, that the quantitative approach we have come to prefer misses. We dehumanize ourselves with that quest for certainty and reliability that we falsely attribute to numbers.[3]

All this leads to a humility about scholarship and “knowledge.” We hope to offer insights, highly educated and meticulously studied insights, but insights nonetheless, from a perspective apart from individual social sciences. We will never be uniquely “right.” What we will be is different, just as the mother gives birth to but should never be lost in her children.

So I’m a Human Scientist. What does that mean?

The following is the contents of my earlier description of Human Science from my old site. Regrettably, I am missing the images but hope to recover them at a future date. Links may be broken; I will gradually update them:

(See also A functionalist view of Human Science.)

Perhaps I should begin by seeking to dispel any notion that human science is a new field, somehow lacking the intellectual pedigree that really rather arbitrarily
earns trust in our society. Human science’s origins lie with what John Stuart Mill labeled “moral sciences” in 1843,[4] dating it to a time that slightly precedes the strict differentiation of disciplines in the latter half of the 19th century.[5] As Mill defined it, it encompasses “disciplines such as phil­ology and aesthetics, as well as psychology, anthropology, political economy, law, and history.”[6]

In this, I treat human science’s relationship with the social sciences as akin to that of a mother to her children. She is not any one of her children or even all of her children, but she has a close relationship with all of them even as they usually ignore her. Human science is transdisciplinary (figure 1) or, as I prefer it, post-disciplinary. This relationship of a mother to her children is also what distinguishes our approach from an interdisciplinary approach: The latter begins from the perspective of one of these disciplines; we begin from an intellectual location standing apart from those disciplines.

At the broadest level, the human sciences investigate all of the experiences, activities, constructs, and artifacts that would not now exist, or would not ever have existed, if human beings had not existed.[7]

Wilhelm Dilthey applied the term Geisteswissenschaften, now generally and imprecisely translated as “human sciences,” in his 1883 book, Introduction to the Human Sciences (Einleitung in die Geisteswissenschaften). The difficulty of definition appears even in the translation of that word, Geisteswissenschaften, a term which is itself approximate, in which we really mean something a bit broader than “science” but “hold the view that the human realm can be investigated with meth­odological rigor, general validity, and critical examination—although not with absolute certainty”[8] and resist “the notion of this group of disciplines as . . . largely inchoate and vague in character.”[9]

Fig. 1. Central Features of Transdisciplinarity, quoted by Robert McAndrews, January 26, 2014.

I am inclined to suspect that rather than resisting that “largely inchoate and vague” character,[10] we should embrace it. Rather than viewing the “human sciences” as a “group of disciplines,”[11] our approach is inherently transdisciplinary (figure 1), or post-disciplinary, seeking to synthesize the learning and research done in a wide variety of what are now conventional disciplines, but also with an acute sensitivity to the limitations—I have called them “blinders”—of what are really very arbitrary and ambiguous disciplinary boundaries. I see the lack of a precise definition for our field as a refusal of those boundaries.

Human science attempts to understand the relationships and connections between and among the meanings, institutions, and other cultural products that are objectifications of mind or Geist.[12]

Definition of Human Science
Fig. 2. Definition of Human Science, January 26, 2014, by Robert McAndrews.

The definition may be vague but it is not absent. Human science explores the experience of being human in socially constructed contexts (figure 2). As human scientists, we explore that experience in a variety of contexts, with a range of artifacts.

[Dilthey’s] argument, trailing implied contradictions behind it, was that human, or moral, phenomena required a different kind of science from that directed at the natural world. Its aim was to be understanding, not explanation, and its method was, in fact, hermeneutical.[13]

In contrast, Mill sought to apply the methods of the “natural sciences” or “hard sciences” to human science.[14] This is one aspect of an ongoing conflict between those who insist upon an exclusively reductionist (positivist) view of the world in a misguided if admittedly never fulfilled quest for certainty[15] versus those who adopt an integral, holistic view.[16] This dispute adversely affects our relationships not only with much of the rest of academia, but with institutions generally[17] and neoliberal institutions in particular.

Most human scientists would probably at least lean toward Dilthey’s side of the argument, even if we adopt a far wider variety of methods[18] than he understood. We tend to emphasize enriched understanding rather than measurement; accordingly, we tend to favor qualitative methods over quantitative methods,[19] but many researchers employ mixed methods, which combine the two.[20] The least that can be said here is that in human science, quantitative results should generally be framed in a strong qualitative context; absent that context, I see quantitative conclusions not as conclusions but as questions: We pretend certainty when we lack understanding.

Partly as a consequence of rejecting the inherent reduction and essentialism in quantitative results and partly because as human scientists we refuse to set aside the experience of being human in social contexts, we are often greatly concerned with social justice.[21] For me, this means critical theory is essential.[22]

Finally, we are profoundly concerned with epistemology. While in a positivist paradigm, epistemology is closely linked to ontology, the latter is more concerned with describing and systematizing reality rather than with how people know what they claim to know. We learn to appreciate multiple ways of knowing rather than to adopt a colonial posture that asserts 1) the supremacy of a particular way of knowing that also imposes strict limits of the methodologies that may be employed in pursuit of knowledge; 2) that the (typically Western white wealthy) researcher can come to a society and understand it better than the natives; 3) dismiss native understandings as inferior, “unscientific,” or “superstitious;”[23] and thus relies upon circular reasoning at every step in its self-rationalization. In contrast, we do not so much “know” what it is to be human as we inquire as to what it is and accept answers in multiple forms of presentation.[24] This suggests that our approach is ultimately philosophical: Our conclusions aren’t really conclusions either, but rather steps along the way toward a goal which, like justice,[25] can never truly be achieved.

The program I completed at Saybrook University (and which is no longer being offered) emphasized narrative. In this, we might conduct in-depth interviews to learn people’s stories and to seek to represent them as accurately and fairly as possible; however, in rejecting colonial hegemony on ways of knowing, we are open to a wide range of methodologies, in general with an eye toward enabling people to represent themselves in the ways that they are comfortable doing so to the maximum extent possible[26] and because the research paradigm itself is subject to critical scrutiny in terms of 1) its hierarchies, 2) who participates, 3) how people are represented, and 4) who benefits.[27]

In my dissertation, however, I employed critical discourse analysis. In some ways, this turns the narrative approach on its head: I am seeking not only to understand conservatism in its multiple tendencies, but also to ferret out the ways in which it is unjust, specifically in conservative attitudes toward undocumented migrants. This involves a close reading of texts, understanding and analyzing what is said, noticing what is not said, and noticing how power relationships are embedded in these tendencies. Where narrative methods generally seek to portray co-participants in a friendly and sympathetic light, I subjected conservatives to a harsh light, as can be seen in my research journal.

Highlights of my work

Unofficial Transcript (Ph.D. conferred January 8, 2016)

As implied above, my focus within the Human Science program has been on Critical Theory.

  1. [1]For more, see David Benfell, “Transdisciplinarity and the hazards of peer review,” Not Housebroken, August 3, 2019,
  2. [2]Mesel Isaac, “Margaret Atwood Enlightens in Her Speech on Stories,” TrendHunter, February 22, 2014,
  3. [3]Clifford G. Christians, “Ethics and Politics in Qualitative Research,” in The SAGE Handbook of Qualitative Research, eds. Norman K. Denzin and Yvonna S. Lincoln, 4th ed. (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2011), 61-80.; Jacques Ellul, The Technological Society, John Wilkinson, trans. (New York: Vintage, 1964); Neil Postman, Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology (New York: Vintage, 1993).
  4. [4]Donald Polkinghorne, Methodology for the Human Sciences: Systems of Inquiry (Albany, NY: State University of New York, 1983).
  5. [5]Bruce Mazlish, The Uncertain Sciences (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 2007).
  6. [6]Donald Polkinghorne, Methodology for the Human Sciences: Systems of Inquiry (Albany, NY: State University of New York, 1983), 283.
  7. [7]Donald Polkinghorne, Methodology for the Human Sciences: Systems of Inquiry (Albany, NY: State University of New York, 1983), 289.
  8. [8]Donald Polkinghorne, Methodology for the Human Sciences: Systems of Inquiry (Albany, NY: State University of New York, 1983), 285.
  9. [9]Michael Ermath, quoted in Donald Polkinghorne, Methodology for the Human Sciences: Systems of Inquiry (Albany, NY: State University of New York, 1983), 284.
  10. [10]Michael Ermath, quoted in Donald Polkinghorne, Methodology for the Human Sciences: Systems of Inquiry (Albany, NY: State University of New York, 1983), 284.
  11. [11]Michael Ermath, quoted in Donald Polkinghorne, Methodology for the Human Sciences: Systems of Inquiry (Albany, NY: State University of New York, 1983), 284.
  12. [12]Donald Polkinghorne, Methodology for the Human Sciences: Systems of Inquiry (Albany, NY: State University of New York, 1983), 286.
  13. [13]Bruce Mazlish, The Uncertain Sciences (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 2007), 92.
  14. [14]Bruce Mazlish, The Uncertain Sciences (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 2007); Donald Polkinghorne, Methodology for the Human Sciences: Systems of Inquiry (Albany, NY: State University of New York, 1983).
  15. [15]Bruce Mazlish, The Uncertain Sciences (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 2007).
  16. [16]Fritjof Capra and Pier Luigi Luisi, The Systems View of Life: A Unifying Vision (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University, 2014).
  17. [17]Yvonna S. Lincoln, “Institutional Review Boards and methodological Conservatism,” in Landscape of Qualitative Research, 3rd ed., eds. Norman K. Denzin and Yvonna S. Lincoln (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2008), 221-243.
  18. [18]Norman K. Denzin and Yvonna S. Lincoln, eds., The SAGE Handbook of Qualitative Research, 4th ed. (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2011).
  19. [19]Donald Polkinghorne, Methodology for the Human Sciences: Systems of Inquiry (Albany, NY: State University of New York, 1983).
  20. [20]Colin Robson, Real World Research, 3rd ed. (Chichester, West Sussex, UK: John Wiley and Sons, 2011).
  21. [21]Charles Lemert, ed., Social Theory: The Multicultural and Classic Readings, 4th ed. (Boulder, CO: Westview, 2010).
  22. [22]Norman K. Denzin, Yvonna S. Lincoln, and Linda Tuhiwai Smith, eds., Handbook of Critical and Indigenous Methodologies (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2008); Raymond A. Morrow with David D. Brown, Critical Theory and Methodology (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 1994).
  23. [23]Norman K. Denzin and Yvonna S. Lincoln, “Introduction: Critical Methodologies and indigenous Inquiry,” in Handbook of Critical and Indigenous Methodologies, eds. Norman K. Denzin, Yvonna S. Lincoln, and Linda Tuhiwai Smith (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2008), 1-20.
  24. [24]Norman K. Denzin and Yvonna S. Lincoln, eds., The SAGE Handbook of Qualitative Research, 4th ed. (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2011).
  25. [25]I draw here on a rich Jewish tradition, as explained by Richard Shapiro at the California Institute of Integral Studies in Spring, 2011, of justice as aspirational: If one is so arrogant as to imagine s/he has achieved it, s/he has surely missed the mark. Rather, it is a goal that can never be abandoned, even if it can never be achieved.
  26. [26]Norman K. Denzin and Yvonna S. Lincoln, eds., The SAGE Handbook of Qualitative Research, 4th ed. (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2011).
  27. [27]David Benfell, “From Authoritarian Boast to Awe and Wonder: A Transformation of the Understanding of Knowledge,” November 21, 2011,; Norman K. Denzin, Yvonna S. Lincoln, and Linda Tuhiwai Smith, eds., Handbook of Critical and Indigenous Methodologies (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2008).