Could the social sciences benefit from being synthesized?

This past month a paper Marion Fourcade, Etienne Ollion, and Yann Algan by on the ‘Superiority of Economists‘ has made the rounds around the webs. Our own Brandon has made note of it before. I have given the paper some thought and cannot help but wonder if the social sciences could not benefit from being synthesized into a unified discipline.

Some background: I have been studying economics for a little under half a decade now. By all means I’m a new-born chicken, but I have been around long enough to have grown a distaste for certain elements of the dismal science. In particular I am disturbed by the insular nature of economists; relatively few seem interested in dropping by the History or Political Science departments next door to see what they’re working on. I cannot help but feel this insular nature will be economic’s undoing.

It should be no surprise that I hope to enter CalTech’s Social Science program for my PhD studies. The university is famed for its interdisciplinary nature and its social science program is no different. Its students are steeped in a core composed of microeconomics, statistics, and the other social sciences. For a while the New School in New York City offered a similar program.

I am sure there would be those who would object to synthesizing the social sciences into a unified discipline. Sociology and Economics might be more easily combined (as they were by folks such as Gary Becker) than Economics and Anthropology.

I am eager to hear other’s thoughts on this. Is the gap between the social sciences too large for them to be unified? Is unification even desirable? Should we content ourselves with an annual holiday dinner where we make fun of our common enemy?

5 thoughts on “Could the social sciences benefit from being synthesized?

  1. Consider the physical sciences. Chemistry is just the physics of the outer electron shell. Biology is ultimately reducible to chemistry. But As far as I know no one is pushing for “synthesis” (unification might be a better word) of these sciences. Given the present state of knowledge in these areas it makes no sense to push for unification. These three sciences continue their work from different viewpoints without serious clashes.

    Why should it be any different in the social sciences? The various branches approach the human condition from different viewpoints which is as it should be.

    That said, I would like to see public choice theory, which originated in economics, taken seriously by poly sci people.

  2. The essential reason social sciences are no longer unified under one heading (“social philosophy”) is that there are gains from specialization. The hard sciences offer a useful example: to understand how stars works requires a bit of chemistry but mostly it requires a lot of astronomy and astrophysics. And it requires people working on similar problems and communicating with one another. Under an inter-disciplinary hard science program either these people would be astrophysicists doing astrophysics but calling themselves scientists (same as the folks down the hall bothering rats). Or else they would be getting swamped in biological discussions and not getting any of their own work done.

    I, as an economist, surely have things to gain by broadening my exposure to different branches of knowledge (e.g. in psychology, evolutionary biology, statistical physics, and maybe even basket-weaving), but I ultimately need to focus my attention somewhere if I am to contribute to our body of knowledge on issues pertaining to the functioning of markets.

    I might also contribute to our body of knowledge by being a second-hand dealer in ideas within academia. If I make economic knowledge accessible to a wide variety of people, perhaps I pass on some bit of knowledge that turns out to be useful or inspirational to some biologist who ultimately is able to use that to cure cancer.

    tl;dr: There is a complex emergent order surrounding the process of (social) scientific knowledge generation. Some dive deep, others intermingle (and both to different extents), and both can and should exist symbiotically. Everyone recognizes inter-disciplinary whatever as having great promise by creating opportunities for greater leaps in knowledge, but there is also a cost. That cost is foregone gains from specialization. But when tradeoffs are faced in social arenas the appropriate policy is pluralism (which, fortunately, we have!).

    So here’s an interesting question: what are the feedback mechanisms that shape the overall approach taken (e.g. the amount of physical and mental resources flowing into each discipline as well as into interdisciplinary approaches on the boundaries of each), and should we expect that the current system (or any particular imaginable system) will lead us efficiently to a greater/deeper/more useful understanding of the universe?

  3. I basically agree with the post and with Warren Gibson: I think unification is an ideal worth pursuing. Yes, there are gains from specialization, but there are losses from over-specialization, and gains from unification.

    One prior question worth pursuing is: what counts as a social science in the first place? And what makes them social sciences?

    Both Warren and Rick have invoked the hard sciences as models, but there are other ones. Think of psychology, which is divided between cognitive and clinical branches. Cognitive psychology is very different from clinical, and most working psychologists in one field or the other would cite the gains from specialization as a barrier to unification. Worse, cognitive psychology doesn’t seem like a social science at all. But there is an obvious benefit to unification. Cognitive and clinical psychology are ultimately ways of understanding the same object–the human psyche. We don’t get any real gains from specialization if the cognitive specialists have no idea what the clinical specialists are talking about. In that case, specialists are only intelligible to specialists. But that’s inside baseball, not a contribution to knowledge.

    Similar kind of example: think of political science itself. In American universities, political science is divided between four specialties: American, comparative, IR, and theory. Again, it’s hardly clear which of those is a social science and which isn’t. Political theory isn’t a social science, but it falls within Depts of Political Science, and Poli Sci “as a whole” is a social science. Anyway, would it be desirable to have a unified theory of politics? I’d think so, for reasons that are similar to the psychology case.

    I guess the lesson is that we’d need to engage in a whole lot of mini-unifications before we got to the grand unification, but in general, unification is desirable.

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