Social Science and the Theory of All

22 Apr

Social phenomenon, unlike natural phenomenon, is bound and morphed not only by nature (evolution, etc.) but also history, institutions (religious, governance, etc.), and technology, among others. Before I go any further, I would like to issue a caveat: the categories that I mention above are not orthogonal and in fact, do trespass into each other regularly. We can study particular social phenomena in aggregate through disciplines like political science, which study everything from study of psychology to institutions to history, or study them by focusing on one particular aspect – psychology or genetics – and investigating how each effect multiple social phenomena like politics, communication, etc.

Given the disparate range of fields that try to understand the social phenomenon, often the field is straddled with multiple competing paradigms and multiple theories within or across those paradigms with little or no objective criteria on which the theories can be judged. This is not to say that theories are always mutually irreconcilable for often they are not (though they may be seen as such – which is an artifact of how they are sold), or that favoring one theory automatically implies rejecting others. The success of a theory, hence, often depend on how well it is sold and the historical proclivities of the age.

Proclivities of an age; theories of an age

Popular paradigms emerge over time and then are discarded for entirely new ones. It is not that the old don’t hold but just that the new ones hold the imagination of the age. Take for example variables that people have chosen to describe culture over the ages – Weber argued religion was culture, Marx argued that political economy was culture, Freud proposed a psycho-analytical take on culture (puritan, liberated, etc.), Carey proposed communication as culture, political theorists have argued institutions as culture, bio-evolutionists argue that cognition and bio-rootedness are primary determinants of culture, Tech. evangelists have argued technology is culture, while others have argued that infrastructure dictates culture.

It is useful to acknowledge that the popularity of the paradigms that were used to define culture had something to do with the most important forces shaping culture at that particular time. For example, it is quite reasonable to imagine that Marx’s paradigm was a useful one for explaining the industrial society (in fact it continues to be useful), while Carey’s paradigm was useful to explain the results of rapid multiplication (and accessibility) of communication (mass-) media. I would like to reissue this caveat that adopting new paradigms doesn’t automatically imply rejecting the prior ones. In fact intersection of old and new paradigms provide fecund breeding grounds for interesting arguments and theories – for example political economy of mass media and its impact. Let me illuminate the point with another example from Political Science which a decade or so ago saw a resurgence of cultural theory at the back of Huntington’s theory of ‘Clash of civilizations’. Huntington’s theory didn’t mean an end to traditional paradigms like economic competition; it just postulated that there was another significant variable that needed to be factored in the discourse.

The structure of scientific revolutions

Drawing extensively from historical evidence from the natural sciences, Thomas Kuhn, a Harvard physicist, argued in his seminal book, The Structure of scientific revolutions, that science progressed through “paradigm shifts.” While natural sciences paid scant attention to the book, the book provoked an existentialist crisis within the social sciences. To arrive at that crisis point, social scientists made a number of significant leaps (not empirically based) from what Kuhn said – they argued that growth of social science was anarchic, its judgments historically situated and never objective, and hence the social sciences were pointless – or more correctly had a point but were misguided. This self-flagellation is typical in social sciences that have always been more introspective about their role and value in society as compared to the natural sciences, which have always proceeded with the implicit assumption that ‘progress’ cannot be checked and eventually what they produce are merely tools in service of humanity. Of course, that is quite bunk and has been exposed as such without making even the slightest dent in the research in science and technology. Criticizing natural sciences, especially the majority of it that is in service of ‘value-free’ economics, doesn’t take away from the questions that Kuhn posed for the social sciences. Social scientists, in my estimation, put disproportionate emphasis on Kuhn’s work. Social science is admittedly much behind in terms of coming up with generalizable theories, but they have been quite successful in identifying macro-variables and phenomena.

The most intractable problem that social scientists need to deal with is answering what is the purpose of their discipline. Is it to describe reality or to critique it or engineer alternative realities? If indeed it is all of above, and I believe it is, then social science must think about melding its often disparate traditions – theory and practice.

Rorty and the structure of philosophical revolutions

Richard Rorty in his book, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, launches a devastating attack on philosophy – especially its claims to any foundational insights. Rorty traces the history of philosophy and finds that the discipline is embedded, much more deeply than social science, in the milieu of paradigm shifts – philosophers from different ages not only offer different “foundational” insights but often deal with different problems altogether.

Battling at the margins

Those who argue that the singular purpose of social science should be to normatively critique it and offer alternative paradigms are delusional. Understanding how a society works (or how institutions work, people work) is important to craft interventions – be it drug policy or engineering new governance systems. Normative debates often times are nothing but frivolous debates at the margins. The broad overarching problems of today don’t need normative theorists devoted to analysis – though I don’t dispute their contribution – they are evident and abundantly clear. When we take out the vast middle of what needs to be decided, normative theory becomes a battle at the margins.

Post-positivist theorizing; and the sociology of research

The most significant challenges for social science as discipline lie within the realm of how the discipline aggregates research and moves forward and how that process is muzzled by a variety of factors.
Imre Lakatos sees “history of science in terms of a continuous competition between alternative research programs rather than of successive conjectures and refutations on the one hand, or of total paradigm-switches on the other.” Lakatos argues that any research program possess a kernel of theoretical principles which are taken as fixed and hence create a ‘negative heuristic’ that forbids release of anomalous results, and instead scientists are directed to create a “protective belt” of auxiliary assumptions intended to secure correctness of theoretical principles at the core. Finally, ‘positive heuristic’ is at work to “Defend and extend!” (Little, 1981)

Post-positivist scientific philosophy, like the ones forwarded by Kuhn and Lakatos, raise larger questions about the nature (and viability) of the scientific enterprise. While we may have a firmer grasp of what we mean by a good scientific theory, we are still floundering when it comes to creating an ecosystem that foments good social science and creates a rational and progressive research agenda. (Little, 1981) We must analyze the sociology, and political economy of journal publication as the whole venture is increasingly institutionalized and as careerism, etc. become more pronounced.