Sunday, July 20, 2008

The Neutering of Social Science

In a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, UCLA historian Russell Jacoby asks a great question:

How is it that Freud is not taught in psychology departments, Marx is not taught in economics, and Hegel is hardly taught in philosophy?

In his view, their absence reflects a conformity in academic thought:

Perhaps those disciplines have come to prize a scientistic ethos that drives away unruly thinkers. Or maybe they simply progress by sloughing off the past.

No doubt that the bias towards positivism in the social and behavioral science has driven out interpretive approaches (Freud) or theories that are deemed unfalsifiable and/or tautological (Marx). But I think it reflects a larger reticence on the part of academic to directly engage issues of social power.

Admittedly, it's a bit overdrawn to suggest that Marx doesn't register in the social sciences. It's true that Marx has pretty much vanished from political science, but there are some prominent neo-Marxists in other parts of the social sciences. People like Harvey Molotch, Erik Olin Wright, and (David Harvey). come to mind.

Jacoby asks at what cost does this purging come:

The divorce between informed opinion and academic wisdom could not be more pointed. If educated individuals were asked to name leading historical thinkers in psychology, philosophy, and economics, surely Freud, Hegel, and Marx would figure high on the list. Yet they have vanished from their home disciplines.

Here I think he's on to something. What good is an "academic wisdom" that has strayed so far down the track of emulating the "hard" sciences by emphasizing theory testing through quantification that it fails to connect to "informed opinion." I don't discount this type of social science, but I do find it problematic when social scientists degrade efforts to view problems contextually. Jacoby succinctly points out the effects of an ahistorical, acontextual social science:

Economics looks more and more like mathematics, in which the past vanishes. Sometimes it even looks like biopsychology. A recent issue of the American Economic Review includes numerous papers under the rubrics of "Neuroscientific Foundations of Economic Decision-Making" and "Cognitive Neuroscientific Foundations of Economic Behavior." But can we really figure out today's economic problems without considering whence they came?

I get why a mathematical turn is alluring. It provides a comfortable veneer of certainty. Viewing the world through equations and models is a convenient way to eliminate the messiness of the social world. But the emphasis on developing "grand universal theories" falls short when the social world is a moving target. The permanence of great thinkers like Freud, Marx and Hegel in ancillary disciplines is no remedy for this problem. As Jacoby accurately points out:

Instead of confronting recalcitrant thinkers on their own terms, the new disciplines slice them up. Freud turns into an interpreter of texts, Hegel into a philosopher of art, and Marx into a cinema theorist. That saves them from oblivion, but at the price of domestication. Freud no longer excavates civilization and its discontents but merely unpacks words. Hegel no longer tracks the dialectic of freedom but consoles with the beautiful. Marx no longer outlines the movements of capital but only deconstructs the mass spectator.

What he's getting at is that social science has lost what C. Wright Mills refered to as the "Sociological Imagination" or the ability to help develop "informed opinion" on the contemporary problems of the day. This abdication of responsibility is troubling. I'm astounded, for instance, by how few academics blog. If anyone has something useful to say about the great issues of the day it would be social scientists, but most of those voices are silenced by traditional demands to publish or perish.


Black Political Analysis said...

I certainly value the benefit quantifiable methods in political science. It is, after all, what makes the study of politics scientific. But, at what cost? If reading AJPS or APSR is akin to reading a math journal, do we lose sight of, as you put, the context in which we place our formulas. How are our graduate students supposed learn political history and the evolution of theories when lit reviews get short shrift in journals in favor of increasingly complex formulas.

amy said...

We read a lot of marx and freud in sociology. In both sociology and anthropology, marx is considered one of a handful of foundational thinkers.

Jose Marichal said...

That's true that Sociology still engages with Marx. I think that Sociology and Anthropology provide more space for alternative views on the discipline.