How does a field of phenomena come into focus as a subject of scientific study? When we want to know about weather, we can identify a relatively small number of variables that represent the whole of the topic -- temperature, air pressure, wind velocity, rainfall. And we can pick out the aspects of physics that seem to be causally relevant to the atmospheric dynamics that give rise to variations in these variables. Weather is a closed system, if a complex one.
Deciding what factors are important and amenable to scientific study in the social world is not so easy. Population size or density? Economic product? Inter-group conflict? Public opinion and values? Political systems? Racial and ethnic identities? All of these factors are of interest to the social sciences, to be sure. But none of this looks like anything like a definition of the whole of the social realm. Rather, there are indefinitely many other research questions that can be posed about the social world -- style and fashion, trends of social media, forms of etiquette, sources of power, and on and on.
For that matter, these don't look much like a macro-set of factors that are generated in some straightforward way by the simple actions of individual persons. These social factors aren't really analogous to macro-level weather factors, emerging from the local cells of temperature-pressure-humidity-direction. Rather, these social concepts or constructs are theorized and developed in a complicated back-and-forth by sociologists or political scientists seeking to identify social-level constructs that seem to give some insight into the ordinary and systematic experiences we have of the social world.
Most particularly, there isn't a natural way of mapping these social concepts into an integrated and comprehensive mental model of the whole of the social world. Instead, these high-level social concepts are partial and perspectival. And this is different from the situation of weather or climate. In the latter domains there are finitely many higher level concepts that serve to characterize the whole of the domain of global climate phenomena. Call this "high-level conceptual closure." There are no questions about climate that cannot be phrased in terms of these concepts. But the social world is not amenable to this kind of closure. We lack high-level conceptual closure for the social world.…Conventional economics assumes closure because its models are closed. Then the question becomes to what extent are they representational of the world. As one would expect they model the factors that figure in their assumptions with varying degrees of success, and they fail to represent what falls outside of their restrictive assumptions.
Concludes with a quotation from Marx.
Defining social phenomena
Daniel Little | Chancellor of the University of Michigan-Dearborn, Professor of Philosophy at UM-Dearborn and Professor of Sociology at UM-Ann Arbor