Federalizing the Social Sciences

A few days ago I asked whether the social sciences could benefit from being unified. The post was not meant to make an argument in favor or against unification, although I myself favor a form of unification. The post was merely me thinking out loud and asking for feedback from others. In this follow up post I argue that the social sciences are already in the process of unification and a better question is what type of unification type this will be.

What is a social science?

First though allow me to define my terms as commentator Irfan Khawaja suggested. By social sciences I mean those fields whose subjects are acting individuals. For the time being the social sciences deal with human beings, but I see no particular reason why artificial intelligence (e.g. robots in the mold of Isaac Asimov’s fiction) or other sentient beings (e.g. extraterrestrials) could not be studied under the social sciences.

The chief social sciences are:

Economics: The study of acting individuals in the marketplace.

Sociology: The study of acting individuals and the wider society they make up.

Anthropology: The study of the human race in particular.

Political Science: The study of acting individuals in political organizations.

There are of course other social sciences (e.g. Demography, Geography, Criminology) but I believe the above four are those with the strongest traditions and distinctive methodologies. Commentators are more than encouraged to propose their own listings.

In review the social sciences study acting individuals.  A social science (in the singular) is an intellectual tradition that has a differentiating methodology. Arguably the different social sciences are not sciences as much as they are different intellectual schools.

Why do I believe the social sciences will be unified? 

On paper the social sciences have boundaries among themselves.

In practice though the boundaries between the social sciences blurs quickly. Economists in particular are infamous for crossing the line that the term ‘economics imperialism‘ has been coined to refer to the application of economic theory to non-market subjects. This imperialism has arguably been successful with Economists winning the Nobel prize for applying their theory to sociology (Gary Becker), history (Douglass North, Robert Fogel), law (Ronald_Coase) and political science (James M. Buchanan). The social sciences are in the process of being unified via economic imperialism.

Imperialism is a surprisingly proper term to describe the phenomenon taking place. Economists are applying their tools to subjects outside the marketplace, but little exchange is occurring on the other end. As the “Superiority of Economists” discusses, the other social sciences are reading and citing economics journals but the economics profession itself is very insular. The other social sciences are being treated as imperial subjects who must be taught by Economists how to conduct research in their own domains.

To an extent this reflects the fact that the economics profession managed to build a rigorous methodology that can be exported abroad and, with minimal changes, be used in new applications. I think the world is richer in so far that public choice theory has been exported to political science or price theory introduced to sociology. The problem lays in that this exchange has been so unequal that the other social sciences are not taken seriously by Economists.

Sociologists, Political Scientists, and Anthropologists might have good ideas that economics could benefit from, but it is only through great difficulty that these ideas are even heard. It is harder still for these ideas to be adopted.

Towards Federalizing the Social Sciences

My answer to economic imperialism is to propose ‘federalizing’ the social sciences, that is to say to give the social sciences a common set of methodologies so that they can better communicate with one another as equals but still specialize in their respective domains.

In practice this would mean reforming undergraduate education so that social science students take at minimum principle courses in each other’s fields before taking upper division courses in their specializations. These classes would serve the dual purpose of providing a common language for communication and encouraging social interaction between the students. Hopefully social interaction with one another will cause students to respect the work of their peers and discourage any one field from creating a barrier around itself. A common language (in the sense of methodology) meanwhile should better allow students to read each other’s work without the barriers that jargon terminology and other technical tools create. It is awful when a debate devolves into a semantics fight.

Supplementary methodologies will no doubt be introduced in upper division and graduate study, reflecting the different needs that occur from specialization, but the common methodology learned early on should still form the basis.

The unification of the social science need not mean the elimination of specialization. I do however fear that unless some attempt is made in ‘federalizing’ the social sciences we will see economics swallow up its sister sciences through imperialism.

As always I more than encourage thoughts from others and am all too happy to defer to better constructed opinions.

15 thoughts on “Federalizing the Social Sciences

  1. How about letting this be the subject of spontaneous ordering forces? Just let is develop and see what happens. If economists and other academics they influence, or the people they feed their ideas into, think they have superior knowledge: fine. Personally I think a lot of the number crunching in economics, or political science, or other social sciences, does not make much sense. Yet I am also optimistic about the corrective spontaneous ordering forces within economics. Take for example the influence of Daniel Kahneman and others who study human nature. So instead of concentrating on federalization of methods, the time is much better used by writing a good article or other piece that really contributes to our knowledge of individual human action.

  2. Thanks Michelangelo.

    I’ve only got shards of thoughts for this. First, I would argue that anthropology does not belong with the other three. Political scientists, economists, and sociologists all do ethnographic fieldwork nowadays, and anthropologists have always used the theories of the Big Three disciplines to guide their data and conclusions.

    Federalism is best seen as a peace treaty or pact rather than a coherent political system. (Digression: check out this article in the Economist on the Magna Carta, which was also a peace treaty.) The setting and maintaining of ground rules that makes federalism so damn awesome is actually attained through a long, drawn-out process that resembles patchwork and compromise more than unanimous consent to a certain set of principles. My big question would be to ask “what sort of principles did you have in mind?” I can think of only two: comparative advantage and supply-and-demand.

    Even there, though, it is not clear that students would gain from a standardized formal undergraduate education. I think Dr van de Haar is on to something when he invokes the concept of spontaneous order in regards to education. Universities need to be free to develop their own curricula. Departments need this freedom, too.

    The entire discipline of economics has standardized its curricula, but it is the only discipline to do so. So here is where I am having trouble: isn’t the reason for proposing federalism in the social sciences to counter the influence of economics? Wouldn’t a federation of the disciplines just be a form of economics imperialism?

    There is also a more selfish reason for avoiding federation: an anthropologist or a psychologist with a decent understanding of basic market principles is going to be better informed about humanity than his colleagues who have no clue what supply-and-demand is, much less how it shapes our social world. This will be true even if the anthropologist never publicly acknowledges the role that supply-and-demand has played in his thinking. A savvy individual would know how to exploit the hell out of this knowledge gap.

    • I must admit, I was unaware that the curriculum in the other social sciences weren’t standardized/uniform across universities. I know that other social sciences, relative to economics, had more variety in how they taught classes but thought that they had a common methodology/research methods core.

      How big is the difference in Anthropology? Can you as a UCLA grad ‘communicate’ with someone who went to, say, Berkeley or the University of Washington (Seattle)?

    • Good questions Michelangelo.

      Anthropology is a mess. There are four subdisciplines in anthropology, and all of them belong in different places in academia. The four subdisciplines are cultural or social anthropology (there is no agreement even on the proper term to use here!), physical or biological anthropology (again, no agreement), archaeology (this field is treated as part of the history departments in most of the world, though I kind of like it in anthropology), and linguistic anthropology (which is different from linguistics proper; remember Noam Chomsky?).

      In the United States, the so-called top-tier schools have divided into ideological/methodological camps. The physical anthropologists and the archaeologists are in one camp (“Group A”) and the sociocultural and linguistic anthropologists are in the other (“Group B”). Group A is the social science-y camp and Group B is the humanities-ish camp.

      So, to answer your second question: “maybe.” It all depends on what courses an undergraduate took and how serious he or she was about those courses.

      An average anthropology undergraduate simply won’t be as well-educated as an average economics major. Also, “top-tier” schools tend to focus more heavily on theory than do other schools. So, for example, an undergraduate at Stanford or UCLA will read significant excerpts of Foucault or Stanish or Hansen, whereas an undergraduate elsewhere will read 19th or early 20th century case studies while being condescendingly told (not taught) that every culture is equal in every way possible. I know this sounds like a straw man but it’s the honest-to-god truth. Does this make sense or did my bitterness ruin my attempt at an explanation?

    • I think you over estimate the average economics undergraduate. They may have better math skills, but if you ask them to explain their answers you’d quickly realize many of them just know how to manipulate formulas or graphs*.

      But back onto anthropology. As you might know, I did my undergraduate degree only a few miles north of you/UCLA over at Cal State Northridge. I had a few anthro friends who at times complained that their course credit couldn’t transfer over to UCLA because UCLA had a ‘lab’ system for its courses and didn’t consider the CSUN courses to be equivalent.

      Likewise I knew people in the local community colleges who complained their anthro classes were taught ‘UCLA-style’ and so weren’t viewed positively when they tried to transfer to a Cal State.

      I always found this odd since the schools share the same pool of non-tenured/adjunct faculty. In the econ department at least it wasn’t strange to be taught by someone who was an adjunct at UCLA/USC as well. For a common adjunct market to work, surely the adjuncts must be able to teach in most of the regional universities.

      *This should not be taken to mean that economics needs to get rid of the math. Some of the math is certainly unneeded, but I think the stats/metrics is certainly useful.

    • You may be right about economics students. At least they have the advantage of being introduced to important conceptual frameworks like comparative advantage and supply-and-demand though.

      CSUN is dope, from what I’ve heard.

      I can’t really comment on the influence or lack thereof that UCLA had on the regional university system. All of the adjuncts I had were teaching courses for my MENAS minor (this would include polisci, art history, and cultural anthropology; history courses for MENAS were taught by tenured professors), but I might be a bad example. In fact, I am almost sure that I am. For what it’s worth, I was very picky about what courses I took and with what professors. When poor courses were mandatory for my degree I chose the course taught by a “superstar” professor. This way I could at least get an in-depth look at a boring or irrelevant topic (to me) from a TA in the discussion part of the course (TAs at UCLA are doctoral candidates and sometimes even postdocs; maybe this is the ‘lab’ system?).

  3. For whatever it’s worth (I’m not a social scientist), I agree with the federalizing proposal, and basically agree with Michaelangelo’s proposal. I don’t think “spontaneous order” is a particularly informative concept here. It just ends up meaning, “people will do whatever they’ll do.” But Michaelangelo is right that there’s a specific problem here that needs a specific kind of solution. The problem is over-specialization, and the solution has to retain the gains of specialization but correct for over-specialization.

    I’d make two related suggestions that are basically consistent with Michaelangelo’s proposal. One is that we need more precision as to what the social sciences are. One version of the concept “social sciences” equates them with the “humane sciences,” and includes any of the disciplines that studies human action and interaction. Construed that broadly, history (historiography) would be a social science and so would action theory in philosophy. (For whatever it’s worth, at my College, the History Dept is housed within the Social and Behavioral Sciences.) Another version of the concept stresses that a social science must be social and scientific. That’s the conception that makes economics King of the Social Sciences. But it’s not obvious which conception to pick, and the one you pick makes a difference to how you federalize. It makes a difference to to what’s being federalized.

    The other suggestion is that psychology and psychiatry have to be added to the mix (or at least considered). Libertarians tend to have a bias in terms of regarding economics as the main social science, but psychology/psychiatry is another rival contender. Psychology and psychiatry are at least as rigorous as economics; in fact, for better or worse (worse, in my opinion), psychiatry is considered a “hard” science. In terms of explanatory scope, both psychology and psychiatry try to explain as much as economics does–meaning, everything. It’s just that the vocabulary is different from economics: the basic concepts come from Freud et al rather than Adam Smith et al. Further, psychology is starting to make inroads into the social sciences (that’s why Daniel Kahneman won the Nobel Prize in economics, for starters). And psychology and psychiatry are fully as imperialistic as economics, and have as many real-world consequences as economics. The most obvious evidence of that is the rise of psychotropic medications, and the push for mental health parity in health care economics.

    • I must admit I hold a poor view of psychology, at least at the undergraduate level. This is a consequence of my undergraduate college having an absurdly high percentage of people majoring in the field. I think the Psychology department alone was bigger than the business and engineering colleges combined. Needless to say this wasn’t because psychology was popular per se, as much that its undergraduate classes were ‘dumbed down’ so that anyone could pass.

      One small benefit of the rigidity that the economics profession has adopted is that it acts as a filter. People think economics is ‘hard’ (it isn’t) and so people are discouraged from taking it en mass.

      I’m sure that psychology has value. Ideally the ‘federalization’ of the social sciences would add sufficient rigor to it and the other social sciences so that they wouldn’t be seen as easy majors. The problem of course lays in avoiding too much rigor lest it fall to the same situation economics is in (and apparently psychiatry is as well?).

    • I think that’s too narrow a view of psychology–or a view based on too narrow a sample of programs. It’s certainly true that psychology is a popular, dumbed-down undergraduate major at many institutions. It’s even true that it’s often a dumbed-down program at the master’s and possibly the doctorate level, intended for people in counseling psychology to get their degree and license, put out a shingle, and start collecting insurance reimbursements in some kind of practice. But if you compare psychology as a discipline with economics as a discipline, and compare the best work in the one field against the best work in the other, I don’t think it’s obvious that economics is more rigorous than psychology. In other words, the average paper in American Economic Review is not obviously more rigorous than the average one in the Annual Review of Psychology. It’d be an interesting inquiry (or cage fight), but I don’t think it has a foregone conclusion. Here, by the way, are the top 50 journals in psychology.


    • Yes I concede that the right tail of psychology has something to say.

    • I like where you are going with this but I cannot bring myself to buy the concept of over-specialization.

      It seems legitimate, and people much smarter than I have written about it, but I just cannot fathom how this could occur over a long period of time, therefore hampering or destroying whatever part of whatever organization such over-specialization was initially meant to help.

      I accept reading assignments.

    • You get overspecialization in a case where you have a gigantic, proliferating literature that presents the following dilemma: a) either you master the literature but give up on the question of how it relates back to reality, or b) you insist that it answer the question “How does this relate back to reality?” but give up on mastering the literature. I know this problem best from within philosophy, but secondarily within psychology, poli sci, and history.

      In history and sociology, take a look at the literature on ethnic studies. You’ll get these incredibly laborious, tediously detailed discussions of some 2×4 swatch of conceptual territory, like “The Experience of BDSM-Oriented Left-Handed Puerto Ricans in Southwestern Jersey City, New Jersey, 1984-1992.” I don’t mean to slight the experiences in question, but how significant is it in the broader scope of things? How significant is it, even to the history of Southwestern Jersey City between 1984 and 1992? Suppose you master the literature on this. What then? Do you then generate a literature on the right-handed ones? What’s the research program after that? You compare the left-handed BDSM practitioners with the right handed ones, and do an econometric analysis of their purchases of bondage equipment….?

      It’s an extreme example, but you get my point. We do historiography because we have certain questions in our minds that need answering. But the questions answered by this sort of literature are too idiosyncratic to be of great importance to a field. If a whole field were focusing on questions like this and REFUSED to ask questions about how the answers related back to American history as such, you’d have overspecialization. There are certain quarters of the academy in which you’re not allowed to ask this question without appearing to be a racist or allying yourself with the “dominant narrative.” But my response is that the human mind thinks in general terms, and it subverts our capacity for thought to insist that we fixate on very, very narrow topics. I’m not saying they should be closed down. I’m saying when a whole field is dominated by this sort of thing, it’s in trouble.

      In philosophy, you get the proliferation of thought-experiments. There are canonical thought-experiments, some of them decades old, and philosophers sit around analyzing them and adding epicycles to the analysis. Eventually, forty years will go by, and no one will bother to ask, “What was this thought-experiment about, again?” The thought-experiment has come to supplant the topic it was supposed to clarify. Some famous ones:


      In philosophy, you also get cottage industries on classic texts. The classic example is Rawls’s work. The literature on Rawls is not about political philosophy. It’s about The World According to John Rawls. Rawlsians speak their own language, and in order to discuss Rawls at all, you have to master Rawlsian, tolerating the fact that it takes years to master the language. As you learn it, it will occur to you that there are obviously better ways of talking about politics than this. But it won’t matter. Eventually, you may just get lost in the Rawlsian universe. If your career takes off, why return?


      I have a paper on this general topic that you might find of interest, but it’s not online. It’s in this book:


      I have to scan it anyway, so when I do I’ll send it to you, if you’re interested.

    • Ooops! Sorry Dr Khawaja.

      If you post two or more links in the ‘comments’ threads then WordPress’s spam filter will hold it. I’ll try to put your name on a special list of some sort (I can’t make any promises though, because WordPress sucks).

      I would definitely be interested in reading your paper.

      Regarding overspecialization, though, I understand that overspecialization can lead to the problems you describe. I just don’t see what is wrong with them, or how federalization solves that problem. It seems to me that federalization is more of a way to solve a problem waiting to happen rather than as a problem in its own right, at this moment.

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