Against ‘Shaking Up’ the Social Science

A recent blog post by Nicholas A. Christakis on the New York Times site about the need for ‘shaking up’ the social sciences has provoked a great deal of debate online. The author argues that while the natural sciences have flourished in the last century, giving rise to “whole new fields of inquiry” resulting from “fresh discoveries and novel tools”, the social sciences have stagnated:

They offer essentially the same set of academic departments and disciplines that they have for nearly 100 years: sociology, economics, anthropology, psychology and political science. This is not only boring but also counterproductive, constraining engagement with the scientific cutting edge and stifling the creation of new and useful knowledge. Such inertia reflects an unnecessary insecurity and conservatism, and helps explain why the social sciences don’t enjoy the same prestige as the natural sciences.

Christakis argues that social scientists “too often miss the chance to declare victory and move on to new frontiers” and instead plug away at the same old topics with diminishing returns. I’ve suggestedelsewhere that we can easily find flaws in explanations of the lack of cumulative progress (i.e. the “the creation of new and useful knowledge” and “moving on” to new topics when we’ve “figured this topic out”) in sociology which locate it in the cultural tendencies of sociologists. Nonetheless his case is certainly a provocative one:

So social scientists should devote a small palace guard to settled subjects and redeploy most of their forces to new fields like social neuroscience, behavioral economics, evolutionary psychology and social epigenetics, most of which, not coincidentally, lie at the intersection of the natural and social sciences. Behavioral economics, for example, has used psychology to radically reshape classical economics.


It is time to create new social science departments that reflect the breadth and complexity of the problems we face as well as the novelty of 21st-century science. These would include departments of biosocial science, network science, neuroeconomics, behavioral genetics and computational social science. Eventually, these departments would themselves be dismantled or transmuted as science continues to advance.

Some recent examples offer a glimpse of the potential. At Yale, the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs applies diverse social sciences to the study of international issues and offers a new major. At Harvard, the sub-discipline of physical anthropology, which increasingly relies on modern genetics, was hived off the anthropology department to make the department of human evolutionary biology. Still, such efforts are generally more like herds splitting up than like new species emerging. We have not yet changed the basic DNA of the social sciences. Failure to do so might even result in having the natural sciences co-opt topics rightly and beneficially in the purview of the social sciences.

New social science departments could also help to better train students by engaging in new types of pedagogy. For example, in the natural sciences, even college freshmen do laboratory experiments. Why is this rare in the social sciences? When students learn about social phenomena, why don’t they go to the lab to examine them — how markets reach equilibrium, how people cooperate, how social ties are formed? Newly invented tools make this feasible. It is now possible to use the Internet to enlist thousands of people to participate in randomized experiments. This seems radical only because our current social science departments weren’t organized to teach this way.

But is it plausible? From my perspective the (structural) incentivisation of innovation as an end in itself is one of the causes of a lack of cumulative progress rather than something which could act as its solution. An environment where ‘publish or perish’ reigns leads to an ideational arms race, with rewards going to those who can publish often while presenting novel ideas which shape the subsequent agenda. So we have to be very careful about matching this tendency with new (cultural) incentives disparaging work on the ‘settled subjects’ and shifting resources and acclaim to ‘new fields’: an intensification in the rate at which X studies and neuro-X proliferate would, at least as an aggregate tendency, make the situation worse not better. The picture Christakis paints of a culture gap between the disciplinarity of the social sciences and the transdisciplinarity of the natural sciences is also rather overdrawn, as Dirk vom Lehn argues on Org Theory:

I am surprised Christakis puts forward the argument that “the social sciences have stagnated” over the past years. He gives no empirical evidence for such a stagnation of the social scientific disciplines and I wonder what the basis for this argument is. If he was to attend the Annual Conference of the American Sociological Association (ASA) in New York in August he will see how sociology has changed over the past few decades, and he will be able to identify specific areas where sociologists have impacted developments in policy, technology, medicine, the sciences, the arts and elsewhere.

His argument ignores also the long-standing cooperation between social scientists, technology developers, computer scientists, medics and health services providers, policy makers, etc. etc. etc. For example, for several decades social scientists, computer scientists and engineers have collaborated at research labs of PARCs,  Microsoft and elsewhere, jointly working to develop new products and services.

Furthermore, argues vom Lehn, these fields give the impression of moving onwards while producing the “new and useful knowledge” Christakis calls for while ignoring much of the research that has been done elsewhere,

Christakis refers to the development of new fields like neuroscience, behavioral economics and others that “lie at the intersection of natural and social sciences”. Because “behavioral economics” is popular also with policy makers let us take this new field as an example: one of the key findings of this new field is the importance of “non-rational action” for people’s decision making. I very much enjoy the creative research undertaken by scholars in this field, but it is quite surprising that it gets away with by-and-large disregarding 100 years of social scientific research. Critique of arguments that prioritize rational action over other types of action has been key to Max Weber’s famous work in the early 1900s, Talcott Parsons’ discussion of the utilitarian dilemma, Harold Garfinkel’s breaching experiments and many other sociologists’ research and teaching.

The fields which Christakis sees as exemplars of what a ‘shaken up’ social science would look like are, in part, consequences of the very trends he decries. The superficial plausibility of such arguments needs to be interrogated. The common-sense tone underlying them only remains coherent by straightforwardly ignoring  what has largely been established within the social sciences and the impact which the earlier discussed  valorisation of innovation has had on underlying tendencies towards faddishness which are already deeply pathological:

Articles like Christakis’ imply that current social sciences have little impact on society, policy makers and knowledge development more generally, whilst research in the natural sciences, in their view, has more “impact”. They, however, overlook and disregard social scientific research that has been forgotten because scholars and policy makers follow the latest fads and fashions, such as so-called Big Data research and the opportunities of brain-scans, rather than using and further developing the existing theoretical, methodological and empirical basis of the social sciences. Moreover, they pretend that the social sciences and the natural sciences basically could achieve the same impact, if only the social sciences would make appropriate use of scientific methods. Thereby, however, they ignore what social scientists have shown over and over again over the past 100 years or so, i.e. that the social is fundamentally different from nature; it always is already interpreted when the social scientist arrives. The ‘social’ requires interpretation of a different kind than nature as encountered and then interpreted by natural scientists. Furthermore, people often change their behavior in response to the research process and in response to social scientific findings. Nature remains nature. Apples keep falling down from trees.

As vom Lehn observes, these presumably well meaning interventions can end up playing into the hands of those seeking to reshape the university and defund the social sciences. Particularly within the UK context, it fits within a political agenda that seeks ‘selectivity’ and ‘concentration’ in higher education:

Two aspects of this drive for ‘efficiency’ are significant. The first is a concern to encourage ‘concentration and selectivity’. This involves the argument that not all universities should conduct research across all areas  (selectivity) and that research capacity should be concentrated in fewer universities (concentration). The  second is that economic and social impacts of research should play a larger part in the determination of which  projects should be funded (via the research councils) or should be rewarded with QR funding from the REF.

It doesn’t take a great deal of imagination to see how the strategy suggested by Christakis for social science to establish a ”small palace guard to settled subjects and redeploy most of their forces to new fields” coheres with the logic of concentration and selectivity. The overwhelming bulk of funding will be distributed towards the narrowly defined ‘priority areas’ with what funding, if any, remains for research outside these areas being provided from within wealthy institutions. Though institutions themselves will have an impetus to use ‘seed funding’ to help develop potential bids and hence there’s the possibility of the ‘priority areas’ coming to be reproduced internally. This broader political project has designs on reshaping disciplinarity, as Holmwood argues:

In the language of science policy studies, it is clear  that the impact agenda is designed to reinforce the reproduction of what Nowotny et al (2001) call mode 2  knowledge. This consists in interdisciplinary, applied problem-based knowledge, which they contrast with discipline-based knowledge. Whereas the former involves the external beneficiaries of research drawn into the
research process as its co-producers, the latter is frequently described in terms of disciplinary hegemony and  internal audiences.

In line with those who think that the impact agenda can be shaped toward the ends of public social science,  Nowotny et al (2001) set out an attractive image of a new „public agora‟, drawing upon socially distributed  expertise. Yet the reality seems to be rather different, namely the rise of privately-negotiated user-researcher relationships and the replacement of disciplinary hierarchies by those of government strategic priorities operating though funding agencies (with individual universities increasingly mirroring those hierarchies with their own strategic priorities adapted to the priorities of funding bodies)


There are beneficiaries of the shift to mode 2 knowledge. Indeed, Nowotny et al suggest that their identification of mode 2 knowledge has been used ‘politically’, writing that, “those with most to gain from such a thesis espoused it most warmly – politicians and civil servants struggling to create better mechanisms to link science with innovation; researchers in professional disciplines such as management, struggling to wriggle out from under the condescension of more established, and more ‘academic’, disciplines” (2003: 179).


According to Abbott, a problem-based academic system would be “hopelessly duplicative” (2001: 135).  Disciplines are repositories of ‘problem-portabl’ knowledge, and “the reality is that problem-based  knowledge is insufficiently abstract to survive in competition with problem-portable knowledge” (2005: 135).  In fact, this is something that is very familiar from the ESRC‟s (2006) own engagement with perceived  problems of research capacity in applied interdisciplinary areas (for example, in management studies) and its articulation of a distinction between ‘exporter’ and ‘importer’ subjects to distinguish between academic  disciplines and interdisciplinary applied subject areas.

Though it may be done with the best of intentions, drawing these sorts of boundaries between ‘settled subjects’ and the ‘new frontiers’ is politically dangerous. It misconstrues the failure to cumulatively ‘move on to new topics’ when we’ve ‘figured this topic out’ and risks intensifying the very deficiencies it purports to ameliorate. It also implies a view of ”the creation of new and useful knowledge” which is homologous to that underlying the political project to instrumentalise and/or defund the social science (“if it’s not useful, why should we pay for it?”) and, though many advocates of the former would reject the latter, they nonetheless risk finding themselves  inadvertently acting as suppressive fire while the intellectual traditions they seek to equip for new challenges are instead dismantled around them.

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3 replies »

  1. Thanks for this, I agree with all you write. However, I think it very important to acknowledge that the piece to which you respond emanates from the USA, and reflects the particular socio-politics of that place. Even in challenging US anti-intellectualism, we are in danger of colluding in the view that the US is some kind of centre that should be taken notice of.

    This is of course, sustained by the fact that most of us can’t read Portuguese, Hindi, Mandarin, or any other language, so we are extremely limited in what we can and do understand of social science. Indeed, if we really wanted to disrupt social science, perhaps we should disrupt those institutions which privilege Anglophonist social science, and argue for a new social science which is not restricted by linguistic hegemony.

    • I think that’s a really important point Bill – it’s something I’ve thought about a lot given that google analytics tells us that our website has an extremely large non-Anglo American audience. It’s less of an issue for Milena who I run the site with but it’s difficult for me not to fall into perpetuating something I don’t want to as a monolingual young British sociologist who maintains this site in my spare time.

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