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.