But like it or not, one part of social science has indeed been linked inexorably with the attempt to ‘change’ the human social conditions rather than merely to report on what they are. This analysis will argue that the emancipatory social science as seen within Marx et al. is actually aided rather than hindered by certain kinds of postmodernism. The fact is that social sciences can learn from postmodernists and visa-versa. In the best postmodern fashion it is not a case of either/or but rather both/and.
Before tackling how some postmodern paradigms actually compliment emancipatory social science it is logical to consider what the features of this social science are. Perhaps one of the first, and most certainly one of the most influential, attempts at emancipatory social science can be seen within the work of Karl Marx. Marx, in his most famous work Das Kapital (1867), attempted to critique Capitalist societies in a manner that he claimed was both scientific and revolutionary. Whether he actually succeeded in doing this is perhaps besides the point, the fact remains that he sought to analyse society in a scientific manner and formulated a number of terms that are still in use today.
Thus the “mode of production”, “base and superstructure” , “class consciousness”, “ideology” and “historical materialism” (among many more) have all become the basis for a whole universe of scholarship, political movements, practical attempts at creating a Marxist economy and mixture of all three. Marx identified certain trends, groups and relationships within society in a “scientific” manner, and then attempted to place them within his revolutionary, or for our purposes, emancipatory context. For example, at the core of Marxist thinking is the idea of exploitation. Exploitation involves one entire class or segment of society taking advantage of another. Within Capitalism, the profit gained by the Capitalist is the difference between the value of the product and the actual wage that the worker receives. Thus Capitalism functions on the basis of paying workers less than the full value of their labour, thus providing profit.
Within such emancipatory social science, there is an attempt at objectively identifying certain trends, processes and patterns within society, followed by a couching of what has been identified within a context of how the scholar thinks society should be changed. 'Objectivity' takes place with the study of what is, 'subjectivity' within the analysis of what should be.
How does postmodernism fit within this view of social science One of postmodernism, as might be personified by a scholar such as Jacques Derrida, would view any attempt to emancipate people through social science somewhat nave at best. For Derrida, and the followers of deconstruction, the idea of a hierarchy of value within the world:- exploitation of workers is bad, worker control is good (within a Marxist context) - is invalid. The attempt by many emancipatory social scientists to identify an essentialist centre that is exploiting workers, biased against women, racist, homophobic (take your pick) is beside the point. Derrida best explained his position on how modern societies actually work early in his career:
the entire history of the concept of structure, before the rupture of which we are speaking, must be thought of as a series of substitutions of centre for centre, as a linked chain of determinations of the centre. Successively, and in a regulated fashion, the centre receives different forms