Centre for the Study of the Sciences and the Humanities

VITSV900 Philosophy of Social Science and Ethics

VITSV900 provides training in the Philosophy of Social Science and research ethics, and is an obligatory part of the doctoral education at the Faculty of Social Sciences.



Practical information

The next course will be held in Bergen and Vatnahalsen in 12. - 16. February 2018. The first day of the course will be held on Monday in Bergen. From Tuesday through Friday, the course will be held at Vatnahalsen. . Participants can expect to return to Bergen at around 18:00, Friday. See Program for details. 


Enrolment details
Enrollment is open for those accepted into the Ph.D. program, Faculty of Social Sciences, at the University of Bergen, Norway. Other candidates can be enrolled if there is capacity. Studentweb.uib.no is open for registration from 10. October 2017 to 9. January 2018. The deadline for registration is 9. January 2018

Project description
All participants must submit a a project description (1-2 pages). The description should focus on the main theoretical, methodological and emipirical aspects of the PhD-project. The abstract must be submitted within 15. January 2018 to Idunn Tandstad (idunn.tandstad@uib.no). The project descriptions will be distributed to all participants.  The group sessions at Vatnahalsen will be based on these descriptions.

The course is free to doctoral candidates registered at the UiB PhD. programme. The faculty will cover the expenses for room and board (participants will cover their own drinking bills at meals). The travel expenses (train tickets) to Vatnahalsen will be charged your individual PhD fundings after the course.

The lectures will be held in English. The individual project descriptions must be written in English .

Weather and climate
Please bring warm clothes and shoes. Vatnahalsen is in the middle of the Norwegian mountains and there will be a 100 m walk from the station to the hotel. Nice city shoes or sneakers are not enough!

Depending on the programme and weather conditions there will be some possibilities for skiing (cross country) – in case, bring your own skis.

Course content

The Centre for the Study of the Sciences and the Humanities (Senter for vitenskapsteori - SVT) is responsible for the course. The course entails approximately two months of work. The course is approved based on an assessment of submitted essay. In addition, it is compulsory to take part in the introductory five-day seminar and to present an essay at the end of the course.


An intensive five-day seminar is held once a year by an academic staff member from SVT. The seminar will both provide an overview of the field, as well as selected topics which are at the forefront of the international scholarly debate. The candidates will be asked to hand in an abstract of their PhD project before the seminar. There will be group sessions where the relations between the projects and the problematics of the seminar will be discussed. It is expected that the candidates will take active part in the debates at the seminar.


The seminar marks the beginning of a reading and writing process that will result in an essay. The candidate selects a topic for the essay, in cooperation with course responsible from SVT and the supervisor. The candidate can require two sessions of supervision from SVT's course responsible.

One of the main intentions with the essay is to reflect on some of the fundamental theoretical, methodological and ethical dilemmas in the candidate's PhD project, so that it can serve as a driving force to move the thesis work forward. The essay should be closely related to the thesis process, and at the same time provide the possibility to transgress the discipline's own limitations and discuss more general theoretical problems.

Normally the essay should have a length of 4-7000 words, and should not exceed 8000 words.

The essay must include a reading list of approximately 700 pages. The list should include literature that is relevant for themes dealt with in the essay, but should also cover central issues in the philosophy and ethics of social sciences. Normally around 250 pages should be drawn from the recommended reading list following the course. Recommended reading list will be published in December.


The essay will be presented at an open seminar at the candidate's department. There will be a collective seminar for all the candidates from the same department, and each candidate is supposed to take part in the discussion of the other candidates' essays. Normally each presentation should last around 25 minutes, followed by a 30 minutes discussion. Only approved essays may be presented.

Learning outcomes

Upon successful completion of this course the participants should be able to:

  • Reflect critically upon the theoretical and epistemic foundations of the social sciences, as well as the implications of choices on this level for the research questions, methodologies, empirical strategies and empirical explanations
  • Relate the debates on the theoretical and epistemic foundations of the social sciences to similar debates within the humanities and the natural sciences
  • Provide an overview of general debates about the philosophy and theory of sciences, social sciences and the humanities, as well as perspectives on the relation between science/expertise and society
  • Reflect upon the ethical dimensions of social sciences
  • Provide an overview of theoretical and practical aspects of research ethics in general and the Guidelines for Research Ethics in The Social Sciences, Law and The Humanities in particular

Study period

The course takes place during the spring semester. A seminar is held from 12. - 16. February 2018.

The presentation of essays takes place at the end of the semester.

Compulsory Requirements

Participation at seminar week
Presentation of approved essay

Form of assessment

The course is approved based on an assessment of submitted essay.

Normally the essay should have a length of 4-7000 words, and should not exceed 8000 words. The essay is to be handed in electronically to the course responsible from SVT.

The essay is graded by a committee with two members from the candidate's department and the course responsible from SVT. The committee is approved by the faculty. The essay is graded "passed"/ "not passed". The requirement for passing corresponds to the grade B.

If the essay does not meet the requirements for approval, the committee will present a written assessment to the candidate. In this case, the candidate may submit a revised version within 3 weeks. The essay will then be graded by the committee, without any presentations.

If the resubmitted essay is graded "not passed", the candidate has the right to appeal the grading of the essay according to ordinary routines for examination work.

Course description - substantial issues

Philosophy and theory of science concerns meta-scientific problematics, where scientific knowledge and research activities become the object of reflections and studies. A core question is what constitutes scientific knowledge and activities, how these have developed historically, which presuppositions they build upon and what distinguishes them from other kinds of knowledges, knowledge-based activities and expertises. The relations between science and society, and the ethical dimensions of research practises, are parts of this problem. These questions have an importance in their own right, and they unavoidably present themselves  when scholars reflect upon their own practices as researchers and the results of it.   

The main goal of the course is to build the candidates’ comptence in reflecting critically upon their own discipline’s epistemic and conceptual foundations, basic presuppostions, theories, modes of explanation, models, methodologies and empirical strategies, and to reflect upon the differences and similarities between their own and other disciplines. Important issue are the relations between the sciences, the humanities and the social sciences concerning these problems and questions, as well as the relations between the different disciplines of the social sciences. 

Some central issues:

  1. The theoretical and empirical. Within this theme we will focus on the relations between different levels of the research process. What are the relations between the general epistemic foundations, and the empirical explanations ?  How may choices on the most presuppositional level influence the research questions and empirical strategies ? What are the relations between paradigms, theories, methodologies and the constitution of scientific data ? What are the implications for the relevance, importance and centrality of different emprical strategies and data ?
  2. Interpretations and causual factors. Within this theme we will focus on the debate on the relation between understanding and explaining human action and behaviour, as well as attempts to transgress this distinction. What is the role and position of hermeneutics within social sciences, and how may it be combined with other perspectives ?
  3. The normative and material. What are the relations between the normative and material dimensions of society, and how may these be combined in modes of explanation ? We will focus on basic assumptions regarding the rationality of social actors, and whether they are constituted and guided by norms or material interests. This also leads to the general question of how it is possible to understand and conceptualize the relations between normative structures, economy, technology and ecology.
  4. Language and society. What are the relations between epistemic structures and the formation of norms and social interests ? We will focus on how language and discourses may constitute both the identities of social actors, as well as how they understand and evaluate cultural, social and material dimensions and problems. What are the strengths and limitations of language based perspectives within social sciences ? We will also discuss the relations between cultural discourses and the foundations of social sciences, thereby raising the question of the nature of objectivity.
  5. Nature and culture. What are the relations between cultural dimensions, and the human nature, in modes of explaining social behaviour and structures ? We will focus on the emerging interfaces between biology, genetics, brain research and social sciences, and theoretical and methodological problems and debates in this contested terrain. What are the challenges for the dominating modes of explanation within the social sciences ?

Values, ethics and the social sciences. There is an old and comprehensive debate about the role and position of values within social sciences. This is closely related to the question of the possibility and desirability of scientific objectivity, and how this should be understood and practised.  At the same time there is a renewed debate about the ethical obligations and challenges of the social sciences, related to the uses of vulnerable humans for research purposes, social inequalities, 


Preliminary program (changes might occour)

Monday 12. February 

(Note that the frist day of the course is held in Bergen)

13.00 –  13.30 : Welcome. Thorvald Sirnes

13.30 – 15.00 : Philosophy of sciences. Objectivity and contextualism. Thorvald Sirnes.

15.30 – 17.00 :  Philosophy of social sciences. The material and the normative. Explaining and understanding. Thorvald Sirnes.


Tuesday 13. February

07.50 – 10.30:  Travelling to Vatnahalsen.

11.00 -11.30:  Presentation of participants.

11.30 – 12.00: Writing an essay in philosophy and ethics of the social sciences. Thorvald Sirnes.

12.00 - 13.00:  Lunch

13.00 - 15.00:  Fear and Loathing in the Hierarchical West.  Anne Norton (University of Pennsylvania).

15.00 - 17.00: Time off / Start of group discussions

17.00 – 18.00: Anne Norton continuing.

18.00 – 19.00: Some perspectives on the totalitarian. Thorvald Sirnes.

20.00: Dinner


Wednesday 14. February

09.15 -12.00: How to understand modernity ? The debate on historical differentiation, language and power within social philosophy. Thorvald Sirnes.

12.00 - 13.00: Lunch

13.00 - 15.00: Time off (Group Discussions)

15.00 – 16.30: Group Discussions

16.30 – 19.00: Historical diversity in the economic discipline. A tentative overview.  Erik S. Reinert.

20.00: Dinner


Thursday 15. February

09.15 - 12.00: Science and democracy : cooperation or conflict ? Silvio Funtowicz.

12.00 - 13.00: Lunch

13.00 - 16.00: Time off 

16.00 – 17.00: Group discussions.

17.00 – 19.00: Social sciences, mass emergencies, management and responsibility. Bruna De-Marchi

20.00: Dinner


Friday 16. February

09.15 - 12.00: Perspectives on ethics. Suffering. The speaking subject.  Thorvald Sirnes. 

12.00 - 13.00: Lunch

13.00 - 14.30: Concluding session.

14.30 – 14.45: Evaluation of seminar.

15.15: Departure from Vatnahalsen