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law (scientific)

  An integral component of a scientific theory, whose nature varies according to the epistemology.

In positivism, laws are statements that are universally true, independent of time and place. They represent a constant conjunction — of the form \'if X, then Y\'; given certain antecedent conditions, a particular consequence will necessarily follow (perhaps at some specified level of probability). Laws differ from factual statements, which refer to specific events (times and/or places) only, through their generality: they are produced by the empirical testing of hypotheses and are linked together in coherent theories.

A law in realism is a statement of a causal connection: it indicates a necessity in a particular situation but implies neither universality nor regularity. In positivism, laws are frequently produced through the identification of regularities which can be equated with causation (perhaps because the theory posits such a relationship): the implication is that future events can be predicted as further occurrences of the universal regularity — \'if X again, then Y will follow again\'. In realism, on the other hand, causation is identified by an analysis of the circumstances of the event(s) being considered; there is no implication that the conditions will be repeated so the law\'s validity in those circumstances does not imply that it occurs repeatedly. (Laws identified in positivist science are special cases of those derived in realist science, therefore, since positivism implicitly assumes that circumstances recur, with the same result: see Chouinard, Fincher and Webber, 1984. Realists argue that repeated examples of the same conditions are rare in social science.)

There has been much debate within the social sciences about the relevance of the positivist conception of a law. Realists argue that it is possible to conceive of laws which are particular to a finite domain — as with the marxian law of the falling rate of profit (Marxian economics) which applies only to capitalist societies. The domain for any law must be precisely specified, however — i.e. it must be a rational abstraction and not a chaotic conception.

Identified laws are frequently descriptive statements only, presenting empirical regularities but no insights into the mechanisms that produce them. Thus realists prefer to focus on uncovering causal connection laws rather than describing unaccounted-for regularities. (RJJ)

Reference Chouinard, V., Fincher, R. and Webber, M. 1984: Empirical research in scientific human geography. Progress in Human Geography 8: 347-80.

Suggested Reading Golledge, R.G. and Amedeo, D.W. 1968: On laws in geography. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 58: 560-74. Harvey, D. 1969: Explanation in geography. London: Edward Arnold. Sayer, A. 1992: Method in social science: a realist approach, 2nd edn. London: Routledge.



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