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.

The Meaning of Social Science: Ideology, Private Life, and the Internet

[Note: This is a guest essay by Dr Peter Miller, who is a sociologist (PhD, Berkeley), a longtime resident of Japan, a non-participant observer of the American scene, and (since 1991) one of the world’s few practitioners of original photogravure etching, whose semi-abstract Japan-influenced prints are in private and museum collections in Japan, Europe, Russia, and the United States. His websites can be found here & here]

Social-science expertise has been missing from current discussions of government-led spying on private citizens and the proper role of government in general. Ideologies, which is to say gut reactions, have corrupted the public debate; but there is nevertheless a role for sociological analysis of these phenomena.

Social science in its modern form started as a mostly European effort to explain the origins of the horrible totalitarianism that engulfed Europe, and to deduce the structure of institutions that would prevent it from arising again. The Nazi, Soviet, and Fascist systems were all characterized by total State-control of all aspects of life, including the most private aspects of life. Whether the ostensible purpose was re-casting human nature into the ‘new Soviet man’ or an embodiment of the German ‘volk’, they quickly evolved into an apparatus for murdering large numbers of their citizenry. Of course the prospective victims had to be identified before they could be murdered. For this purpose a State apparatus of domestic spying and information-gathering was devised. Primitive by today’s standards, the forced wearing of Jewish stars and the forced confessions by purported enemies of the State were crudely effective in generating large numbers of victims. Social scientists asked ‘How did this happen? What can be done to prevent its recurrence?’

The essential answer to the first question, distilled from reams of scholarship, is: De-legitimization of private life. All the social space traditionally separating individuals from the State was systematically removed. Private enterprise was abolished. All universities and schools in Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union were taken over by government, run by political appointees, and staffed exclusively by those who would do their bidding. The same for the media, the churches (co-opted in Germany, eliminated in the Soviet Union), youth groups (Hitler Youth, Young Pioneers), and welfare organizations. All intermediary organizations that had previously functioned autonomously were either taken over by government, co-opted, intimidated into conformity, or forced out of existence. The sequence from privacy-deflation to total State control to mass murder progressed in roughly 15 years in the Soviet Union. In Nazi Germany, with more intensive propaganda and ‘education’, this sequence took only five years.

From this historical record, social scientists deduced that properly functioning democracies require lively intermediary organizations — churches, labor unions, 4-H clubs, PTAs, bowling clubs, whatever. Re-reading Tocqueville and Madison, social scientists re-discovered with these sages a high regard for such humble institutions (not that there were bowling clubs in Madison’s day, but you get the idea). The Austrian School (Hayek et al) added private enterprise to this list of freedom-enhancing entities. And from Vienna also came Lazarsfeld who posited ‘cross-pressures’ — conflicting loyalties — as the essential building-blocks of democracy. His big idea was that a healthy democracy needed unpredictability, where a person’s ethnicity, race, religion, education, or social class did not necessarily determine his voting preferences or consumer choices.

Since the 1970s, American and Western European societies have tolerated and even encouraged a progressive tribalization of their societies. Race, ethnicity, and sexual-identity have become increasingly salient in the distribution of government largesse, and consequently in the determination of political and consumer choices. Both public and private universities rely increasingly on government funding, and thus take their orders from the State, in research priorities, curricula, staffing, and extra-curricular activities. With some exceptions and counter-trends, the period since the 1970s has witnessed a progressive weakening of the autonomous mediating organizations that sociologists identified as essential to the working of democracy.

Separately, the growth of the Internet has deflated the private sphere, at first due in large part to the apparently voluntary choices of Internet users themselves. Only a few years ago the fad of the moment was 24/7 live webcams turned on oneself for the world to see. Now security cameras that do the same thing outdoors are all-pervasive. The collective mantra, highly promoted by the giant Internet companies, is ‘If you have nothing to hide, why be concerned?’ This is the tradeoff for ‘serving you better’. Mobile phones with geo-tracking are surely a great improvement in the quality of life, as is the proliferation of answers to life’s unanswered questions, and the blessings of instant communication. In return for all that, what does the loss of privacy matter?

I always doubted the business model of Internet-tracking. It never seemed plausible to me that a teen-ager with zits who happens to be in a drugstore is any more likely to buy zit-off after getting zapped with an ad on his geo-tracked mobile at that moment than if he weren’t zapped. The whole business of click-tracking, Web-tracking, and the like never made commercial sense to me. It was always hype — good for securing VC funding and not much else. But investors in these large-scale personal-data-gathering companies were not stupid. Behind our backs, these companies were getting paid by governments to sell users’ data. Their business model was not based on the supposed commercial utility of precise ad-targeting, but on secret NSA demands for indiscriminate personal data. Governments, under the banner of fighting terror, and shielded from Congressional or public scrutiny, have unlimited taxpayer funds to finance these transactions.

With the Snowden revelations, we now have a better understanding of the extent of Internet and telecom surveillance. Of course, this cannot have been a complete surprise. Nevertheless the near-universal scale of the surveillance, plus the technological capacity to sort and search the data, make for a real game-changer. As one security expert said in a recent interview:

The most shocking aspects of Edward Snowden’s courageous revelations is the scale of surveillance. Every one of us involved in this field, I think it’s fair to say, has not been surprised by what is possible but had assumed perhaps out of hope or fear that they were limited in what they did and were proportionate, and that although we didn’t believe they would just stick to terrorism they would not try to reach for everything.

But every single document, speech and slideshow shows that a bunch of juvenile lunatics have taken over the asylum and are drunk and exuberant on their capabilities to spy on everything all the time and that is what they want to do. They have lost every sort of moral compass and respect for civic values.

The problem is that many European countries, notably Britain but not exclusively Britain, have been complicit in these activities as a result of favours, trade or encouragement. Basically the NSA has, over years with Britain’s assistance, essentially tried to subvert companies and governments into a surveillance empire which is almost a supranational enterprise of their own.

The question is, to what end? As we know in sociology, not everything is what it seems. Just as the indiscriminate sweeping-up of personal data lacked a plausible commercial basis, though it still made business sense if the data were sold to government spy agencies, it is likewise implausible that all that data has much utility in fighting terror. What then is it good for?

I think that question has yet to be answered; that the answer will depend on what use the new owners of that data make of it. The meaning of the massive loss of privacy that has occurred is immanent, it will emerge as further events unfold. As far as I am aware, the central-conspiracy model does not fit the case. What we have is a set of disparate elements that as yet have not coalesced into any coherent order. Among these elements are the increasing tribalization of society, de-legitimizing of autonomous intermediary organizations, and deflation of the private sphere. These are exactly the conditions that gave rise to the totalitarian horrors of the mid-20th century. It does not appear that any current Western leader has it in him to become another Hitler or Stalin. But the elements are there, awaiting a moment — perhaps another terrorist attack or financial crisis — that will call forth a charismatic savior.

Yet one must be especially careful with historical analogies to avoid the ‘generals-fighting-the-last-war’ syndrome. Things are very different now, compared with analogous conditions 80 years ago. The greatly expanded human freedom, communication, and educational prospects empowered by the Internet may overwhelm the efforts of governments to use it as an instrument of State control. This will be a titanic struggle, with the outcome still unclear. And that’s where I’ll leave it for now, pending further sociological inquiry into what-all this may portend.