Shaking up the social sciences

Ahead of the visit by Nicholas Christakis to the UK next month, the Times Higher Education has run an interesting article by Amanda Goodall and Andrew Oswald. I wrote a response to the original article by Christakis that sparked this debate (in fairness he didn’t choose the title) arguing that the problem with this argument is political rather than intellectual. I actually have a lot of sympathy for the intellectual case he’s making but I worry that his argument inadvertently lends support to a concerted attack on the social sciences (particularly in the case of political science in the US) and a broader attempt to restructure the university system in the UK. Goodall and Oswald succinctly convey what for me is the root of the problem:

The first thing to have in mind, as background, is the astonishing size of the social science literature. Few people appreciate this. The Thomson Reuters Web of Science database (which is by no means exhaustive of the entire global academic output) lists more than 3,000 social science journals. The journals classified as economics alone contained approximately 20,000 articles last year. This implies that one new journal article on economics is published every 25 minutes – even on Christmas Day. This iceberg-like immensity of the modern social sciences means that it is going to be difficult to say anything coherent and truly general across them. Nobody walking the planet has read more than 1 per cent of their published output. Most of us have not read 0.1 per cent. Such facts should give all of us – whether or not we agree with Christakis – pause for modesty in our assertions.

This situation seems obviously untenable to me. Add to it the low citation rates across the social sciences and we’re left with an utterly depressing picture of an ever growing quantity of ‘unread and unloved’ publications that should surely leave us asking what on earth is this work for? What are the social sciences supposed to do? What purposes do they serve? What purposes should they serve? I’m intuitively inclined towards a pluralistic view of social inquiry in spite of having firm theoretical commitments. This leaves me frustrated when encountering responses to these questions that affirm the validity of one approach and denigrate all others. But I’m equally firm in my conviction that these questions need to have an answer, even if the purpose might be some oblique matter of edification rather than anything even approximating instrumental standards of utility. In other words, I think it has to be for something and when considering the output of the social sciences as a whole, in contrast to any particular example of research I might choose to examine, it’s far from clear to me that this is the case. Furthermore, I think the proliferating piles of unread (and in some cases unreadable) literature mitigates against it serving some purpose. The problem is getting worse, not better.

Categories: Outflanking Platitudes

Tags: , ,

3 replies »

  1. I agree. The problem will get worse until there is some convergence that manages not to mask or minimise the specificities and mechanisms of singular actual societies.

  2. The question about purposes can interpreted as a question about interests. We’re all aware of how research can serve the interests of the researchers who need to improve their CVs. Can it serve anyone else’s interests?

    Social theories can and do have huge social effects far beyond academia: just look at the effects of neoliberal economics and of Marxist economics before it. As those examples suggest, such effects can be aimed at serving the interests of the haves or of the have-nots.

    People who argue for strengthening the autonomy of the field (myself included) argue that sociology should not aim to serve non-scientific interests, and that it should be protected from the harmful influence of those interests, because even good politics often makes for bad science. Instead, they suggest that only an autonomous social science, which is able to ask questions and think thoughts that cannot be asked or thought in everyday discourse, can produce understanding of society that would be accurate enough to be of any real use to social movements aimed at serving the interests of the have-nots.

    Aside from the pressure of publish-or-perish, I think there is also pressure to do research that is seen as ‘relevant’, either to state policy-making or to the contestation of state policies. Perhaps this helps explain why so much research seems obsessed with social minutiae and utterly lacking in intellectual ambition. If sociologists were expected to tackle deeper questions, perhaps they would publish less.

    • I find that very plausible. You give grounds for thinking that the call to relevance might inadvertently entrench the problems lead people to call for relevance.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *