A couple of examples might be useful to show how Winch’s ideas connect with actual work in the social sciences or social studies. I will give two examples, one that Winch discusses and one much more recent one. In his 1964 essay “Understanding a Primitive Society,” Winch responds to the work of E. E. Evans-Pritchard on witchcraft, magic, and the Zande people (who in the plural are referred to as the Azande). Traditional Zande beliefs include belief in witchcraft and occult powers. Winch says of such beliefs and their related practices that “we cannot possibly share” them, but he also wants to avoid both abandoning “the idea that men’s ideas and beliefs must be checkable by reference to something independent—some reality” (thereby falling into an extreme relativism) and mistakenly thinking that our scientific beliefs and practices are more in accord with objective reality than the Azande’s. In other words, he wants to avoid treating our rejection of Zande beliefs and practices as something justified by reality itself, while also wanting to avoid relativism. And he wants to be able to understand Zande beliefs and practices without sharing or adopting them. Can this be done?
Winch suggests that the main reason why it is likely to seem impossible is because we are so impressed by science and its methods. When we think of what reality is and how we can know it we are likely to think in terms of reality as described by science. But it is not by scientific means that we know (if we know it) the reality of God. The conception of God’s reality, Winch says, has its place within the religious use of language. It is not that God or the reality of God exists only within such language, but the idea of God belongs within such language, within a particular kind of thinking, talking, writing, painting, and so on. We show a misunderstanding of this idea if we treat it as belonging to scientific discourse and try, for instance, to test its validity using scientific means. This does not mean that the idea of God is immune from criticism. It does mean, though, that it is immune from a certain kind of criticism. The existence of evil might disprove the existence of God. Looking through a telescope cannot do so (unless the god in question is of a very unusual kind). Scientific, religious, ethical, and aesthetic discourse can influence and interact with each other, but they are not the same. And we often best avoid confusion if we keep their differences in mind. Nor does this commit us to relativism. If God has any reality at all then within religious language we cannot just say whatever we like. If anything goes then such language has no meaning at all.
An obvious problem with this example is that many of us do not believe in God. The following are not Winch’s examples, but I think that he might accept belief in beauty or moral goodness as parallels to belief in God. If we believe in the genuine goodness of Nelson Mandela or Mahatma Ghandi, or the beauty of the Mona Lisa or Mozart’s third violin concerto, then we accept a kind of truth and a kind of reality that are not those of science. Science does not tell us that apartheid is wrong. But it is wrong. And the fact that this is not a scientific truth does not mean that you or I can say just whatever we like about it, regardless of reality. The reality is that it is wrong.
But reality does not force us to think this way. It is possible to support apartheid. It is also possible to think or speak in completely different terms, so that questions of justice and injustice or beauty and ugliness simply do not, cannot, arise. If we only ever used the terms of scientific discourse, for instance, then such matters would be outside all our thoughts. Winch wants to say of the Azande that they have their own form of discourse, different from our scientific discourse. He does not say that it is just as good. But he does seem to think both that judging whether their discourse is good or bad is not the business of science and that making such judgments is likely to get in the way of trying to understand their way of living and thinking. Instead of asking why they do what they do, we start asking why they are so stupid. This is not only condescending. It is also a different kind of question. It is a question about causes, namely the causes of ignorance, superstition, irrationality, and so on. The question about why a certain group of people think and behave as they do, however, is about their reasons, about the rules that guide their behaviour. As Winch says on the first page of his essay:
An anthropologist studying such a people wishes to make those beliefs and practices intelligible to himself and his readers. This means presenting an account of them that will somehow satisfy the criteria of rationality demanded by the culture to which he and his readers belong: …
It is not possible to make beliefs and practices intelligible if the beliefs and practices in question are taken to be irrational. The existence and persistence of irrationality can perhaps be explained, but the irrational itself, by definition, cannot be made intelligible. So the anthropologist cannot do what he (or she) wants to do if he makes the mistake that Winch attributes to Evans-Pritchard. If we want to understand practices then we must treat them as intelligible, as making sense. We will never succeed if we start with the belief that they are irrational.
Another mistake here is a philosophical one. Reality itself no more justifies science than it justifies ethics or religion. I said earlier that apartheid really is wrong. That is true. But if anyone denies it then I cannot prove myself right by pointing to reality. What reality would I point to? The unhappy victims of apartheid, perhaps, but when I say that apartheid is unjust I do not mean that it makes people unhappy. Some injustices leave no unhappy survivors. Similarly, the best proof we have that science is true is that it works so well. But ‘true’ no more means ‘works well’ than ‘just’ means ‘makes people happy’. Not to mention the fact that science may yet lead to results that we do not consider useful at all.
More relevant is the fact that science is a kind of procedure, a methodology, a practice, more than it is a body of knowledge. As a kind of enterprise it can be neither true nor false. It cannot agree or disagree with reality. In that sense, objectively speaking, it is neither good nor bad. And the same can be said of witchcraft. Zande witchcraft, Winch is suggesting, is best regarded as a kind of language, or at least better regarded as a kind of language than as a quasi-scientific theoretical system. Not a language that we ought to try to speak (indeed Winch rules that out as a possibility for us), but not one that can in any straightforward sense be judged to be right or wrong. The job of the anthropologist—that is, not the job that Winch thinks anthropologists ought to do but rather the job that the anthropologist sets for himself—is to make sense of this language. That cannot be done if we assume that it makes no sense to begin with. It can be done, or so it appears from all that is good in, for instance, Evans-Pritchard’s work, if we study carefully how the language, the nest of beliefs and practices, is used by those who engage in it.
Now for my second example, which I have chosen almost at random. Sociology, Winch understandably says, has a special place in the social sciences. One of the leading journals in sociology is the American Journal of Sociology. When I was writing this the most recent issue of the journal available online was Volume 119, No. 4 (the January 2014 issue). One paper from this issue was available free, so I chose that as my example of recent work in social studies. The paper is “Job Displacement among Single Mothers: Effects on Children’s Outcomes in Young Adulthood” by Jennie E. Brand and Juli Simon Thomas. The paper finds “significant negative effects of job displacement among single mothers on children’s educational attainment and social-psychological well-being in young adulthood.” That is, the authors carefully confirm just what one might expect, that children of single mothers suffer when their mothers lose their jobs because of operating decisions by employers (such as downsizing, rather than when the individual employee is fired or quits), and they provide details of the nature and scope of this harm.
Winch does not say that this kind of work cannot be done, nor that it should not be done. But it is doubtful that people who do such work would do it more successfully if they modelled themselves more closely on physicists. The paper involves sophisticated mathematics, but its primary interest is in children. Its key finding is that: “Children whose mothers were displaced have lower educational attainment and higher levels of depressive symptoms than children whose mothers were not displaced.” Should it need saying, there is nothing wrong with gathering and analysing data in order to confirm such unsurprising but still deniable truths, if only because they sometimes are denied or at least ignored. But the nature of the authors’ project is more interesting than this. On the one hand, they describe their work as capitalizing “on a scientific opportunity provided by extreme economic change.” On the other hand, the paper’s final paragraph is far from what one might expect in a stereotypical scientific work. Here it is in full:
As at least half of all children will spend some portion of their childhood raised by a single mother, the socioeconomic well-being of such families is a fundamental concern. We should protect disadvantaged children because they have not made the choices that have resulted in their socioeconomic conditions, or so goes the rhetoric on social class disparities in children’s resources. Such discourse implicitly assumes mothers have made such choices. But women are also subject to structural conditions largely beyond their control. Debates about social assistance should acknowledge that job separation among single mothers is at times involuntary and that such involuntary events are associated with long-term unemployment, socioeconomic and social-psychological decline, and significant intergenerational effects. We should restrict assistance neither to the most disadvantaged mothers nor to those mothers only displaced in economic contractions, as particularly deleterious maternal displacement effects on life trajectories of children may accrue among otherwise more advantaged single-parent families.
We have moved from ‘is’ to ‘ought’ here, and are clearly very close to the domain of philosophy, particularly moral and political philosophy. The precise nature of well-being is a topic that has been discussed by philosophers since at least Aristotle, whose work informs contemporary debates about human capability. Whether we should protect disadvantaged children is a moral and political question, and the connection between this and whether or not these children need help because of choices they have made is an equally philosophical matter. The same goes for questions about what debates should or should not acknowledge, questions about what is voluntary and what involuntary, and questions about how the voluntariness (or otherwise) of actions affects what ought to be done. In short, there is nothing wrong with this kind of sociology, it seems to me, but it is not science in the sense of being like physics, and it is importantly related to philosophy. Winch’s major claim is that the social sciences ought not to try to be more like physics and other natural sciences, but should instead recognize their closeness to philosophy. It seems to me that this paper by Brand and Thomas supports this view.
 Peter Winch, “Understanding a Primitive Society,” American Philosophical Quarterly, Volume 1, Number 4, October 1964, pp. 307-324.
 Winch, p. 307.
 Winch, p. 308
 Winch, p. 307.
 Brand and Thomas, p. 972.
 Ibid., p. 987.