What Do We Mean by Family Science?

by Paul R. Amato, Ph.D., NCFR President
Fall 2014 NCFR Report

NCFR members have struggled at various times to figure out what we should call our field. Although "Family Science" is a commonly used term, a variety of contenders exist, as reflected in the many names of academic departments from which our members hail. Names have important symbolic value, and the labels we choose have implications for how we are perceived by university administrators, funding agencies, policy makers, the media, and the general public. Given the amount of interest in this topic at recent NCFR conference sessions, I thought I would share my personal views (for what they are worth) about the label of family science.

The physical sciences have been remarkably successful in helping us to comprehend nature. Only about a century after Galileo Galilei (the first modern scientist) conducted experiments with spheres and inclined planes to study the movement of objects through space, Isaac Newton published the Principia (1687), which accurately described the three fundamental laws of motion, provided the mathematical formula for gravity, and laid the foundation for our understanding of how the physical world works. The physical sciences progressed extremely rapidly once early scientists realized the importance of systematic observation and the usefulness of mathematics to summarize empirical regularities.

As 19th century philosophers like Auguste Comte argued, given that the physical sciences had succeeded so admirably, why not employ the same methods to understand social and behavioral phenomena? The idea that the boundaries of science could be expanded to incorporate the study of human behavior found enthusiastic adherents in the second half of the 19th century. And by the middle of the 20th century, the fields of psychology, economics, sociology, anthropology, political science, and family science had been established in university departments around the world.

Most supporters of the social sciences argue that a science is defined by its methods. Although philosophers of science do not always agree, most claim that the scientific method includes the following steps: (a) observing the world and forming empirical generalizations, (b) constructing theories to explain these generalizations, (c) using deductive logic to derive hypotheses from these theories, (d) testing these hypotheses with new observations, and (e) refining theories on this basis. If the social sciences, including family science, follow these steps, then does it not follow that they are sciences?

One difficulty with this conclusion is that a science also can be defined by its success in producing experimentally verified knowledge about the world, usually expressed in the form of law-like principles. Although it is true that most family researchers follow the scientific method, there are fundamental differences between physical phenomena and human behavior. For one thing, objects and processes in the physical world display a striking degree of uniformity. All hydrogen atoms are identical and have the same properties. Light always travels at 186,000 miles per second. Everywhere in the universe, two objects will attract each other with a force directly proportional to their masses and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them. Consider the fact that on any given day, thousands of high school science teachers around the world conduct classroom experiments, and if these experiments are conducted carefully, they produce the same results every time. Moreover, physical laws can be described with such a high level of mathematical precision that predictions can be made with pinpoint accuracy.

In contrast to atoms, molecules, and chemical compounds, each person, family, society, and historical period is different. Each human is unique at birth (due to the random shuffling of parental genes), and we become even more different from one another with each formative experience. Moreover, unlike physical phenomena, the causes of human behavior often involve intentions, goals, plans, and meanings. Because of this variability and the existence of agency, human behavior does not generally cohere into uniform patterns that can be described in law-like ways with a high level of precision.

These complications are reflected in the fact that research findings in the social sciences often do not replicate well. Does x lead to y? In many research areas, some studies will say "yes" and other studies will say "no." Some studies may show that it holds for men but not women, for whites but not blacks, in some countries but not other countries, or in the past but not the present. Sometimes conclusions vary with the choice of data set, the ways in which x and y are measured, and the type of statistical model used to analyze the data. Unfortunately, this contradictory situation characterizes much of the research literature in our field.

No one ever said social science would be easy. Nevertheless, it is sobering to pause now and then and recognize that the social sciences, including family science, will never produce a body of knowledge comparable to what the physical sciences have achieved. This is not because of the relative newness of our field or the crudeness of our methods. This is because our subject matter is not amenable to the formulation of mathematically precise laws like we find in the physical sciences.

Given that the social sciences will never attain the precision and clarity of the physical sciences, does it still make sense to refer to our field as family science? I believe that it does, provided that we recognize that the term "science" is a metaphor. That is, we follow the methods of science as best we can, and we see how far that takes us. Our empirical generalizations about families have many exceptions, and they often are culturally and historically contingent. But despite the limitations imposed by our subject matter, the scientific approach still brings rigor and discipline to our work and helps to ensure that our observations are as reliable and objective as possible. Without adopting the methods of science, our "research" would not rise above the level of personal opinion. We would lose the capacity to be surprised by the results of our work, trapped in an infinite loop of reaffirming our own preconceptions.

Although the scientific approach is valuable, we also should recognize that many aspects of the human condition are not readily amenable to scientific analysis. The meanings that people attach to actions and events, in particular, are better grasped through sympathetic understanding (or empathy) rather than experimentation and quantification. Treating a person's behavior as a manifestation of a general principle is a scientific way of thinking, and sometimes that is appropriate. But to make other people's behavior explicable, we often must place ourselves "in their shoes" and see the world from their perspectives. Adopting the viewpoints of others and delving into their subjective realities is more of a humanistic than a scientific process.

In conclusion, viewing our field as family science reminds us that we should use the best available empirical methods to study our subject matter. It also signals to non-social scientists that our work is based on the collection and analysis of data and not on personal opinions. But we should accept the term for what it really is—a metaphor. Otherwise we run the risk of devaluing interpretative, sympathetic, and humanistic approaches to understanding families. Because humans have a physical body as well as consciousness and volition, the study of human behavior always will have one foot in the sciences and the other in the humanities. We need both to keep our balance. If we reject science, we lose our credibility. If we reject our humanistic foundations, we lose what is unique about our subject matter—and ourselves. Family science may be a metaphor, but as long as we understand the value and necessity of the two approaches, it is a useful and powerful one.